Established: April 8, 1975
Size: 218,055 acres
Annual visitors: About 221,400 in 2022
Visitors centers: Voyageurs has three: Kabetogama Lake, Ash River, and Rainy Lake. All offer free public boat launches, boat tours, and ranger-led programs. Rainy Lake is the only center open year-round, except for a few weeks in spring; hours vary in each season. Ash River is housed in historic Meadwood Lodge, converted into a visitor center in 1978.
Entrance fee: None
Why you should go to Voyageurs National Park
Hugging the Canadian border, Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park is a floating landscape of glacially carved lakes fringed with thick boreal forests. The park was named for the French Canadian fur traders who paddled enormous birch and cedar canoes through the region in the 1800s. Today, “Voyageurs [National Park] offers you a view to the past to see the natural shoreline of this amazing lake country,” says Christina Hausman Rhode, the executive director of the nonprofit Voyageurs Conservancy.
Though the park commemorates these hardy woodsmen, the region’s first stewards were the ancestors of the Bois Forte Chippewa (Ojibwe), who entered the area more than 10,000 years ago. They first paddled the three stately lakes—Kabetogama, Rainy, and Namakan—that circle the remote Kabetogama Peninsula, where packs of eastern gray wolves thrive. As a certified International Dark Sky Park, Voyageurs is one of the best places in the contiguous United States to watch Waawaate (the northern lights), as they twirl like green and yellow ribbons across the inky night sky.
Most visitors come to fish, boat, or stargaze while basking in nature’s solitude. Unlike nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, which has mostly paddle-only lakes, Voyageurs allows motorized craft, making the park more navigable to visitors who are less experienced with paddling and portaging.
Where to find the best views in the park
One of the most scenic locations in Voyageurs is Grassy Bay Cliffs, a 125-foot outcrop of 2.6 billion-year-old granite spilling into Sand Point Lake. “Anchor your boat, have a picnic, and stare up at the sheer cliffs and big evergreen trees,” Ditzler suggests. The area is particularly scenic in the fall when the birch trees turn crimson, orange, and gold. To admire this geologic wonder—one of the highest points in the park—hire a motorboat or houseboat from NPS-authorized local outfitters. The cliffs are about five miles from the north end of Crane Lake and take about 30 minutes to get to. The best way to visit in winter is by snowmobile, which you can also rent from businesses in the above link.
Where to find the park’s best hikes
The Ash River Visitor Center area is an excellent destination for easy trails. The 1.5-mile round-trip Sullivan Bay Trail follows an old road through dense boreal forest to a rocky outcrop above the wide Sullivan Bay. Equipped with a picnic table and fire ring, the overlook makes a great rest stop for a leisurely meal or stargazing. For a slightly longer outing, the Blind Ash Bay Trail is an easy three-mile “lollipop” shaped loop that starts from the upper parking lot of the Ash River Visitor Center. The hike’s reward is an expansive view of Kabetogama Lake and its many small islands.
Adventurous hikers can step into the backcountry on the Cruiser Lake Trail. This remote eight-mile path on the Kabetogama Peninsula is accessible only by boat or canoe, typically from the Ash River Visitor Center. Day hikes to various lakes on the trail are possible, but it’s worth spending a night or two at a backcountry campsite at one of the many interior lakes. Some, such as Cruiser Lake, have rental canoes (reserved through the park) that are stationed here under a combination lock; they can’t be portaged elsewhere.
Where to find the best spots for seeing wildlife
While there are at least three wolf packs living within park boundaries, with many others in the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem, wildlife biologist Thomas Gable says it’s rare to see a gray wolf in the park. As the project lead of the Voyageurs Wolf Project, he’s studied wolves in some of the most remote corners of the park but typically sees them only on trail cameras. However, you might hear them in areas like the Kabetogama Peninsula.
Many other animals can be seen throughout the park, even from viewpoints. Gable recommends beaver ponds, such as the Beaver Pond Overlook, because they attract other wildlife including waterfowl, minks, muskrats, and otters. This overlook offers the best chance to see moose—also rare—if they emerge.
Birdwatchers can spot over 240 species in the park, an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area (IBA). Look and listen for common loons, Canada jays, pileated woodpeckers, spruce grouse, and barred owls in particular.
How to visit the park like a Nat Geo Explorer
Photographer and National Geographic Explorer David Guttenfelder photographed Voyageurs in winter for National Geographic. To see as much of the park as possible, he traveled by snowmobile and traversed the Kabetogama Peninsula on the Chain of Lakes Trail. He recommends layering well in winter, especially if snowmobiling. “Even the tiniest breach between layers, you feel the sting,” he says.
Snowshoeing on the Anderson Bay Overlook Trail was particularly memorable because he came across wolf tracks punctuating the snow. His favorite activity, however, was discovering unique ice formations formed on the shores of the park’s lakes, which he describes as “something out of a frozen Dr. Seuss illustration.”
Notable activities and excursions
Many visitors come to Voyageurs to fish for species like yellow perch and smallmouth bass. To do so, guests must obtain a State of Minnesota fishing license. Numerous guiding services take visitors out on the park’s 30 lakes.
