Itinerary to Explore Voyageurs National Park : One of the Best National Parks in America

One of 3 entrances to Voyageurs National Park.

Since the onset of COVID 19, we have seen more visitors in State and National Parks than ever before. As wonderful as it is to see people connecting with nature, I have also heard frustration about the crowds that did not exist in these places decades ago as compared to now. If you are looking for a slice of heaven that’s remote, peaceful and quiet, then Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota is a MUST SEE for you!

Did you know that Voyageurs is one of the LEAST visited National parks in the country? Given it’s remoteness and the need to travel by water to really enjoy your time, it’s a place that is easily missed- but that’s part of what makes it such a treasure. Let’s start planning your trip!

In this blog you will find….

  • History of Voyageurs National Park
  • Planning tips
  • How to travel the park
  • Places to stay
  • Trails to hike
  • Boat tours
  • Scenic stops
  • Activity ideas
  • Road trip ideas
  • Links needed to plan your trip
  • PDF map of the park (QR code)

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ABOUT VOYAGEURS

VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK is unique because 40% of it’s 218,054 acres is covered in water, with 4 large lakes and 26 smaller interior lakes. Even today, the best method of travel for visitors is by boat, canoe or kayak. The park offers an untouched wonderland of cliffs, wetlands, lakes, streams, forests and over 500 islands to explore. The park consists of various interconnected waterways, with water eventually flowing into the Hudson Bay. The park also shares it’s borders with Canada and is the only national park in the country that does.

Disclaimer: Everything in my blog is based on my own opinions, experiences and perspectives. We are all different and my hope is you can go out and create experiences and perspectives of your own. I also have some affiliate links with Adobe, Back Country and Kayak.com throughout my blog and advertisements for brands I partner with and use such as Just Strong, Goli Vitamins and DIFF Eyewear. I make a very small commission if you purchase through the link & offer a discount code at no additional cost to you.

HISTORY OF THE PARK OF WATER, ISLANDS AND HORIZONS

Beautiful view from Ellsworth Rock Garden.

Before you head out to Voyageurs National Park, I think it’s important to understand the history of the park to really appreciate your time there. Voyageurs National Park is one the of the newest established national parks in the United States. It was officially declared a national park in 1975. Voyageurs National Park used to be considered the host to some of the most important water routes in the fur trade between the French and Indigenous populations (over 250 years ago).

The Chippewa, or Ojibwe/Ojibwa, were the main Native American group occupied areas of the park from the 1880s to 1910s. There is evidence that over 10,000 years of human live resided on the island, but the details of exactly who occupied the area besides the Ojibwe remain a mystery. To this day, evidence of logging, mining, fishing shacks and remnants of other buildings are littered all over the park boundaries, untouched and frozen in time.

Plan your visit using these adjustable maps from the National Parks website- click here!

Enlarge this map into a PDF version by using the QR code below. Scan the code using the camera app on your phone. Hover over the QR code & wait for the direct link to appear, then click it. Map from https://www.dvnpmn.com/maps/
Use this QR code for a detailed, PDF version of Voyageur National Park using your phone.

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THREE VISITOR CENTERS

RAINY LAKE

Rainy Lake Visitor Center is the farthest north, but it is also open year round. I highly recommend stopping at a visitor center before exploring the park. This is important for many reasons. Park rangers can share with you about weather and water conditions, any trails that are closed due to safety concerns, best places to visit in your area of the park, and they can also provide physical maps that are a must have when visiting Voyageurs.

ASH RIVER

The second visitor center, Ash River, is open May through September. When we visited, the park ranger mentioned this is usually the first visitor center to close for the season. If you are coming to Voyageurs to hike trails and are unable to travel by water, I suggest entering Ash River Visitor Center in your GPS or Google maps to access all the inland trail systems. Scroll down to the hiking section for more information on the trail systems.

KABETOGAMA LAKE

The third visitor’s center is Kabetogama Lake. If you are visiting the park between May and late September and intend to travel by water, this should be where you start your visit. There are two separate areas off the visitor’s parking lot to get your boat, canoe or kayak in and out of the lake. When we went canoeing, we used the landing from this area to start our waterway exploration. Lake Kabetogama is large, but you can access a lot of wonderful islands from this point. Also, if you signed up for one of the amazing boat tours Voygeurs offers May through September, this would be your destination.


