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top 10 national parks in 2021

Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park is one of the most unique and beautiful national parks in the world. From quiet canoe trips to the northern lights this park has everything you need for an unforgettable adventure.

Voyageurs National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth and I say that without an ounce of hesitancy.

From kaleidoscopic sunrises and sunsets mirrored on glassy waters of its lakes to some of the most spectacular displays of the northern lights you’ll find anywhere on earth, Voyageurs is a true monument to the wonders of nature.

If you’re wondering how challenging it is to visit Voyageurs given that it’s almost exclusively accessible by boat – don’t! The area has countless lodges and outfitters that will rent you any kind of boat you could want from a canoe on up to a houseboat at very reasonable prices. The park is extensively mapped and easy to navigate once out on the waters. Trust me, you won’t want to miss out on an unforgettable experience because you’re unfamiliar with boating.

Ready to learn more about this northwoods paradise? Read on!


About My Travels to Voyageurs National Park

voyageurs campfire
Jim Pattiz at Voyageurs National Park
Making the Film

My brother Will and I first traveled to Voyageurs back in 2016 to capture the most beautiful parts of the park during peak fall color. Originally we were slated to go at the end of September, but the fall color hadn’t set in so we diverted to Rocky Mountain National Park at the last minute where fall was nearing peak and produced that film.

We went to Voyageurs that October and timed it perfectly for peak fall color – and the northern lights! It was an absolutely magical experience and one I will certainly never forget. Voyageurs is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been – hands down. Since then I’ve made it a point to return almost every year and explore new parts of the park on top of revisiting old favorites.

A Way of Life

Having grown up in Georgia I have to say I wasn’t too familiar with the sort of overnight canoe trips that are a favorite pastime for every northern Minnesotan – that is until I married one! Sure I had canoed the Okefenokee Swamp and the Flint River growing up, but this is an entirely different kind of experience.

On successive yearly trips to Voyageurs and the Boundary Waters my wife has introduced me to the quiet world of canoeing these remote woods and lakes and I have never turned back. There’s something very special about this vast and immensely beautiful area Sigurd Olson called the Singing Wilderness. Traveling by canoe through the pristine mosaic of waters and islands that comprise this area puts one in touch with nature in a way that feels like coming home no matter where you’re from.


Voyageurs National Park Guide

About Voyageurs

In the far reaches of Northern Minnesota, straddling the Canadian border, you’ll find this watery wonderland almost exclusively accessible by boat. Here, in the pristine waters of vast lakes and the mosaic of islands and boreal forest that comprise the park, you can truly get away from it all and listen to nothing but the sound of your canoe gliding in the tranquil water and the distant calls of loons.

Ash River Visitor Center
Ash River Visitor Center Sign | Voyageurs National Park
Visitor Centers

The park has three visitors centers where you can grab a map and learn about the park. The Rainy Lake Visitors Center in International Falls, the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center off of Highway 53 in Kabetogama, and the Ash River Visitors Center on the eastern end of Kabetogama Lake. The Rainy Lake Visitor Center is open year round while the others close for the season at the end of September.


Things to Know Before You Visit

Entrance Fees: There are none!

Getting Around: The park is almost entirely exclusively accessible by boat! But fear not! They are easily rented from numerous lodges and outfitters in the area at very affordable prices. (Canoes start at around $30/day)

Sunscreen: For many of us visiting national parks in the summer means lots of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.

Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.

Insect Repellent: You hope not to need it, but you want to have it. We typically bring an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us just in case.

Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check the rules before bringing along your furry friend.


Details About Voyageurs National Park

Location: Northern Minnesota

Established: April 18, 1975

Size: 218,200 acres

Visitors: 232,974 (2020)

Entrance Fees: None!


The History of Voyageurs National Park

walter mondale
Senator Walter Mondale (left) shakes hands with President Lyndon Johnson after the signing of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act

You cannot talk about the history of Voyageurs National Park without two names coming up, Sigurd Olson and Walter Mondale. One was a renowned naturalist and writer and the other a U.S. Senator from Minnesota who later became Vice President.

