Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park sees more than 230 thousand visitors each year

Voyageurs National Park protects four lakes near the Canada–US border and is an amazing canoeing, kayaking, and fishing site. The park also preserves a history populated by Ojibwe Native Americans, French fur traders called voyageurs, and gold miners. Formed by glaciers, the region features tall bluffs, rock gardens, islands, bays, and several historic buildings.

Things To Do

Voyageurs is one of the most unique national parks in the country, due to its water based landscape

It is truly a park for the avid outdoorsman. There are so many different things to see and do! Here are some of the most popular and highly recommended activities in the park.

Kettle Falls

Kettle Falls is a must see during your visit to Voyageurs. Once, these falls were natural, the result of water from Namakan Lake descending into Rainy Lake, but today they are equally as impressive due to the dam that controls the water. Near the lake is the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, which is a gorgeous historic location built in the early 1900s. Visitors are able to book rooms for overnight stays, and there is a restaurant in the hotel for day-visits. You can access the hotel by boat or float-plane from Rainy Lake or Namakan Lake. This is a popular destination for many boaters, as it makes a beautiful day trip. If you launch from Ash River Visitors Center on Namakan, the hotel is 11.2 miles away. From the Rainy Lake side, you can begin your trip from a number of different points, including International Falls, or even beginning in Fort Frances, Ontario.

Camping

If you want to truly get in touch with the natural elements of Voyageurs, camping is both a fun and convenient way to do so. The park has a variety of different campsites. Most are located on rocky outcrops, and have tent pads, fire rings, food lockers, outhouses, and picnic tables. Some sites may even have a boating dock, if you can get to it before anyone else does! Sites can be rocky on the beaches, so be sure to prepare for that eventuality.  There are 127 frontcountry campsites in the park, and 14 backcountry campsites. Backcountry camping is a little more rugged, and requires more effort to reach. The frontcountry sites are accessible by boat, while the backcountry sites are accessible through canoeing and hiking. Campsites are released for the following summer mid-November of the prior year. Reservations are required, so be sure to reserve your spot early for this truly unique experience!

Canoeing

Canoeing is one of the most popular activities in Voyageurs, and for good reason! This park is water based, and canoeing makes for a convenient and fun way to explore the park. There are 30 lakes and nearly countless islands within the bounds of the park. Canoeing is perfect for anyone who wants to spot wildlife. Canoes are much quieter than other boats, allowing you to get close to wildlife without disturbing them. You can see birds, turtles, and larger animals, like moose. You can bring your own equipment or rent through a number of outside retailers, or through the park itself.

Hiking

Voyageurs has over 55 miles of hiking trails within the bounds of the park, and many can even be accessed by car- those that can’t are accessible by water. If you want to drive to a hike, some options include Echo Bay, Oberholtzer, Blind Ash, Rainy Lake Recreation Trail, and Sullivan Bay. Some of the water accessible trails include Black Bay and Anderson Bay on Kabetogama, and the Beast Lake trail on Namakan Lake. Hiking is a unique way to see the beauty of the park, and any of these hikes are well worth a visit!

Ellsworth Rock Garden

Ellsworth Rock Garden is located on a rocky outcrop on the north shore of Lake Kabetogama. This garden was started in the 1940s by its namesake, Jack Ellsworth, a carpenter from Chicago. There are over 200 stone features in the garden, and it is populated with flowering plants, namely lilies. The garden is a great place to see hummingbirds. This attraction is unique and well worth a visit.

Fishing

Voyageurs is home to 84,000 acres of water, so as you can imagine, the fishing opportunities within the park are exceptional. You can find walleye, bass, northern pike, and Muskie, just to name a few of the species you can find in the lakes of Voyageurs. Namakan is nationally known for their northern pike population. Fishing licenses are required and strictly enforced.

Stargazing

Voyageur’s remote location allows for incredibly clear nighttime skies. The views of the Milky Way and  other constellations are unforgettable, and if you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Stargazing is a great way to get back in touch with our roots, and Voyageurs offers that opportunity.