FOUR LAKES

Photo credit to National Park Service.

VOYAGEURS National Park is made up of 26 smaller inland lakes and 4 large lakes: Kabetogama, Sand Point, Namakan and Rainy Lake. We explored Kabetogama during our visit because it was closest to the site of our boat tour and the inland trail system. Rainy Lake is the largest, dotted with islands and home to various abandoned mine shafts and fisheries. It also is the site of a small gold rush.


HOW TO PREPARE

The following is a checklist of important things we needed to do to plan a successful visit to Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park.

ENTRY FEE

There is no entry fee or cost to visit Voyageurs National Park.

BEST TIME TO VISIT

This is a personal preference, but I always prefer fall time for northern Minnesota adventures- September or October. The leaves are beautiful shades of Autumn, the bugs aren’t as bad and the weather is perfect for being outdoors.

CELL SERVICE

Cell service will come and go throughout the park. When we were on the waters near the visitor’s center, we had decent service. When we went on a boat ride to EllsworthRock Garden Island, service would go in and out. I have heard as you go towards the east side of the park on the lakes, cell service is the least likely in that area. This is why it’s crucial to have a physical map with you.

CHECK THE WEATHER

Hiking Ellsworth Rock Garden.

Minnesota weather is unpredictable and constantly changing. This should be one of the first things you check out before you pack. If you are going in the summer time, remember the mosquitoes and ticks can be bad up here, so pack clothes that protect your body and bug spray as well. If you are going during the winter, remember the wind chill can make even a 0 degree temperature drop into the negatives. For fall and spring, it can be cold during the evening and early morning, but get hot during the day. In this case, I dress in layers.

HOW WILL YOU TRAVEL?

Getting to Voyageurs National Park is as easy as flying into the MSP Airport, renting a car and jumping on I-35 N. Keep in mind the best way to enjoy Voyageurs National Park is traveling by water. Before you go, think about how you are able to travel. If you have a kayak, canoe or boat of your own, absolutely bring it! If you do not have a kayak or canoe, consider renting one from Voyageurs Outfitters, starting at $40 for the day. If you are unable to transport it, you can ask them to drop off the kayak/canoe and pick it up as well but it is more costly. They pick up and drop off at the canoe landing located at Kabetogama Visitor’s Center.

If you are wanting to camp at a back country site and you own a boat, consider going to the Kabetogama Peninsula Trailhead where there are canoes at your camp site. It’s important to know that other than this, Voyageurs National Park DOES NOT have kayaks or canoes for visitors to rent.

If you are unable to travel by water, do not worry! Start your trip with Ash River Visitor’s Center and enjoy all the inland trails and beautiful scenic overlooks of Lake Kabetogama. Scroll to the Hiking section to read about the inland hiking trails.

Click here to check out rentals from Voyageurs Outfitters.

Click here to read water travel regulations.

Click here for Lake Navigation and Reference Marker guide (this is important for your safety and to be aware of water hazards).

WHAT ACTIVITIES WILL YOU DO?

Our canoe adventure in Lake Kabetogama, one of the 4 largest lake in Voyageurs National Park.

Voyageurs National Park has something for everyone! Are you wanting to celebrate and host a get together? Consider camping or renting a house boat. Do you love water activities? You can swim, kayak, canoe, go fishing. In the winter time, you can snowmobile, ice fish, ski and go snow shoeing. Do you love history and want to learn about the park? Go on one of the several types of boat tours offered. Do you love nature? Bring binoculars to birdwatch and search for the many loons and eagles who call this park home. Do you love scenic views and stargazing? They are literally EVERYWHERE in this unspoiled park.

It’s important to pick your activity so you can reserve your spot ahead- this especially goes for the boat tours and campsites. If you are going on a canoe or boat trip, you will want to research the water routes on the National Park Website and plan your route. Remember, it’s important to give someone a copy of your route, just in case!

Click here to reserve a spot on one of Voyageur’s boat tours.