Walter Mondale

Walter Mondale was a U.S. Senator from Minnesota and later Vice President to Jimmy Carter. Throughout his life of service he was a tireless champion of conservation and is responsible for the protection of countless natural wonders that we enjoy today, including Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Fritz, as his friends called him, enjoyed canoeing the lakes and rivers of Minnesota and was instrumental in their protection. He, along with fellow Senator Frank Church from Idaho, also championed the passage of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act which protected countless pristine rivers in their natural state throughout the United States.

Sigurd Olson

Sigurd Olson is the man that put into words what makes this corner of the world so special and has served as an inspiration for many later environmentalists. Over decades spent canoeing the Quetico-Superior Country (the area that encompasses Voyageurs and the Boundary Waters) Olson made a name writing about his travels and the immense beauty of the area. I’m the proud owner of several of his movingly poetic books.

Protecting the Area

Together, Olson and Mondale fought to protect the area from increasing pressure from mining and logging interests and ultimately succeeded in creating Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and designating a number of Wild & Scenic Rivers. But the fight is still not over!

Save The Boundary Waters

Right now Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters face the threat of permanent despoilment from mining interests looking to exploit the area for metals located beneath the lakes and rivers, namely the Twin Metals Mine. The late Senator Mondale spoke out against this mine and advocated for permanent protection for the area from extractive industries. You can do your part to help save this precious wild area by visiting or donating to Save The Boundary Waters here.


Voyageurs National Park Map

voyageurs national park map
Voyageurs National Park Official Map (courtesy NPS)

Where is Voyageurs National Park?

Voyageurs National Park is located in the Northernmost region of Minnesota, straddling the Canadian border. The park is about 275 miles north of Minneapolis, about 4 and a half hours driving. Voyageurs National Park lies adjacent to Superior National Forest and the renowned Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.


Getting to the Park – Directions & Location

There are a few ways to access the park from different directions.

Closest Airport: INL – Falls International Airport (International Falls, MN)

The fastest way to get to Voyageurs National Park is by flying into Falls International Airport in International Falls, which basically puts you at the park’s doorstep. Flights into International Falls can be hard to come by and are typically on the spendier side with rental car options also being limited. Of course the proximity can’t be beat as it’s just a few minutes drive from the airport to the nearest part of the park at Rainy Lake.

Driving from Minneapolis

Getting to the park from Minneapolis requires a bit of a drive, but takes you through some scenic country. I recommend renting a car from the airport and driving to International Falls (roughly 300 miles from the airport) where dining and lodging is easy to come by. The drive takes a little over 4 hours without traffic.

Driving from the Southeast (Duluth)

Another option is flying into Duluth and making the 3 hour drive northwest to the park. This route can sometimes make more sense depending on where you’re coming from and what airline you’re flying. It’s uncommon that it’s less expensive than Minneapolis after the flight and rental car, but it’s worth looking into as it can make sense in some instances and offers an even more scenic drive.


Getting Around Voyageurs National Park

Before you pack up the car and plan for another national park roadtrip be aware that Voyageurs National Park is almost entirely accessible only by water. But fear not ye land lubbers! There are a multitude of easy ways to get your hands on a boat and explore this one-of-a-kind park. The local area is filled with friendly outfitters, guides, and lodges that rent all kinds of boats and even offer guided tours.  

Voyageurs National Park in the fall
Kayaking on Namakan Lake

Navigating the Lakes

The park is primarily accessed via three large lakes (Namakan, Kabetogama, and Rainy). Each of the three main lakes in Voyageurs National Park can be accessed at various locations depending on what type of activity you’ll be doing. The park does offer some hiking trails on the mainland that can be reached by car. These are mostly concentrated near the Ash River Visitor Center and the Rainy Lake Visitor Center.

Before traveling make sure to familiarize yourself with how to safely navigate the lakes. The U.S. Coast Gaurd maintains a series of buoys marking safe routes through the park’s waters. You’ll want to head over to the park website to understand how to use the buoys for navigation. It’s actually very easy!