Take a boat tour

Voyageurs offers a number of different boat tours around the various lakes of the park. These tours are a fun and educational experience, allowing you to see the sights of the park without putting in any of the effort yourself! There are a number of different options for boat tours. The park itself operates the Amik tour boat from Kabetogama Lake, and the Voyageur tour boat on Rainy Lake. These boats can be booked in advance, and are handicap accessible. There is also the Kettle Falls Cruise, which runs from 9 am to 4:30 pm. With this tour, you get to visit the Kettle Falls Hotel and stop for a picnic lunch. It does not operate every day, and costs $50 for children and $25 for adults. Finally, there is the Grand Tour, which runs from 2 to 4:30 pm daily. This cruise is available for only $30 for adults and $15 for kids, and offers a brief, but still rich taste of the park. The tour stops at Little American Island to see artifacts from the gold rush.

a kayaker paddling through Voyageurs National Park
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Wildlife

The Boreal Forest brings with it not only a diversity of tree and plant species but also a unique array of wildlife.

The park is home to more than 100 species of birds, including eagles and loons, and more than 50 species of mammals, including moose, beavers, and wolves.

Moose

Voyageurs is home to an abundant boreal forest, and is located in the outer portion of the moose’s range in North America. This is one of the only national parks in the lower 48 states where you might catch a glimpse of one of these majestic animals. They are the largest mammals found in the park, and the sight of one is truly awe inspiring. The Kabetogama Peninsula has the largest population of moose in the park, so this area may be your best chance at seeing one. During the summer, the best place to spot a moose is along the Cruiser Lake Trail. They can also be found by beaver ponds in the early morning. There are approximately 40-50 moose in the park at any given time which has remained constant since the late 1990s. This is a relatively low population compared to eastern Minnesota and Ontario, which have better habitat for these animals.

Moose stand at a height of over six feet on average at the shoulder, and weigh nearly 1,000 pounds. They are perfectly suited for the harsh Minnesota winters. They have long legs for walking in deep snow, and their dark coats help them absorb the sun on the days that it does shine. Male moose have wide antlers and a flap of skin beneath their throats, known as a bell. This makes them easily distinguishable from females.

The moose population in Voyageurs has been stable since 2009, which is different from the rest of Minnesota. This makes the moose population in the park an interesting research subject for scientists. From 2009 to 2013, researchers fitted 22 moose with GPS collars, and took measurements and blood samples from these moose. The GPS collars allowed researchers to see patterns in movement and landscape use, to better understand why this population has remained constant. This is a subject of interest because the future of moose across Minnesota is uncertain. Forest changes and other changes associated with climate change are projected to limit habitat for moose in this state.

Beaver

Beavers have been around since the very beginnings of Voyageurs National Park, and have played a role in its formation! During the mid-1700s, French Canadian voyagers made their way through the waters of what is now the park, to trade beaver furs trapped by the Ojibwe Indians. They are still abundant in the park today, and use their creative talents to make their presence known. If you come across a lodge, dam, or branches that look chewed, chances are a beaver is in the area.

Beavers, rather than simply settling in a habitat, will alter their surroundings to meet their own needs. They will dam rivers and streams with incredible feats of constructions in order to create ponds to raise their young, and build their lodges. These lodges are made of sticks and mud, and have one underwater entrance to deter predators. There are hundreds of beaver-made ponds in the park. Moose love these ponds, and a number of water birds also make their homes there. Beavers are most likely spotted along the park’s lakes near the shore, and sometimes can be seen cutting down trees near the water edge. If you venture past the water, you might be able to see active beaver lodges, which are identified by peeled logs across the top of the lodges and fresh mud coatings. Black Bay Beaver Pond Trail, Locator Lake Trail, and Cruiser Lake Trail all pass by beaver ponds.

The combination of water and forest habitat in Voyageurs makes the park an ideal location for these mammals. There is a very healthy beaver population in the park, and their presence has been constant for many years. There was a complete census of beavers in 2000, which placed the population at approximately 3000.

Beavers have a number of identifying characteristics, including large, orange teeth which allow them to cut down trees, and scaly paddle shaped tails. These tails act as a rudder while swimming, a warning to intruders when slapped, fat storage, sweat glands, and a kick stand to prop themselves up. Adult beavers weigh on average between 35 and 55 pounds.

