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How to Make the Most of Voyageurs National Park, With or Without a Houseboat

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Ash River dock in Voyageurs National Park  / Alyssa Hei

How to Make the Most of Voyageurs National Park, With or Without a Houseboat

By Andrew Parks

Let’s get one thing out of the way about Voyageurs National Park in Northeast Minnesota: With 40 percent of the park covered in water, it’ certainly s nice to have a boat when you visit, but you don’t technically need one. Houseboats, in particular, are the most popular way to explore the pristine waters of Sand Point, Rainy, Kabetogama and Namakan lakes. But take it from the park staff — there are other ways to get around, and many things to enjoy on land and in the sky. 

Voyageurs National Park houseboats

A couple houseboats at Voyageurs National Park  / Andrew Parks

“People don’t even know where to begin when they come here,” explains Jesse Gates, a former ranger who now works as an education specialist for Voyageurs Conservancy, the park’s official nonprofit partner. “Getting some kind of boat — even if it’s just a canoe or kayak — opens up a lot of opportunities since there are so many campsites nearby and day hikes you can do while you’re out there.”

The key phrase there is “some kind of boat.” Many visitors assume the only way to rock Voyageurs is by renting a houseboat. But what if all the houseboats in the area are already booked — something that often happens months in advance?

According to the University of Alaska’s aurora forecast — a gold standard within the astronomy community — the earliest you can get a prediction about the Northern Lights is 27 days in advance, too, which doesn’t provide much time for trip-planning. In fact, aurora forecasts get more accurate as time goes on, and are most reliable within 24 to 48 hours of a night sky event, so your best chance of seeing the Northern Lights will occur with the least amount of advance notice.

For that reason, Gates encourages intrepid travelers within a reasonable distance of Voyageurs (the Twin Cities is less than five hours away, for instance) to consider booking a campsite and/or boat as late as that day if the conditions are right.

“If it’s a Friday and you’re like, ‘I don't know what to do with my weekend,’” says Gates, “you should look at the Northern Lights forecast and the moon’s phases. If it all lines up, just head up there. Even if you don’t see the Northern Lights, being immersed under the stars will be worth the drive and visit.”

Here are some other ways to make your Voyageurs trip particularly memorable....

A bald eagle perched above an island in Voyageurs National Park

A bald eagle perched above an island in Voyageurs National Park / Andrew Parks

Book your own private island.

One of the big differences between Voyageurs and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — its similar-in-spirit cousin that also hugs the Canadian border — is the fact that you reserve its revelatory campsites rather than claim them on a first-come, first-served basis, which provides many visitors with much-needed peace of mind.

Or, as Rainy Lake ranger Erik Ditzler puts it, “You might paddle past five occupied campsites in the Boundary Waters before you find one. Here, you know which one you’re getting, but you're also restricted to just camping on that site.”

As for whether you should be worried about securing the perfect site, Ditzler insists, “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I wish I had gotten another campsite,’ because they’re all pretty spectacular. They’re also independent from other campsites; you’re on an island or a stretch of shoreline all by yourself, wherever you are.”

If you’re not behind the wheel of a motorized boat (they can be rented from many different commercial vendors since they aren’t banned like they are in the Boundary Waters), a more important matter is whether you can actually paddle all the way to your campsite. “Some people will just pick the coolest sounding name,” explains Ditzler, “not realizing it’s 15 miles away, and never make it there. It happens a lot; you’d be surprised.”

Kayaking on Kabetogama Lake

Kayaking on Kabetogama Lake 

The pro move for beginners is to pick a visitor center as a starting point and plot a couple of potential campsites from there. Ditzler’s recommendations for inexperienced paddlers include Stone’s Point, Round Bear Island, Dryweed Island and Lyle Mine Island, which was a rambunctious gold rush site in the 1890s. He can also vouch for Tango Channel, “an island all by itself, with a really nice view of the north sky. If the Northern Lights are active, you can see them right from your tent.”