Once on the lakes in your chosen mode of transport you’ll need a map and the ability to read it properly, a GPS is always a plus too. These are large lakes and offer more than a few opportunities to lose your bearings. It’s a good idea to have a way to contact the mainland in the event of an emergency and keep in mind cell service is mostly non-existent once out on the water.

voyageurs canoe
A man carries his canoe

What If I love the parks, but I’m not familiar with boats?

Not to worry!  Traveling by canoe is one of the oldest and safest modes of transportation there is and it’s lots of fun even for beginners. Plus it’s incredibly inexpensive. Did I mention it’s easy?

Renting and operating motorized boats is easy too! The lodge or resort from which you rent your boat will show you exactly how to safely operate it and ensure you’re feeling confident and comfortable behind the wheel. Remember the locals here are truly “Minnesota Nice”.

If you’re renting a boat, typically your lodge or resort will give you a radio with which to contact them in the event you should need anything. This could range from wanting to have fuel and/or food delivered to you or needing help getting unstuck from a tricky area.

canoeing voyageurs
Canoeist on Sand Point Lake

Choosing The Right Boat To Rent

The Trusty Canoe

For a true northwoods experience like the voyageurs of old, there is no other choice than the canoe. These venerable watercrafts have been plying America’s waterways for the better part of the last two millenia and will bring you as close to the land surrounding you as one can get. While a canoe is perfect for one or two people looking to have a true wilderness experience in Voyageurs National Park, it’s good to keep in mind that one can only paddle so far in a given amount of time and can only pack so much in a canoe. Canoes can be rented from nearly any lodge or resort in the area and start as low as $30/day.

Small Fishing Boat

Small vessels can vary, but typically involve aluminum, a pull-to-start outboard motor, and 3+ seats. These boats are perfect for a day out on the lake fishing, but might not be so perfect for the average visitor or family looking to explore Voyageurs with little to no boating experience. These boats typically start at $90/day.

Larger Fishing Boats & Pontoons

These larger, more user-friendly fishing boats and pontoons allow for traveling greater distances with relative ease thanks to things like an electric start, a steering wheel, and throttle. Pontoons have lots of storage space for all of your gear and offer comfortable seating for you and your companions. These boats typically start at $130/day.

Houseboats

Think RV’s of the water. These large vessels provide all the comforts of home and allow for large group accommodations. Houseboats in Voyageurs National Park are perfect for large family outings or a get together with friends. There are numerous houseboat rental companies throughout the borders of Voyageurs National Park offering access to each of the park’s three main lakes.

Guided Tour

When in doubt leave it to the experts! The immediate area around the park is filled with outfitters and guides who know the parks massive lakes and tributaries like the backs of their hands and will be more than happy to show you some northwoods hospitality. Whether you just want to be dropped off on an island campsite on Kabatogama Lake and picked up in a few days or plan a day trip (or multi-day trip) around the park’s many sights there are numerous guides that will be happy to make it happen. Check out the park website for more information on local guide services.

Note: The park service also offers various boat tours depending on the season which can be found here.


Video

VOYAGEURS 8K

Synopsis

This film is the culmination of several weeks spent in the northernmost region of Minnesota known as Voyageurs National Park. Encompassing more than 340 square miles, Voyageurs is a watery wonderland almost exclusively accessible by boat. Journey with us as we explore a land blanketed in pristine lakes, erupting with kaleidoscopic fall colors, and home to the most spectacular displays of the northern lights on the planet. This is Voyageurs. Filmed primarily in stunning UHD 8K.

This film was made possible by the wonderful people at the Voyageurs National Park Association who work so hard to maintain the park for folks like us. Please check them out (and feel free to donate!): voyageurs.org

RELATED: Voyageurs National Park Camping


Weather & Seasons

Voyageurs National Park
Afternoon on Namakan Lake

Knowing when to visit Voyageurs National Park is perhaps the most important part of planning your trip to this one-of-a-kind destination. Each season brings it’s own unique opportunities and potential challenges.


Best Time to Visit Voyageurs National Park

The best time of year to visit Voyageurs National Park is September and October when the park displays it’s magnificent fall foliage. The busy fishing and tourist seasons are over and the park is serene and quiet, perfect for an unforgettable outdoor getaway.


