Did you know Minnesota is home to a national park?
On the Canadian border, just west of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, sits one of Minnesota’s best-kept secrets — the vast and beautiful Voyageurs National Park!
Its name comes from the French-Canadian fur voyageurs who came to our state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They paddled large — 26 feet long and 4 feet wide — “north canoes” made of birch bark and cedar and journeyed through the waterways, trading goods with Native Americans in exchange for animal pelts, which were in high demand in Europe.
Voyageurs National Park consists of four large lakes — Rainy Lake, Sand Point Lake, Namakan Lake and Kabetogama Lake — as well as 26 smaller interior lakes.
Encompassing more than 218,000 acres (far smaller than the BWCAW’s 1 million acres), the park offers 134,000 acres of woodlands, 500 islands and 27 miles of hiking trails.
But here’s the most interesting part: Though the park’s visitor centers are accessible by car, the rest is accessible only by boat.
All of the park’s 240 well-mapped overnight and day-use sites require a water vessel of some sort for transportation.Visitors to Voyageurs National Park often take advantage of local houseboat rental services. Boat photos courtesy of Voyagaire Houseboats
But that needn’t stop you from visiting. You can bring your own motorboat, canoe or kayak or simply rent a variety
One of the most popular ways to see the park is by renting a houseboat. Several vendors rent these unique vessels for vacations in the park. And the reasonable fees typically include training in how to pilot your chosen vessel, plus a radio to connect to services, such as grocery and gas deliveries (and help in case of emergencies).
If you bring your own vessel, you can launch for free at all public boat launches at the park’s three visitor centers — Rainy Lake Visitor Center, Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center and the Ash River Visitor Center. Many commercial services also provide gear, guided adventures and water-taxi/shuttle services for hikers and others wanting to explore the park.
If you’d like a simplified introduction to the park, check out the ranger-led programs offered from mid-June through mid-September, including guided boat tours. (See below for some of the offerings. Reservations are recommended.)
In the winter, you can explore the park by cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling on more than 100 miles of groomed trails.A waterfall runs through a dense forest at Voyageurs National Park
As a child, I spent time with my family fishing and camping on Kabetogama and Namakan. When I was a teenager, my parents purchased an island cabin on Crane Lake near the park.
I spent summers and spring and fall weekends through high school and college working at Voyagaire Houseboats — where I met my husband — and exploring the area any free chance I had.
Today my husband and I enjoy sharing experiences in Voyageurs National Park with our four children. In fact, this July we reserved an island campsite for a week on Sand Point Lake. We look forward to this adventure with plans for tent camping, fishing, berry picking, swimming, paddle-boarding and enjoying the beauty of this incredible wilderness area.
Though the BWCAW is probably the most famous backcountry retreat in our state, Voyageurs offers another way to appreciate the serenity of a remote lake, complete with the mournful calls of loons at dawn and dusk and, if you’re lucky, the playful dancing of the Northern Lights.
Despite the fact that watercraft is the only mode of summer transportation in the park, quiet and serenity are still easy to come by in Voyageurs, due to its huge lakes offering 84,000 acres of water and 655 miles of
In such big waters, tubing and waterskiing aren’t all that common and use of motorized personal watercraft (jet skis and wave runners) is prohibited.Visitors to Voyageurs National Park has many tent-camping sites in the 218,000-acre park.
Where to start?
Cabins, lodges, hotels: Gateway communities near the park — which is, by car, about 5 hours north of the Twin Cities or 2.5 hours from Duluth — are all just off Highway 53 and include Crane Lake, Orr, Ash River, Kabetogama, International Falls and Ranier.
Boats: Voyageurs National Park has hundreds of campsites that can be reached by boat or houseboat. Reservations are required and can be made at recreation.gov.
There is no fee to enter the park, but if you want to stay there overnight, you’ll need a free permit, available at the visitor centers and boat launches.
Houseboats: A variety of companies rent these watercraft — which sleep two to 12 people and sometimes include slides, hot tubs and more — such as Ebels, Northernaire, Rainy Lake Houseboats and Voyagaire Houseboats. Learn more at tinyurl.com/vnp-services.
Voyageurs National Park is home to the largest Jack pine tree in the U.S. The 73-foot-tall tree is on the shores of Moose Bay on Namakan Lake and was added to American Forests’ National Register of Champion Trees in 2018.
On June 11, 2018 the America the Beautiful Quarters Program released a quarter honoring Voyageurs National Park. Learn more at parkquarters.com.
Take a tour!
Get a taste of Voyageurs National Park with a guided tour. Here’s a look at a few on the schedule for this summer. Reservations for all tours are made at recreation.gov or by calling the a national call center at 877-444-6777. Reservations are available until midnight the night before a tour departs. Tours with asterisks are accessible.*
- Grand Tour*: Board the Voyageur tour boat and navigate Rainy Lake in search of active eagle nests, view a commercial fishing camp and watch for abundant wildlife. A short stop at Little American Island explores the 1890s Rainy Lake gold rush.
- Kettle Falls Cruise*: Voyage to the historic Kettle Falls Hotel and Dam on the Voyageur tour boat.
- North Canoe: Paddle back in history aboard a 26-foot north canoe. Learn the voyageur paddle salute and explore the life of a voyageur fur trader.
- Black Bay by Canoe: Get a close-up view of a beaver lodge while paddling the waters of Black Bay.
- Ethno-Botanical Garden Tour*: Join park staff and walk through Voyageurs’ diverse ecosystem. A short hike leads to an Ojibwe camp that sits at the heart of a native plant garden.
- Kettle Falls Cruise*: Voyage to the historic Kettle Falls Hotel and Dam on the Amik tour boat.
- Ellsworth Rock Gardens Cruise: Search for active eagle nests on the way to the gardens located within the park. Then take a short guided hike to explore unique rock sculptures and building remnants.
- North Canoe: Paddle back in history aboard a 26-foot north canoe. Learn the voyageur paddle salute and explore the life of a fur trader.
- Become a Voyageur: Join park staff for an inland program and learn about the life of a voyageur, featuring interactive, hands-on activities geared toward the adventurous and young at heart.
- Northern Lights & Solar Flares: Learn from park staff about these mysterious lights and see their source from a solar viewing scope during this recurring midnight program.
- Voyageurs National Park
- Voyageurs National Park Association
- Voyageurs National Park Rendezvous Visitor Guide
- Explore Minnesota
- Voyageurs National Park Facebook: Check this page for park information, event schedules, wildlife sightings, seasonal conditions and interactive resources.
Megan Devine lives with her husband and four children in Northeastern Minnesota. Follow her blog — Kids, Lakes, Loons and Pines — and her School Days column in Minnesota Parent magazine.