Gates echoes Ditzler’s assertion that the possibilities at Voyageurs are endless, saying, “I’ve worked here for a few years, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the cool spots that are out there.” One recent camping experience he recommends is Shoepack & Little Shoepack Lakes near Ash River Visitor Center, which is both apropos for beginners and beautiful.

If you’re looking for something that’s considerably more challenging, the Chain of Lakes trail near Kabetogama Visitor Center is like a compact BWCAW experience, complete with backcountry campsites, a strenuous self-guided paddle across the peninsula, and a hike to a park-owned canoe that takes you to an interior network of other lakes.

“The Chain of Lakes is moderate-to-difficult, depending on who you ask,” says Gates. “If you are taking a water taxi across Lake Kabetogama, it’s not so bad. If you are canoeing or kayaking, it can be very difficult.”

Northern Lights at Voyaguers National Park

See the Northern Lights at Voyaguers National Park in northern Minnesota / Martha Shuff

Look for the Northern Lights.

Considering nearly every Voyageurs story mentions its coveted Dark Sky certification and includes a couple of radiant photos that could have been taken in a remote corner of Antarctica, Iceland or Alaska, this goes without saying, right? Or as noted astronomy/night photography expert “Astro Bob” King said in a separate Explore Minnesota story, “Voyageurs is top-notch. It gives you the impression that the stars are uncountable…. You just look up and go, ‘Wowwww.’”

Gates leads night sky programming at Voyageurs, such as its popular “star parties” and virtual sessions with constellation-quoting school groups. Both reflect his own run-ins with the Northern Lights and just how unpredictable the phenomenon is compared to how it’s portrayed in pro-shot publications like National Geographic and Outside.

“The first time I saw the Northern Lights,” explains Gates, “I didn’t have any point of reference other than what I’d seen in photos, so I pulled out my camera and messed with the settings. All these greens and purples were coming through — colors I couldn’t see with my naked eye."

What lurked outside his lens was more of a “hazy white thing,” almost like a blanket with “a little bit of ribboning.” Sometimes it was still; and sometimes it started to move, fluctuating fluidly between different sizes.

Truth be told, Gates didn’t witness the full scope of the Northern Lights until his fourth or fifth encounter at Voyageurs. That’s why it’s so important— whether the skies are clear or partly cloudy — to manage your expectations and maintain some perspective. After all, the Northern Lights aren’t controlled by a switch any more than the wild lions, tigers and elephants on a safari are. And even if you don’t see the Northern Lights, the night skies are amazing on their own.

Voyageurs National Park Night Sky

Night sky in Voyageurs National Park / Erik Fremstad

Go stargazing.

Ditzler says the Milky Way and major constellations can be seen from just about anywhere in the park, including areas that can be accessed without a boat. Stepping onto Rainy Lake’s fishing dock is a good start, because it gives you a wide view of the sky without lofty tree lines or light pollution from a nearby parking lot.

Other solid options include the northerly, hillside dock behind the Ash River Visitor Center, the short Forest Overlook Trail right down the road, and just about any stretch of land or secluded road that is safe from artificial light sources. Luckily, that isn’t very hard to find when you’re this far north in Minnesota, and the population of the biggest nearby town (International Falls) is less than 6,000 people.

“It can be a little hard to imagine if you’re staying at a hotel and just looking out your window,” explains Gates, “but it gets much darker as you venture further into the park’s little nooks.”

Gates says you can snap “crazy good photos” with today’s smartphones, especially devices with a dedicated nighttime mode. “The first time I went out to see the Northern Lights, I told my tour group how to mess with every setting on a camera manually. Then someone who knew nothing about photography pulled out a new iPhone, tapped their screen and said, ‘You mean like this?’ I was like, ‘Why did I spend so many years learning this?’”

Voyageurs Grand Tour

A ranger leads the Grand Tour at Voyageurs  / Andrew Parks

Take a ranger-led boat tour.