The Black Bay Trail system is a popular cross-country skiing destination in the winter with miles of groomed trails ranging from beginner to advanced. You can rent skis and snowshoes at Recreation.gov. The area is accessed by the Rainy Lakes ice road, where visitors can drive their cars across a frozen lake to the Black Bay Skiing and Hiking Trails trailhead.
About an hour-and-20-minute drive from the Ash River Visitor Center in Tower, Minnesota, is the Bois Forte Heritage Center & Cultural Museum, where you can learn the compelling history of the local tribe’s migration to the Great Lakes Region, as well as the effects of post-colonial boarding schools. The Lifeways Exhibit showcasing beadwork and basketry is particularly memorable.
Best things to do for families
In summer, ranger-led boat cruises that leave from the visitors centers are ideal for families, says Erik Ditzler, supervisory park ranger for interpretation. The full-day Kettle Falls Cruise on The Voyageur or on The Ne-zho-dain (meaning “Twin Hearts” in Ojibwe) takes guests to the historic Kettle Falls Hotel. “Folks on these boat tours are actually on the same route in some places that the voyageurs would have taken in their ‘North Canoes’ through Rainy and Namakan Lakes,” Ditzler says. In late summer, the nighttime Starwatch Cruise takes visitors out stargazing in a part of the U.S. known for northern lights. Sign up three months in advance on Recreation.gov.
The North Canoe Voyage is an hour-and-a-half-long tour that lets families experience the park like its 18th-century namesakes. Weather permitting, families board a 26-foot canoe and learn to paddle with costumed interpretive rangers. In winter, head to Sphunge Island, where you can slide down the park’s official sledding hill.
Where to stay in Voyageurs National Park
Hotels: There is only one hotel in the park, the remote Kettle Falls Hotel. It’s reached by boat or float plane and requires a minimum of three nights. You can take the hotel’s boat service at the Ash River Visitors Center.
Campsites: You can reach frontcountry campsites (over 150 of them) by boat, whether you paddle yourself or hire a water taxi. In the winter, these campsites are reachable only by snowshoe, cross-country ski, or snowmobile, so they’re better suited to more experienced campers. Backcountry campsites are located on the Kabetogama Peninsula; these sites are more isolated. Visitors can arrive by boat, and then hike the rest of the way. The only drive-in campsite near the park is Woodenfrog Campground.
Houseboats: Many houseboat rentals—some equipped with slides and hot tubs—can be rented at nearby gateway communities like Rainy Lake and Crane Lake. The rentals require docking reservations in the park booked on Recreation.gov.
Outside the park: Gateway towns, from the small lakeside resort communities of Kabetagoma Lake/Ash River and Crane Lake to the bigger city of International Falls, have plenty of lodges and vacation rentals that aren’t too far from the park.
Here’s what else you need to know
Weather: “Sometimes our ice-out doesn’t happen until mid or late May,” says Voyageurs Conservancy’s Christina Hausman Rhode, referring to when the lakes and rivers thaw. She says that, in general, from Memorial Day to Labor Day are when the lakes are ready for summer activities like boating and kayaking. Outside of summer, visitors should come prepared as temperatures can drop quickly.
Plan ahead: Hausman Rhode also recommends booking campsites, boats, and tours more than six months in advance, especially for popular weekends and larger groups. Campsites for the following year become available on November 15.
Stargazing: While you can see the aurora borealis all year, you’re more likely to see it in the fall and winter because of the longer periods of darkness. Your best chances of seeing them—if they are active—will be on clear nights and from a viewpoint with a wide expanse of sky, such as a lake shore or dock.
Insects: Voyageurs is heavy tick, deer fly, and mosquito country in summer. When hiking, wear long pants and tuck them into socks. Check for ticks, which can cause Lyme Disease, after every hike. For mosquitos and deer flies, consider a bug net and bug repellant.
Are pets allowed in Voyageurs National Park?
There are few areas within the park where pets are allowed, among them the frontcountry campsites, the Recreation Trail, and around the visitors centers and parking lots. They must be vaccinated, on a leash, and accompanied at all times. Owners must pick up after their pets and properly dispose of their waste. Dog sledding is allowed on frozen lakes, but check the NPS site for requirements here.
Trails: The national park service states that all three visitors centers have accessible entrances and restrooms, although there are only two accessible hikes. The first is the 0.2-mile Kabetogama Lake Overlook Trail, where you can count the islands on the lake and enjoy the fresh scent of the jack pine forest. The second is the Oberholtzer Trail, which the NPS states is accessible for the first quarter mile with a four-foot-wide gravel trail.
Boating/camping: The NPS states there are accessible lifts on the Ash River, Kabetogama, and Rain Lake boat launch areas. There are only four accessible campsites within the national park. They are Rainy Lake (R26-Sunrise Point), Namakan Lake (N41-Voyageur Narrows), Rain Lake Group Campsite (R74), and Kabetogama Lake Group Campsite (K54.) Outside of the park, Wooden Frog Campground and Day Use Area has two accessible sites. For more, see the national park’s web page on accessibility.
- Nat Geo Expeditions