The haunting, eerie cries of a loon echo across the water. The scent of pine drifting up from the shore as a bald eagle soars across the treetops through the rose-tinted scene as the sun sets. Welcome to Voyageurs National Park in Northern Minnesota. Looking much as it did when the Native Americans and French explorers of lore paddled the waters, this is a place where human history and ecology meet.
The 218,054-acre park lies in a transition zone between the boreal forests to the north and deciduous forests to the south. A labyrinth of waterways, peninsulas, and islands, this park is anchored by four giant lakes: Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, Namakan Lake, and Sand Point Lake. Many iconic northwoods animals are commonly seen in the forest areas and wetlands year round such as moose, gray wolves, black bear, a variety of birds. The park is also home to a healthy population of bald eagles and scientists band eagle chicks hatched in the park to help monitor the ecosystem’s health. Voyageurs was added to the national park system in 1975.
With 344 square miles of navigable waters and 600 miles of rocky shoreline, water-based activities are the name of the game at Voyageurs National Park. Boating, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and fishing are the bulk of the summertime happenings in this remote paradise. Motorboats are allowed here (unlike its neighbor the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) and houseboat rentals offer an unusual way to enjoy the scenery. For the more traditional, there are over 200 developed campsites, all of which can only be accessed via boat and a permit is needed. 51 sites can be reserved in advance.
There are three visitor centers spread across the park. Rainy Lake Visitor Center serves as access for the northernmost area. Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center (locally called “The Kab”) contains new interactive exhibits and offers boat tours. Ash River Visitor Center is located in the historic Meadwood Lodge—build in time to explore the historic building. All have free public boat launches and picnic areas as well as the standard amenities and ranger programs. Hours vary by season and location.
Kabetogama Peninsula is by far the most popular destination in the park. Only accessible by boat or snowmobile, it’s an ideal place to grab a camping spot, a fishing pole, and unwind from the stress of daily life. While there, don't miss the unique Ellsworth Rock Art Sculpture Garden on the south shore—the art and the story are worth the time.
One of the best chances to see moose in the wild is a hike on the very popular Cruiser Lake Trail on the peninsula. The full trail is 9.5-miles (one-way) of strenuous wilderness hiking through wetlands and over rocky cliffs, however there are a variety of options for loops that can add or subtract distance. Hearing the howling of wolves just might make your day.
Birdwatchers take delight in strolling along the easy, 2.5-mile Echo Bay Trail. Bring binoculars to get a good look at the blue heron rookery and stay on alert for warbler, woodpecker, and deer sightings. This trail is located three miles from the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center off County Road 122. Stop and check with the rangers about trail conditions, it can get quite muddy. In the winter this trail is groomed for cross country skiing.
A well-regarded trail in the more remote section of the park is the Blind Ash Bay Trail. A moderate 2.5-mile loop that can be hiked or snowshoed in the winter, this trail takes you on a serpentine trek through the boreal forest with fantastic views and chances to spot various types of wildlife. Park at the Kabetogama Lake Overlook near the Ash River Visitor Center to access the trailhead.
The arrival of snow doesn’t end the season of adventure. The park has both groomed and ungroomed trails for all cross-country ski and snowshoeing for all skill levels. Most are accessible from either the Ash River or Rainy Lake visitor centers. Equipment rentals are available available at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center.
The Land of 10,000 Lakes is a well known fisherman’s delight and Voyageurs NP is no different, with at least 50 different species to get into the deep fryer, such as sturgeon, walleye, northern pike, black crappie, and smallmouth bass—though some are catch and release only. It’s highly regarded as some of the best walleye and smallmouth bass fishing in the country. Carefully troll the reefs and try leeches (a local secret) to hook the famous walleye. A Minnesota fishing license is required. Anglers’ hopes don’t end with summer. In the serene winter quiet, VNP is an ice fisherman’s dream. Ice houses must be placed at least 50-feet from the center of snowmobile trails and be registered at the visitor’s center.
One of the only national parks in the lower 48 states that allows snowmobiling, there are over 110 miles of maintained trails. A ride on the Chain of Lakes on the Kabetogama Peninsula is a must. This narrow, 13-mile trail winds through the heart of Voyageurs, barely wide enough for a snowmobile, and it highlights solitude and quiet.
Secrets of the Park
Ever wondered what it’s like to drive on ice? Voyageurs may be the only national park where you can try this rare experience on the 7-mile Kabetogama Lake Ice Road, which travels between the boat launches of the Ash River and Kabetogama Lake Visitor Centers. The ice road is open to cars and trucks of less than 7,000 lbs gross vehicle weight. Snowmobiles are not permitted.
Grab the kids and plan an outing to the new Sphunge Island-Kabetogama Lake Sledding Hill. With specific hills for young kids and adults, there is safe fun for all. Wrap up your day by warming up with a hot cocoa around the fire ring. Take the Kabetogama-Ash River Ice Road from the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center just a short distance and turn left onto the Sphunge Island Loop.
For an unforgettable backwoods experience, try backpacking the entire 25-mile long Kab-Ash Trail which links the Ash River resort area on the east with the Lake Kabetogama resort area to the west. Solitude seekers will be in woodland heaven as the trail traverses lowland swamps and craggy rock ridges past red and white pines. Skirting around beaver ponds and catching glimpses of deer, eagles, osprey and so much more, this trail can sometimes be as difficult as it is rewarding. Four trailheads make it possible to access the Kab-Ash Trail, those looking for a shorter hike can do just a portion. Backcountry camping permits are needed.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit
- Each year since 1992, the park has temporarily closed the land and water areas around active bald eagle nests to visitor use during critical nesting periods in the spring. Check with a ranger for any closures.
- Due to the park’s unique geology, the submerged rocks that present potential hazards to boaters are no joke. Get the boating guide.
- Kettle Falls tours will be exclusively out of the Kabetogoma Lake Visitor Center in 2016. A meal at the water only accessible Kettle Falls Hotel, a former brothel and Prohibition-era bootlegging hot spot, is highly recommended.
- Some lucky travelers can experience the colorful, dancing aurora borealis known as the "Northern Lights." Chances to see it increase in the winter months and can be seen from most of the shoreline of the park.
- If camping, you MUST have a printed copy of your permit reservation or your space could be given to someone else. Bring one from home as there are no easy places to get a copy.