Click here to check out the event calendar.

ESSENTIALS TO PACK

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What you pack is largely dependent on what activities you plan and how long you will be there, but here are some staple items to pack no matter what:

  • Physical map of Voyageurs National Park
  • Dry bag for wallet, cell phone, camera, etc.
  • Water bottle (and extra water!)
  • Snacks
  • Sweater or jacket
  • Rain coat/ Rain poncho
  • Wallet
  • Phone
  • Portable Charger
  • Life jacket (if on the water)
  • Binoculars

Check out this guide to Voyageurs National Park.

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CHECK OUT MORE BEAUTIFUL PLACES IN MINNESOTA TO ENJOY THE OUTDOORS


PLACES TO STAY & CAMPING

There are over 500 islands in Voyageurs National Park.

You have a lot of options when it comes to planning your stay at Voyageurs National Park. If you want more then a day trip, consider exploring AIRBNB, VRBO or other lodging options in surrounding towns. We were interested in the Grand Rapids area & knew we had to travel up I-35 N from the Twin Cities area. We were able to book a stay at a lovely downtown apartment on top of a coffee shop. This is what worked for us.

If you want to stay closer to Voyageurs, you can check out nearby resorts, camping options or rent a house boat.

HOUSE BOAT RENTALS

A house boat stay just may be the perfect way to get the best experience at Voyageurs National Park. Your home on water can take you throughout the entire park while also keeping you comfortable. It has sleeping, cooking and toilet facilities on board. It’s important to fully understand how to work your house boat. Make sure to read through the link below to plan your house boat experience accordingly.

Make sure to note you are not able to have a house boat experience November through April. The maximum stay is limited at 14 consecutive days and no more then 30 calendar days in a year. You must purchase an overnight permit to display on your boat. There is a lot more to know, so please click the link below to make sure you are fully prepared.

Click here to explore house boat rental options and permits.

FRONT COUNTRY CAMPING

Front country campsites still require access via water vessel, but are accessible directly, meaning less hiking. If you are camping at all, it’s important to read about bear safety. Prices vary for campsite, starting at $10 per day and rising during peak seasons. Use the links below for more information on how to get a permit and bear safety.

Click here for permit information.

Click here to read about food storage plans for bear safety.

Click here to explore Front Country camping options & maps.

BACK COUNTRY PACKING

If you a want remote, rugged and secluded camping experience, conside the back country camping option. You can park your car at one of the visit centers overnight for up to 14 days. The back country camping sites are located on the interior lakes of the Kabetogama Peninsula and require a water vessel to get there. Once at the designated camp site, you will start at one of the trailheads and hike to get to your site. These sites have fewer amenities, consiting of a fire ring, outdoor privy and a bear pole for safe food storage.

Click here to explore Back Country camping options & maps.

Click here to purchase a permit.

GATEWAY COMMUNITY CAMPGROUNDS

If you are not able to travel by water but still want to camp nearby, click here to plan your camping experience at one of the gateway community campgrounds.

RESORTS

There are dozens of inclusive resorts that you can book for an amazing adventure of the midwest wonderland known as Voyageurs National Park. Click here to explore all your options!


BOAT TOURS

VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK is bursting at the seams with boat tours an historical sites. Below are some tours offered and historical sites to keep an eye out for during your visit. We personally loved the Ellsworth Rock Garden Tour- one of the most quirky, unique places I have been to! Keep in mind boat tours only go from May to late September. All boat tours depart from the Kabetogama Lake Visitor’s Center. You can reserve your tour here.

Boarding for all boat tours is at Lake Kabetogama Visitor’s Center.

BOAT TOURS

Click on each tour for a description.


HIKING TRAILS

VOYAGEURS offers over 27 miles of hiking trails. If you are planning your visit to go hiking and are unable to travel by water, consider stopping at the Ash River Visitor Center instead of the other two. Not only is this area completely beautiful (we saw a coyote our first time here!), but it’s through the winding road to the visitor’s center you can stop and park the hike the various trails to amazing overlooks. Here are the hiking trails accessible by car and water.

We found this beautiful coyote wandering by Ash River Visitor’s Center when we were navigating which trail to explore. He was on a mission!