Beavers play a vital role in the ecosystem of the park, making them a key species of interest to researchers. In particular, understanding population status and distribution of the species throughout the park is of vital importance. Every fall, researchers capture individual beavers and ear tag them, so they can be identified the following year. Age and dispersal are two key factors that can be gleaned from these ear tags.

Black bear

The American Black Bear is one of the many animals that reside in the park. Black bears today are often found in highly forested, mountain regions, which are sparsely settled by humans. The main consideration for black bear habitat seems to be inaccessible terrain, thick vegetation, and large amounts of food. The current range of this species is constant throughout the Appalachian mountains. Their population has been stable or increasing over the past few years, and it is estimated to be between 339,000 and 465,000.

American black bears, despite their name, have a wide range of different colorations. Their fur can be white, blonde, cinnamon, brown, and jet black. Some can even be silvery grey, although these mainly occur along the coast of Alaska. Their fur is dense and soft. Female black bears have more slender and pointed faces than their male counterparts. Males typically weigh up to 551 pounds and females weigh up to 375 pounds.

These bears are dexterous. They have been shown to be capable of opening screw-top jars, and even successfully opening door latches. They are very strong, and are capable of maneuvering weights up to 325 lbs. They have better eyesight and hearing than humans, and their sense of smell is seven times more sensitive than a dog’s. They are very strong swimmers, and use this to their advantage when swimming. They also climb trees, to feet, escape enemies, and sometimes even to hibernate.

Black bears mainly forage by night, although they can be active at any time of day or night. Black bears who live close to humans tend to be more nocturnal than others. They are highly territorial towards other black bears, although they can coexist in areas with abundant food sources. When this happens, a power hierarchy forms, with the most powerful males taking the best spots.

Double-crested Cormorant

Voyageurs is home to a diverse range of water birds. One notable species is the double-crested cormorant. The many lakes, numerous fish species, and rocky islands are a perfect habitat for this bird. There are several large colonies of cormorants on Rainy Lake, and they can be spotted feeding, either alone or in groups, or sunning themselves on rocks.

Cormorants are easily spotted during the mating season, when their blue eyes, bright yellow throat pouch, and feather tufts make them difficult to miss, and easily distinguishable among other bird species. During the rest of the year, they have dark brown or black plumage with iridescent highlights. When fully grown, they measure anywhere from 29-36 inches long, and weigh around five pounds.

Cormorants are very populous within Voyageurs. The population is surveyed through identifying known colonies and taking count of active nests. In 2013-2015, there were approximately 864 pairs of nesting cormorants. There is often a great deal of variation in the actual population, as not every bird is suitable for nesting, and thus is left out of the count. There has been a decline in eggs that hatch and young that survive to the fledgling stage in recent years. There have been a few colonies that do not nest at all. This is a crucial subject for researchers in the park. They conduct a survey each breeding season, and a second survey later in the summer to determine number of hatches and number of fledglings. There is one factor known to contribute to this decline, which is the presence of bald eagles nearby. Research is still being conducted into this decline.

Cormorants have garnered a bad reputation among fishermen for the past century, and are seen as having a huge appetite, and competing with local anglers. However, new research is coming to light to help clear these incredible birds of this reputation. It has been discovered that much of their food source is perch, minnows, and young game species, meaning they are not in competition with anglers looking for game species.

a frog in the dirt in Voyageurs National Park
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Plant Life

Voyageurs has a unique environment that allows it to play host to a diverse range of plant life

The park is home to over 50 tree and shrub species, over 40 fern and moss species, over 200 grass, sedge, and rush species, and over 400 wildflower species.

Spruce

Voyageurs is made up of a large boreal forest, which contains spruce, fir, and aspen species. Spruce trees are large trees, usually ranging from 60-200 feet in height, that are found in northern temperate and boreal regions. They have whorled branches and are conical in shape. They have unique leaves among the pine families, which are four sided and attached to small peg-like structures. Their cones are also unique among the genus, as they have no protracting bracts, and hang downwards after pollination. They shed needles when they are between 4 and 10 years old, and have smooth branches. Spruce trees play a vital role in the ecosystem of  a boreal forest. They are used as food plants by some moth and butterfly species, and by some larvae species as well.

