Best-kept secret

Did you know Minnesota is home to a national park? 

On the Canadian border, just west of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, sits one of Minnesota’s best-kept secrets — the vast and beautiful Voyageurs National Park! 

Its name comes from the French-Canadian fur voyageurs who came to our state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They paddled large — 26 feet long and 4 feet wide — “north canoes” made of birch bark and cedar and journeyed through the waterways, trading goods with Native Americans in exchange for animal pelts, which were in high demand in Europe.

Voyageurs National Park consists of four large lakes — Rainy Lake, Sand Point Lake, Namakan Lake and Kabetogama Lake — as well as 26 smaller interior lakes. 

Encompassing more than 218,000 acres (far smaller than the BWCAW’s 1 million acres), the park offers 134,000 acres of woodlands, 500 islands and 27 miles of hiking trails. 

But here’s the most interesting part: Though the park’s visitor centers are accessible by car, the rest is accessible only by boat.

Voyagaire Houseboats’ 44-foot Sportcruiser sleeps up to 8 people and rents for $495 a day or $2,495 a week in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. Photo courtesy of Voyagaire Houseboats

All of the park’s 240 well-mapped overnight and day-use sites require a water vessel of some sort for transportation.

But that needn’t stop you from visiting. You can bring your own motorboat, canoe or kayak or simply rent a variety of watercraft. 

One of the most popular ways to see the park is by renting a houseboat. Several vendors rent these unique vessels for vacations in the park. And the reasonable fees typically include training in how to pilot your chosen vessel, plus a radio to connect to services, such as grocery and gas deliveries (and help in case of emergencies).

If you bring your own vessel, you can launch for free at all public boat launches at the park’s three visitor centers — Rainy Lake Visitor Center, Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center and Ash River Visitor Center. Many commercial services also provide gear, guided adventures and water-taxi/shuttle services for hikers and others wanting to explore the park. (Learn more at tinyurl.com/vnp-services.)

If you’d like a simplified introduction to the park, check out the summer ranger-led programs offered from mid-June through mid-September, including guided boat tours. (See the sidebar with this article for some of the offerings. Reservations are recommended.)

In the winter, you can explore the park by cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling on more than 100 miles of groomed trails.

Photos by Megan Devine

Making memories 

As a child, I spent time with my family fishing and camping on Kabetogama and Namakan. When I was a teenager, my parents purchased an island cabin on Crane Lake near the park. 

I spent summers and spring and fall weekends through high school and college working at Voyagaire Houseboats — where I met my husband — and exploring the area any free chance I had. 

Today my husband and I enjoy sharing experiences in Voyageurs National Park with our four children.  

In fact, this July we reserved an island campsite for a week on Sand Point Lake. We look forward to this adventure with plans for tent camping, fishing, berry picking, swimming, paddle-boarding and enjoying the beauty of this incredible wilderness area.

Though the BWCAW is probably the most famous backcountry retreat in our state, Voyageurs offers another way for your family to appreciate the serenity of a remote lake, complete with the mournful calls of loons at dawn and dusk and, if you’re lucky, the playful dancing of the Northern Lights.

Despite the fact that watercraft is the only mode of summer transportation in the park, quiet and serenity are still easy to come by in Voyageurs, due to its huge lakes offering 84,000 acres of water and 655 miles of wild shoreline. 

In such big waters, tubing and waterskiing aren’t all that common and use of motorized personal watercraft (jet skis and wave runners) is prohibited.

Photos by Megan Devine

Where to start?

Cabins, lodges, hotels: Gateway communities near the park — which is, by car, about 5 hours north of the Twin Cities or 2.5 hours from Duluth — are all just off Highway 53 and include Crane Lake, Orr, Ash River, Kabetogama, International Falls and Ranier.

Car camping: State forest drive-up camping is available just outside the park at Woodenfrog State Forest Campground, Ash River Campground and Echo Lake Campground south of Crane Lake.

Boats: Voyageurs National Park has hundreds of campsites that can be reached by boat or houseboat. Reservations are required and can be made at recreation.gov.

There is no fee to enter the park, but if you want to stay there overnight, you’ll need a free permit, available at the visitor centers and boat launches.

Houseboats: A variety of companies rent these watercraft — which sleep two to 12 people and sometimes include slides, hot tubs and more — such as Ebels, NorthernaireRainy Lake Houseboats and Voyagaire Houseboats. Learn more at tinyurl.com/vnp-services.


Megan Devine is an elementary school teacher who lives with her husband and four school-age children in Northeastern Minnesota. Follow her School Days column at mnparent.com/meg and her blog — Kids, Lakes, Loons and Pines — at megdevine.com.