Photograph by Clint Farlinger, Alamy
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Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota is a watery wonderland, with more than a third of its area composed of lakes—and with all of its 200-plus campsites accessible only by boat.

Photograph by Clint Farlinger, Alamy

Voyageurs National Park

Location: Minnesota
Established: April 8, 1975
Size: 218,054 acres

From the air, the forest areas of Voyageurs look like green pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered on a huge mirror. A North Woods realm of more than 30 lakes and more than 900 islands, Voyageurs spans a watery stretch of the U.S.-Canada border.

A third of this national park's area is water, most of it in four large lakes—Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point—linked by narrow waterways. Smaller lakes gleam in the forests and bogs of Voyageurs' terra firma, which consists of small islands, a strip of mainland shore, and the Kabetogama Peninsula, a long, bay-fringed landmass.

The splendors of this 55-mile-long park can be reached primarily only by water. Motorboats (banned in the adjacent Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) churn the lakes. Canoes and kayaks glide the narrow waterways. Fishermen sit at the rails of houseboats, hoping to hook walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike. Nearly every lake is haunted by the cry of the loon. And probably in no other national park in the lower 48 states is there a better chance to see bald eagles on the nest and on the wing or hear wolves howl at night.

The park is named for French Canadian voyageurs who paddled birchbark canoes for fur trading companies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The voyageurs were famous for stamina—paddling up to 16 hours a day—and roisterous songs. Their canoe route between Canada's northwest and Montreal is cited as part of the U.S.-Canada border in the treaty that ended the American Revolution.

In a boat in the labyrinth of waterways and islands, you can unwittingly cross this border. Be sure to take along a high-quality map that includes navigational markers to tell you where you are.

How to Get There

From Duluth, drive north about 110 miles on US 53. For Crane Lake, turn east at Orr and drive 28 miles on County Roads 23 and 24. For Ash River, stay on US 53 for 25 more miles, turn right at the Ash River Trail sign, and continue for 10 miles. For Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center, stay on US 53 for 3 more miles, turn right onto County Road 122, and drive to the lakeshore. For Rainy Lake, stay on US 53 to International Falls, then head east for 12 miles on Minn. 11 to the park's entrance road, following highway information signs; turn right to go to the visitor center. Airports: Duluth and International Falls, Minnesota; and Fort Frances, Ontario.

When to Go

Year-round, but most accessible from spring through early fall. Water travel is curtailed by freezeup in late fall and ice break-up in early spring. Winter opens the park to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing. And the 7-mile ice road at Rainy Lake provides a unique entry into the park: You drive your car on the ice to places that in other seasons you can reach only by boat or floatplane.

How to Visit

The only way to the heart of this park is by water. Kabetogama Lake, International Falls, Crane Lake, and Ash River are resort communities that, though not within the park, serve as entrances. Begin your trip planning by choosing an entrance; each of them is widely spaced and offers a different experience. You can make motel or lodge reservations at one of the area's resorts or motels listed in the park's newspaper, the Rendezvous. You can also stay in a car campground and use the resort as a base for park activities, including fishing and wildlife watching, or rent a houseboat or camp out by boat. Guides, canoes, houseboats, and motorboats are for hire. If you are sufficiently experienced, you can also tow in your own craft.

Sight-seeing tour boats, with park naturalists aboard, also operate out of visitor centers. Even if you have your own boat, you may want to take a commercial cruise and rely on experienced navigators; the lakes are broad with submerged rocks in shallow areas, and they are sometimes brushed by stiff winds, testing even the most experienced boater.

If your time is limited, Kabetogama Lake is a good place for exploring and understanding the park.