Fun fact- a spruce tree may be the world’s oldest living tree. Scientists discovered Norway spruce in the mountains of western Sweden that is believed to be 9,550 years old! This tree is nicknamed Old Tjikko.

Fir

Fir trees are a second crucial species in the boreal forests. Fir is a broad term for a genus of 48-56 species of evergreen, coniferous trees. Fir trees are found throughout much of North America, and generally grow in mountains. The name is derived from Latin, “to rise”, which refers to their immense height. Fir trees can reach anywhere from 33-262 feet in height, and can have trunk diameters anywhere from 1 foot 8 inches to 13 feet wide. These trees are distinguishable from other pines through their needles, which are attached to their branches with a suction-cup like base. Their cones are unique as well, which stand upright on their branches and disintegrate when they reach maturity. Different fir species may have different sizes and arrangements of leaves, different shapes and sizes of cones, and different types of cone scales, which can help identify which fir species you are looking at.

Aspen

The third type of tree in the makeup of the boreal forests are aspen trees. Aspens are medium deciduous trees that can reach 49-98 feet tall. They are native to cold regions with cool summers, and are generally found in the northern hemisphere. They can grow in southern regions if the climate is right, usually in high altitude areas like mountains. Aspens are often referred to as “quaking aspens” in North America, due to the movement of their leaves in the wind. Aspens thrive in environments with large populations of coniferous trees, and with few other deciduous tree species. They have several adaptations that allow them to thrive in these environments. These include a flattened leaf petiole, which reduces drag during high winds, protecting the branches and trunks from damage. They also drop their leaves in the winter, preventing damage from heavy snows that are common in these regions. They have photosynthetic bark, which allows the tree to grow even without leaves!

Aspens have a unique rhizomatic root system, which means that they grow in colonies derived from a single seedling. The colony expands through root suckers, allowing new trees to grow anywhere from 98-131 feet away from the original tree. The root system lives longer than any individual tree- while a tree may live from 40-150 years, the aspen root systems can endure for thousands of years under the right conditions. A healthy aspen root system is often indicative of ancient woodlands. There is one colony in Utah, called Pando, that is believed to be 80,000 years old, possibly the oldest living aspen colony. These root systems allow the colonies to survive forest fires, due to the roots being below ground.

Aspen seedlings have difficulty growing in the shade, and a new seedling can have difficulty growing in an already established colony. Aspens are a popular forestry cultivation species, due to their fast growth and ability to regenerate from sprouts.

Recently there has been a phenomenon known as “sudden aspen death”, which is the rapid decline of aspen populations in certain areas. There are a number of factors which may contribute to this phenomenon. Climate change is one, due to exacerbated droughts and modified precipitation patterns. Overgrazing can also contribute, as it prevents new trees from coming up from the root system. Replacement by coniferous trees can also pose a challenge to aspens.

Aspen bark is a crucial host for bryophytes due to its base rich nature. They also act as food plants for butterfly larvae. The bark is a seasonal forage for the European hare and other animals, especially in early spring. Beavers, moose, deer, and elk also feed on this tree, both the bark and the leaves.

Red Maple

The red maple, which is also known as the swamp, water, or soft maple, is the most abundant native tree eastern North America. This deciduous tree has a wide range, from southeastern Manitoba around Lake of the Woods, to Newfoundland, to Florida, and even to eastern Texas. There is a wide variety of appearances, from leaf color especially, depending on location.  At maturity, these trees are usually approximately 100 feet tall. They have varying shades of red leaves, flowers, and seeds, and the foliage turns a brilliant scarlet color in the autumn.

The red maple is a very adaptable tree, which explains its wide range and prominence in North America. They can grow in swamps, poor, dry, soils, and pretty much anywhere else in between. They can survive at altitudes from sea level to 3,000 feet with no issue. They are beautiful trees, and are often used in landscaping. It can also be used for maple syrup production and for high quality lumber. Due to its survival ability, this tree can be nearly invasive, and can disturb the ecosystem of more easily disturbed forests.