Voyageurs National Park Seasons

Spring in Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs in Spring | Seasons & Weather

Spring in Voyageurs sees melting snow turn to slush and the lakes beginning to thaw out. The park is slowly transitioning from winter’s icy grip into summer’s long days of boating, fishing, hiking, and campfires. Spring will see few visitors to this area as most wait for summer’s warmer temperatures and increased opportunities to arrive.

The park will see lows in the 30’s during March and upper 40’s by June with highs between 51 – 74 degrees.


Summer in Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park More Than Just Parks
Voyageurs National Park in Summer

Summer in Voyageurs brings longer days of sunshine, pleasant weather, and lots of recreational opportunities. Houseboats dot the lakes and campsites while fishermen cast their lines from small boats in their favorite spots. Canoeists and kayakers ply the waters, and bald eagles soar overhead.

Summer, unfortunately, also brings mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks in many areas where the vegetation is dense. Dress accordingly and use an effective repellent to have a fun and relatively bug-free adventure.


Fall in Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park More Than Just Parks
Voyageurs in Fall

Fall is my favorite time to visit Voyageurs National Park as the bustle of summer fishing and houseboating is long gone and the park’s shores and trails are ablaze with magnificent autumn reds, yellows, and oranges.

This time of year you’ll find few visitors, but all of the opportunities of summer with the added benefit of no bugs and fabulous fall colors. The waters of the park’s giant lakes are calm and quiet save for the occasional passing fisherman or loon call. Sunrises and sunsets are reflected on the still waters of the lakes and the northern lights dance above by night. Fall is a feast for the eyes at Voyageurs, but be quick as it’s also very short in this coldest area of the continental U.S.


Winter in Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park

Winter is the dominant season here in the far north and therefore comes early and stays late. This coldest area of the continental U.S. sees temperatures routinely fall far below zero with a record low of -55° fahrenheit. Factoring in wind chills brings those already subzero temperatures to new and mind-boggling lows.

While winter in Voyageurs is not for the faint of heart, with the proper winter gear and planning it can be a magical place. The vast lakes freeze over and become highways for snowmobiles and cross-country skiers, as well as the park’s elusive yet thriving wolf packs. Winter also brings ice-fishing, a favorite local pastime which sees what look like small sheds dotting the frozen lakes. These are actually ice houses where you can stay out of the cold while waiting for a bite. Voyageurs in winter is a land of extremes and sees the park transformed with entirely new ways to explore and enjoy this one-of-a-kind destination.


Best Things to Do in Voyageurs National Park

1. Paddle in a Canoe

canoeing voyageurs
Canoeist on Namakan Lake

“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace.”

Sigurd Olson

The best and only way to experience Voyageurs is by boat, but for a truly authentic experience try your hand at canoeing for a day, or if you’re experienced, plan a multi-day trip. Canoes are the historic mode of transportation in this area and slowly plying the waters of the park’s lakes in a canoe can help give you a fuller appreciation of this unique northwoods environment. Keep scrolling for more detailed information on renting canoes.


2. See the Northern Lights

top 10 national parks in 2021
The Northern Lights over Voyageurs National Park

On clear nights in Voyageurs you can see one of the most spectacular light shows in the world, the northern lights. They start as a faint glow on the horizon before working their way up the sky, dancing in real time right before your eyes.

Here in the remote northwoods there is almost no light pollution whatsoever and the night sky is truly a wonder to behold. There’s no need to go to Iceland or Norway or even Alaska if it’s the northern lights you seek, you’ll find them here in all of their glory. Fall and winter give you your best chances of seeing the northern lights, but you may be lucky enough any time of year if the conditions are right.


3. Explore Ellsworth Rock Gardens

Voyageurs National Park More Than Just Parks
Ellsworth Rock Gardens – Voyageurs National Park

This incredibly unique garden features countless works of art made entirely out of stone. Some of the stones are massive monoliths balanced delicately upon other stones.

This incredible attraction is entirely the work of one man, a humble carpenter from Chicago named Jack Ellsworth, who built these amazing works of art over the course of 20 years starting in the 1940’s. Tie off your boat here along the shores of Lake Kabetogama and explore the fascinating artistic expressions of one determined man.