LIST OF VOYAGEUR NATIONAL PARK HIKING TRAILS

Click on the name of each trail for more information.

ACCESSIBLE BY CAR TRAILS

WATER ONLY ACCESS TRAILS


ULTIMATE PLANNING GUIDE FOR HIKING


SCENIC EXPERIENCES

Pictures above are from our tour of Ellsworth Rock Garden, which started to be built in 1940 & remains a highlight of the park for visitors.

As you can imagine, there is beauty everywhere in this midwest wonderland, but there are some notable scenic experiences that are worth mentioning.

GRASSY BAY CLIFFS

On the southeastern part of Sand Point Lake are sheer granite cliffs rising 125 feet over the lake, formed billions of years ago. The view is beautiful year round, but espeically in the fall time when the cliffs are decorated with shades of autumn. This area is only accessible via water travel.

KETTLE FALLS HOTEL

Kettle Falls hotel is only accessible via water but is a must see place in Voyageurs. The Kettle Falls boat tour gives visitors a chance to explore this historical site up close. Kettle Falls Hotel was built in 1913 and has been welcoming fishermen and lumberjacks ever since! That’s right- you can actually book a stay in this historical hotel, which is the only actually hotel in the entire park.

Click here to book your stay at Kettle Falls Hotel.

JUNCTION BAY FALLS

If you like chasing waterfalls, then add this stop to your itinerary. Junction Bay Falls is located in the soutwestern corner of Namakan Lake. The water falls are a result of Johnson River flowing into the lake and area a site to behold.

SCENIC OVERLOOKS

Anderson Bay Overlook is located through a day use area where you can also have a picnic. It’s famous for offering a million dollar view of Voyageurs National Park. Another wonderful overlook is Lake Kabetogama Overlook, which can also be accessed by car.

NORTHERN LIGHTS

Everyone dreams of having their chance to see the Northern Lights. There is no better place than Voyageurs National Park on a clear night. being Voyageurs is so remote with no light pollution, you have a much better chance at watching the faint green glow work it’s way up the sky. If you love stargazing, consider taking the Stargazing Boat Tour offered by the park.


ROAD TRIP IDEAS

Getting to Voyageurs is an adventure all it’s own. Northern Minnesota has a lot of remote beauty to experience and is littered with state parks, lakes, waterfalls and the Northwoods. Below is a list of some notable stops you can make depending on which direction you are traveling from.

  • VIA I-35 N and HWY 53: Check out the town of Cloquet, which is not far from the famous Jay Cooke State Park. Duluth is also a few miles north of Cloquet, which offers beautiful views, hiking trails, downtown activities all near Lake Superior. A bit south of Cloquet you can find Moose Lake State Park.
  • HWY 2: If you are okay with looping from HWY 53, onto HWY 2, then back to HWY 53 again, Grand Rapids is a beautiful place to visit. This small town was the home of Judy Garland, who starred in The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy. he famous Judy Garland Museum is here.
  • I-94 and I-10, I-71: If you have longer than a weekend and want to take a Minnesota Northwoods adventure, going this route gets you past St. Cloud and up to the true Northwoods of Minnesota, such as Park Rapids and Bemidji. Park Rapids is a lovely small town shrouded in pine trees and lakes. There are various cabin getaways that are lakeside here. The famous Itasca State Park is near Park Rapids, and is home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and Wilderness Drive Scenic Byway- a must see in the fall time. If you are wanting to take a swim in the summer time, I highly suggest Lake Bemidji State Park.

LEAVE NO TRACE

Since COVID 19 and the addition of social media, outdoor spaces are getting more traffic than ever. While it’s inspiring to see how many people are enjoying the outdoors, we need to realize the significant resource and social impacts high traffic of visitors make within our lands. Be mindful of the space you are in. I believe that the more connected we feel to nature, the more likely we are to protect it.

I want to introduce the seven core principles of Leave No Trace, an organization whose framework is for making good decisions to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.

Seven core principles:

  1. Plan and prepare
  2. Travel & camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impact
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of others

Visit Leave No Trace to learn about how you can help protect our beautiful lands and wildlife.


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