Explore the Lakes of Voyageurs National Park

By Explore Minnesota

Northern lights and houseboat in Voyageurs National Park
Northern lights and houseboat in Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park is an expanse of lakes and forests at the end of the road on Minnesota’s northern border with Canada. While the interior of this unique national park is accessible only by water for much of the year, visitors have a variety of watercraft options to explore Voyageurs' four large lakes, the Ash River, 26 smaller interior lakes, vast numbers of secluded bays, hundreds of islands and more than 650 miles of beautiful shoreline.

Voyageurs’ dark skies are ideal for viewing endless stars, shooting stars (meteors), and of course, the shimmering and colorful aurora borealis (northern lights) which it is prized for. The video below shows this stunning phenomenon in Voyageurs National Park.

Start Your Journey

The Kabetogama Lake, Ash River and Rainy Lake visitor centers are park entry points and also sites for guided boat and canoe tours, ranger-led programs and boat launch ramps. Navigation maps and information on watercraft rental, camping and lodging are available at all three sites, as are free “Discovery Packs” for the kids.

Tour Boats & Programs

Tour boat at Rainy Lake Visitors Center in Voyageurs National Park / John Connelly
Tour boat at Rainy Lake Visitor Center  / John Connelly

Two excursion boats offer tours on Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake from June through September. Tours last from one to five hours and include various wildlife and historic cruises. On one tour, visitors can explore the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, built in 1913 near a dam between Namakan and Rainy lakes. The hotel offers dining and lodging in the main building, as well as a couple cabins. An evening tour offers a chance to view shooting stars and the northern lights. Historic canoe tours aboard a 26-foot North Canoe and naturalist-led programs are also offered. Departing from the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, the Grand Tour boat is wheelchair-accessible.

BYOB (Bring Your Own Boat) for Fishing and Exploring

Whether you trailer your own or rent one, motorboats are another popular way to explore the lakes, especially for those who like to fish. And there’s a lot of fish, including walleye, northern pike, muskie, panfish and bass. The three visitor centers and the Crane Lake Ranger Center provide boat access through their launch sites, as do numerous resorts and state-operated public boat accesses. Contemporary canoes, kayaks, rowboats and motorboats are available for rent from businesses on the park's perimeter. 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.)

Houseboating Heaven

Relaxing in a hot tub on a Rainy Lake Houseboat in Voyageurs National Park
Relaxing in a hot tub on a Rainy Lake Houseboat

For a special adventure and trip-of-a-lifetime, explore the lakes on board your own floating cabin or luxurious vacation home moored on your own private bay or island. A handful of businesses rent houseboats of various sizes, complete with kitchen, living room, bedrooms and bathrooms, and in some cases, a hot tub on the deck, waterslide for the kids and a motorboat attached for fishing and exploring the park’s extraordinary sights.

Experienced staff show first-time “captains” how to pilot a houseboat, and are only a radio call away. Maps pinpoint overnight mooring sites for houseboats and other helpful navigation information. Houseboat sites along the lakeshore are well marked, and it’s remarkably easy to navigate with the help of the buoy markers to guide the way.

Lodging & Camping

Lodging in the park includes basic campsites and the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, both accessible only by boat. Several lodges and resorts on the outskirts of the park offer rooms and cabins. Numerous campgrounds are also available at the communities of Crane Lake, Kabetogama and International Falls. To camp at one of the 290 designated campsites within the park, you must obtain a permit.

Paddling & Hiking

Canoeing on Kabetogama Lake in Voyageurs National Park
Canoeing on Kabetogama Lake in Voyageurs National Park

If paddling is more your style, the peaceful interior lakes offer all of the beauty of Voyageurs National Park and plenty of islands for camping, minus motorized boats.

Paddlers looking for a multi-day adventure without a bunch of portages will greatly appreciate the ease of navigating Voyageurs. According to Paddling.com, "A circumnavigation of the Kabetogama Peninsula is the ideal adventure to experience all that Voyageurs has to offer a paddler. Kayaking was made for areas such as Voyageurs National Park."  Detailed topographic maps featuring recommended paddle routes along the shorelines, as well as highlights along the way are available at the visitor centers.

There are 52 miles of hiking trails within Voyageurs National Park. Some hiking trails in Voyageurs are easily accessed by land, many of which have trailheads at the visitor centers. Numerous trails are wheelchair-accessible. Other hiking trails require a boat, canoe or kayak to reach. The Ash River Visitor Center offers a network of hiking trails, accessible only by watercraft, that lead to smaller lakes in the interior of the park. Be sure to stop in at a visitor center for maps.

Winter at Voyageurs

Winter ice fishing and snowmobiling within Voyageurs National Park / Abdiel Nieves
Winter ice fishing and snowmobiling within Voyageurs National Park / Abdiel Nieves

Winter visitors can access the beauty of Voyageurs National Park by snowmobile, cross country skis, snowshoes and by foot. In fact, there are 110 miles of groomed snowmobile trails and seven miles of groomed cross-country ski trails. The Rainy Lake Visitor Center and Crane Lake Ranger Station are open year-round for trail conditions, trail maps and other assistance. Visitors may drive out by car via the Rainy Lake Ice Road and Kabetogama Lake Ice Road when conditions permit. Ice fishing can be spectacular, and everyone enjoys sledding at the Sphunge Island-Kabetogama sledding hills located just a short distance from the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center.