4. Go Fishing

Voyageurs National Park More Than Just Parks
Voyageurs National Park

The waters of Voyageurs National Park and the surrounding areas are teeming with native fish that are great for eating or just for sport. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of catching your own meal and cooking it over an open fire on an island all to yourself.

Be sure to follow NPS and Minnesota DNR rules governing fishing in the area and fish responsibly.


5. Camp on Your Own Island

voyageurs campfire
Campfire at Voyageurs National Park

In Voyageurs there are no campgrounds with sites plotted next to each other one after the other with whirring RV generators, yelling kids, and barking dogs. In this one-of-a-kind national park every campsite is all to itself, and yes, some are even on their own entire island. Did I mention there are over 150 campsites?

RELATED: Voyageurs National Park Camping


Where to Stay – Camping & Lodging

Camping

Unlike almost any other national park, there are no campgrounds in Voyageurs National Park. Fear not though, as there are over 150 campsites and camping here is quite the experience. Allow me to explain below.

voyageurs campsite
Jim (me) cooks a walleye filet at his campsite
Solitude

Voyageurs National Park offers a unique and distinctly better frontcountry camping experience than just about any other national park out there. That is because in Voyageurs you will never see another camper. Every one of the park’s more than 150 campsites have been designed for total seclusion and privacy. Many are on their own islands and the others are spread very far apart from each other.

voyageurs campsite
Waiting for sunrise at Voyageurs National Park
Amenities

Each campsite is equipped with a dock, a fire ring, a picnic table, a site for your tent, a bear locker, and a pit toilet – everything you need for an amazing getaway. (I once asked my wife why there are bear lockers even on these remote islands and she calmly told me, “they swim of course,” before recounting the times she had seen bears swimming in the park while growing up). Fear not though, bear encounters are rare and easily avoided by storing your food properly.

Camping in Voyageurs National Park is bound to spoil camping for you anywhere else. Few sites in other parks, outside of the remote backcountry, can rival the experience of docking your boat, pitching your tent, cooking your meal over an open fire, and listening to the calming sound of water gently lapping against the shoreline, only occasionally interrupted by the distant calls of loons.

Other Ways To Camp

Voyageurs also offers 15 more primitive “backcountry” campsites which are typically located within interior lakes. Check out the park website for more information on these. Lastly, Woodenfrog Campground, part of Kabetogama State Forest, is located on the shores of Lake Kabetogama and offers one of the only drive-in campsites in the area.


Lodging

Voyageurs is a large, spread out park with three main lakes, each of which have numerous lodges and resorts that provide excellent accommodations. We’ve listed many of the most popular ones below. For tent options see our camping section above.

Kettle Falls Hotel (historic hotel in the heart of the park)

Cantilever Hotel by Wyndham (Ranier)

The Voyagaire Lodge (Crane Lake)

Thunderbird Lodge (International Falls)

Sha Sha Resort (International Falls)

Arrowhead Lodge Resort (Lake Kabetogama)

Sandy Point Lodge (Lake Kabetogama)


Favorite Local Restaurant

This is easy. My favorite restaurant and the best one in the area is The Coffee Landing in International Falls. Outstanding coffee, outstanding food. Open for breakfast and lunch. If you’re looking for a nice spot to have dinner I recommend the Thunderbird Lodge for its spectacular views of Kabetogama Lake. You also can’t go wrong with the recently built Cantilever Hotel which offers a great array of local offerings in a swanky spot.


Photo Gallery – Voyageurs National Park

Photos from the production of our Voyageurs Film.


Nearby Attractions

  • Superior National Forest
  • Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
  • Isle Royale National Park
  • Chippewa National Forest

Summary | Leave Us a Comment!

That’s a wrap! Hopefully you feel like you’ve gleaned everything you need to know for your next trip to Voyageurs National Park. Feel free to leave a comment below and let me know if you have any questions or thoughts!

Hope to see you on the trails sometime soon!


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Jim Pattiz

Co-Founder of More Than Just Parks. Filmmaker, Conservationist, Public Lands Enthusiast

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