Voyageurs National Park gives visitors a look deep into northern wilderness. Many state parks offer similar experiences but when you venture into areas like the backcountry of Minnesota’s national park, or the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area, you realize it’s not a typical drive-in campsite – it’s not drive-in at all.
Accessibility becomes more difficult in this region and depending on where you intend to stay for the night, you might need to make special arrangements to get into the park. And that’s just getting in.
It can be an incredible feeling, though, taking your first steps onto this well-preserved land and look out at where you’ve entered. On a sunny day, the waters are a vivid, reflective blue. Looking toward land, you see various shades of green blended together, stacked on ancient rock protruding from the waters.
It is wild.
That idea should be kept in mind as you visit places like this. To help limit anything that could take away from fully enjoying this other-worldly, northern region, being prepared can make a tremendous difference. As with any trip, visiting this park requires due diligence when it comes to researching and planning.
Here’s what you need to know at phase one of planning your visit to Voyageurs National Park.
Researching the Park
I visited Voyageurs National Park for the first time a few years ago. For people in Minnesota who even remotely enjoy the outdoors, this area is one of the first talking points when it comes to in-state trips.
People seem to enjoy talking most about the pristine waters that you can gently glide over as you paddle from campsite to campsite in the Boundary Waters. Or, it’s the rugged backpacking through Voyageurs.
Whichever route you take, give yourself two to four months of time to plan a trip. This should give you enough time to decide what you’d like to do while staying in, or around, the park.
There are three visitors centers at Voyageurs National Park: Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, and Ash River. Kabetogama Lake offers a good deal of front country camping, which might be friendlier for families, whereas the Ash River entrance might be nicer for day trips or a starting point for backcountry adventures.
After you’re in the park, Voyageurs has miles and miles of hiking trails that offer visitors different experiences and views of the park. Some trails, too, are more popular to see wildlife (explained later).
I didn’t take a guided boat tour when I visited — having opted for a backcountry backpacking trip instead — but these tours are said to be a great way to see the park, specifically areas that could be overlooked by non-local eyes.
Given that much of the park is water, canoeing and kayaking are popular activities on the four main lakes. For the backcountry, canoes are locked up near campsites. Outside watercrafts aren’t allowed in to help prevent invasive species.
Depending on your timeline, there is a lot of ground to cover. In the first step of trip planning, it’s nice to learn about what you’re getting yourself into. For updates and news, read the park newspaper here.
Here’s what you can see in the park, and a brief history lesson.
What You’ll See There
The park’s natural attractions and seemingly untouched aesthetic draw you into what’s been established for millions of years.
Believe it or not, this water park that houses what seems like an endless number of pine and spruce trees was once made up of mountainous terrain. An ocean that covered this region millions of years ago gave way to volcanoes that erupted below its surface, where chambers of molten rock were cooling and creating granitic rocks, the National Park Service (NPS) reported.
Then, as mountains crumbled over time and glaciers swept the land, the landscape changed. Visiting the park today, you enter a diverse landscape that takes you by isolated islands, into secluded bays, and through an ancient place.
There are about 50 kinds of trees, including red and white pines, spruce, fir, and birch. But, dwarfing that number, the NPS reported that there are over 400 wildflower species in the park.
There are many animals that make their homes in these forests too. Moose and gray wolf populations have maintained healthy populations since the 1990s, sharing homes with other animals like river otters and beavers.
To see wildlife, some of the best advice one can give is to pick a spot and stay there. It’s a waiting game. But this might help:
Beavers can be spotted along the Black Bay Beaver Pond Trail, Locator Lake Trail, or the Cruiser Lake Trail, where moose can also be found. Wolves are most likely to be seen crossing roadways and along shorelines in the winter. Bald Eagles, Common Loons, and over 100 other bird species, can be found in the park too. Loons make their voices heard near deeper lakes, and eagles, well, look up.
Off land, almost half of the 218,000-acre park is water, home to walleye, northern pike, sturgeon, and more. Between hiking, fishing, and sightseeing, Voyageurs is packed.
Between hiking, fishing, and sightseeing, Voyageurs is packed.
A Brief Park History
“Voyageurs National Park was established in 1975, but is filled with evidence of over 10,000 years of human life and use,” according to NPS. “Signs of Native Americans, fur traders, and homesteaders, signs of logging, mining, and commercial fishing are scattered throughout the park.”
There are a number of places near park entrances to take short hikes that overlook the waterways. Signs are placed at certain points, telling the stories of Europeans fur traders and Native Americans that inhabited the area.
“Here you can see and touch rocks half as old as the world, experience the life of a voyageur, immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of a boreal forest, view the dark skies, or ply the interconnected water routes,” the NPS wrote.
French “voyageurs” (meaning ‘travelers’) came to these waterways searching for beaver furs when demand rose in the 1600s. It was around this time that the Cree, Monsoni, Assiniboin, and, later, Ojibwe tribes interacted with the European explorers and fur traders arriving in the area.
All this human activity left behind traces and artifacts, which led to archeological sites being established throughout the park.
If you find an artifact while enjoying your stay in the park, you should leave it where you found it because it’s protected by law.
Logging, commercial fishing and mining activities in this region have also left its impact on the land. During the late 1800s, logging in the region spiked, which left the land with fewer matured red and white pines.
Gold mining boomed in the region for short period – leaving a ghost town in its wake – and commercial fishing was banned in the early 1900s for the same reason as mining: low production.
Going to the region today, the area seems best suited for the travel and tourism industry, with the numerous outfitters, resorts, hotels and more that help visitors find a comfortable place to stay.
You can learn more about Voyageurs National Park at nps.gov.
Check back soon for phase two of planning your trip.