“Voyageur” is a French word meaning “traveler.” And as the best, seasoned voyageurs know....to get to where you’re going, sometimes you have to travel to the end of the road. Or at least, to where the highway ends, and waterways begin.
Voyageurs National Park is an expanse of lakes and forests at the end of the road on Minnesota’s northern border. The park, established in 1975, was named for the fur traders, called voyageurs, who paddled these waterways 250 years ago.
Several visitors centers serve the various entries to the park: Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake, Ash River and the Crane Lake Ranger Station. They are chock full of information about the park; kids can pick up free “Discovery Packs” about voyageurs, plants and animals, the fur trade, geology and other themes. A variety of naturalist programs are offered.
Lakes are the focal point of this unique National Park. To really experience it, you need to get out on the water.
Two tour boats offer narrated excursions on Rainy and Kabetogama lakes, mainly June through September; they’re a great way to explore the park. (Reservations are recommended.) The guides will share a wealth of facts on the area, including its abandoned gold mines, wildlife and flora. One trip goes to the century-old Kettle Falls Hotel, reachable only by boat. Guided canoe trips are also offered.
Whether you trailer your own or rent one, motorboats are another popular way to explore these lakes, especially for those who like to fish. And there’s a lot of fish, including walleye, northern pike, muskie, pan fish, and bass. Visitors should research a bit before hitting the fishing boats, and a good starting point is the local bait shops, where you can tap into the local wisdom on where and how to fish for what.
Or tune a marine band radio for up-to-date tips on fishing hot spots, and perhaps the occasional bear or moose sighting. Local guides can be worth their weight in gold to folks fishing in this area for the first time, and many offer a fresh fish shore lunch as part of the daily deal. (The bonus? They clean the fish.)
If paddling the waters is more your style, that works, too. Crane is a good choice to start with, as it’s one of the smaller lakes in the park. But don’t let its size fool you; it’s also the most ruggedly scenic of the lakes, complete with sheer rock walls and picturesque narrows. Nestled in between Crane and Sand Point lakes is one of the most photographed spots in Voyageurs National Park, and it’s perfect for canoers and kayakers. If water levels cooperate, American Indian hieroglyphics can also be seen on the narrow rock walls.
There are hiking trails, as well. On the west side of Crane Lake, a three-mile path leads to the scenic Vermilion Gorge. Hikers will hear the waterfall before they see it. A torrent of water rushes through a 10-foot-wide opening in the granite. Boardwalks are built all along the falls to offer safe viewing sites. The Ash River Visitor Center offers a network of hiking trails, and other trails, reachable only by boat, lead to smaller lakes in the interior of the park.
For a special adventure, houseboat rentals let you explore the lakes on board your own floating cabin. A handful of businesses rent houseboats of various sizes, complete with kitchen, living room, bedrooms, bathrooms, and in some cases, a hot tub on the deck. First-time “captains” don’t have to be nervous; the staff shows you how to pilot a houseboat, and are only a radio call away. Maps show overnight mooring sites for houseboats and other helpful navigation information. The houseboat sites along the lakeshores are well marked, and it’s remarkably easy to navigate with the help of the buoy markers to guide the way.
Several lodges and resorts on the outskirts of the park offer rooms and cabins. There are motels in nearby International Falls, and campsites at Woodenfrog State Forest Campground on Kabetogama Lake. Motorboats, pontoons, canoes and kayaks can be rented from local businesses.
Perhaps the early voyageurs had it right those many years ago: The best adventures begin at the end of the road, where the waterways begin.