One of Ditzler’s main responsibilities outside of day-to-day ranger duties is overseeing the official boat tour program at Voyageurs. While it’s been going strong for decades, the National Park Service has ramped up its offerings in recent years. In 2022 — outside of a historic flood that caused many campsite and road closings — eager groups typically departed from docks at Kabetogama or Rainy Lake five days a week during the summer.

A “Stars Over Rainy Lake” cruise was also given a test run one night in August. Conditions were far too cloudy for a Northern Lights display, but several constellations peeked through the pea soup-like sky by the end, leading a seasonal ranger named Luke to smile and say, “We got to see some stuff; ain’t that grand?”

“We’ve always said that being out on the water is the best way to experience the park,” explains Ditzler. “Our tours give people a really great opportunity to do that if they can’t rent or bring their own boat to Voyageurs.”

A visitor on Voyageurs' Grand Tour

A visitor on Voyageurs' Grand Tour  / Andrew Parks

The park’s former ties to the fur trade and restless gold rush groups also make it a must for history buffs. Its more comprehensive Kettle Falls Cruise or the two-and-a-half-hour Grand Tour swing by such landmarks as Little American Island and Harry Oveson Fish Camp. Not to mention historic cabins that once housed colorful local characters like a mail-order bride from Finland who decided to live the rest of her life in solitude here when her husband didn’t come home one day.

Any time you have questions about tours, weather conditions or anything else, swing by or call a visitor center. Voyageurs has three; Rainy Lake is open year-round, and the other two (Kabetogama and Ash River) have seasonal hours.

Sullivan Bay Trail at Voyageurs National Park

The Sullivan Bay Trail at Voyageurs National Park / Andrew Parks

Forage for wild food.

Voyageurs is one of the only national parks that lets visitors pick up to one gallon of wild rice, blueberries, raspberries and/or chokecherries per person. Trails known to yield wild mushrooms and seasonal fruit include Sullivan Bay, Blind Ash Bay, Beaver Pond Overlook and Voyageurs Forest Overlook. Another option worth considering is the rather epic Kab-Ash route that winds its way through wetlands and backcountry forests. Due to challenging trail conditions and the simple fact that it’s nearly 28 miles long, it can take up to five days to complete.

If you’re looking for something far less strenuous and happen to have a boat, Gates recommends paddling out to Black Bay Beaver Pond. “It’s a short one,” he says, “but it’s a cool feeling to get out on the water, kayak to this dock, put your boat up and then just walk across the peninsula.”

He also suggests stopping by the Ethno-Botanical Garden near the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, which explains how the Ojibwe people used wild plants for everything from medicine to meals.

Snowmobiling Voyageurs National Park

Snowmobiling, Voyageurs National Park / Abdiel Nieves

Wait until winter.

Voyageurs offers a variety of different experiences in the winter. An advantage of visiting in the park’s off-season is that once the ice is thick enough, you can snowshoe, ski or snowmobile to sites that are only accessible by boat the rest of the year.

For instance, take that picturesque Black Bay Beaver Pond spot Gates mentioned earlier. You can drive or walk right up to it when everything’s frozen since it’s less than a mile from the visitor center.

“That is a really cool trail to experience in the winter,” says Ditzler, “when you get to see lots of animal tracks on the frozen pond.”

Voyageurs National Park entrance in winter

Voyageurs National Park entrance in winter / Abdiel Nieves

If you’ve never driven across a lake in a 3,000-pound car before, Ditzler says you shouldn’t be nervous, because rangers monitor the park’s ice roads closely. “I’d be happy to explain the process we go through to check the thickness and safety of everything,” he says, “because we’re overly conservative about it.”

Winter also boasts 13 or 14 hours of darkness as opposed to two or three, increasing your odds of a Northern Lights sighting exponentially.

“I remember one night where they went off like crazy,” says Gates. “The colors were deep hues of yellow, orange, green, purple and red. From that point on, I was hooked.”

Andrew Parks

Andrew Parks is the multimedia editor at Explore Minnesota. His past lives include copywriting and content strategy for such clients as Food & Wine, Apple, Condé Nast Traveler, Bandcamp, AFAR, Bon Appétit, and Red Bull.