Berries

Voyageurs has a substantial population of berries, including strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, which are all plentiful and delicious! Berries provide an important food source for many different animal species throughout the year.

Wildflowers

The park holds over 400 different species of wildflowers, which paint the landscape in vibrant color throughout the year. Flowers begin to bloom with the violets in early spring, and continue to grow and thrive throughout the summer and early fall.

berries on a vine
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Park History

Voyageurs National Park has a rich history, from the park’s first inhabitants, to the traders that gave the park its name, to the formation of the park in 1975, the history of the park is a truly magnificent journey

Here are a few of the most important moments in the history of this national park.

An Overview

Voyageurs National Park’s namesake, the French voyageur, first made their way into the bounds of the park over 250 years ago. They traveled these waterways to participate in the fur trade route. Anyone traveling through the waterways of the park can get a glimpse of what these travelers first saw. Before the park was formed in 1975, there were over 10,000 years of human inhabitants in the area. Native Americans, fur traders, homesteaders, loggers, miners,  and commercial fishers all took residence in the bounds of the park before its formation.

The First Inhabitants

The first inhabitants of the land arrived nearly 10,000 years ago, during the Paleo-Indian period. The land was inhabited as a result of the waters of glacial Lake Agassiz receding. The lake covered 110,000 square miles, and spanned the land that is now Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Ontario, and  Saskatchewan. The area was inhabited during the Archaic Period and the Woodland Period. During the Archaic Period, the people followed a hunter gatherer lifestyle, while in the Woodland Period, they increased use of wild rice and began to fashion arrows. There are over 220 pre-contact archeological sites within the park. Some of these have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Seeing these sites is a reminder of the original inhabitants of the park, and a chance to learn about history. These sites are protected by law, so please remember to admire the items and sites with your eyes only!

The Voyageurs

The Voyageurs were a group of French-Canadian men who undertook the task of transporting beaver pelts east. There was an increased demand for pelts in the European market, and fewer furs available in the east due to overhunting. The voyageurs, during this transport, were essential in opening the Northwestern United States. They took a route from Grand Portage to the Lake Athabasca region, during which they passed through what is now Voyageurs National Park.

They carried their goods using canot de nord, or North Canoes. These canoes were originally fashioned by the Ojibwe people using birch bark, cedar, spruce resin, and watap (spruce roots). They were 25 feet long, four feet wide, and weighed approximately 300 pounds. The voyageurs also traded with the Ojibwe tribe to restock on supplies for the journey, including rice and smoked fish.

The voyageurs traveled together in a group of North Canoes known as a brigade. Each brigade had one clerk, as well as those operating the canoe, usually a crew of 4-6 men. The canoes could carry up to 3500 pounds, which included 25-30 bales of cargo. Traveling through this route, and through what would become Voyageurs National Park, put the area on the map in a very historic way.

Settlement

The Minnesota wilderness was a significant attraction to many people, including health seekers and vacationers. After the Voyageurs, recreational fishermen and hunters began visiting the area in the 1800s. In the 1880s, wealthy tourists created a market for resorts and summer homes in the area. The first developed area in the parks bounds was Rainy Lake. The lakeside became home to prominent businessmen, who built their summer homes along the beautiful shores, and on the islands and peninsulas of the lake. These businessmen became known as the “Rainy Lake Aristocracy”.

Even during this time of development, recreation to this area was still relatively low. The Voyageurs National Park area was still fairly inaccessible, and remained so throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The height of travel was always in the summer, as the water access was more difficult and less enjoyable in the winter. The Kettle Falls hotel was the first seasonal lodging, built to accommodate visitors on the steamboat route from Kettle Falls to Rainy Lake City and Crane Lake.

The hotel was constructed in 1910, and is still running today. Development continued until the establishment of the national park in 1975, during which over 60 resorts, 97 cabins, and 120 privately owned properties. Many people sold their property to the U.S. government upon the formation of the park, though some opted to retain their tenancy. As the properties were vacated, the park removed many structures, in an effort to restore the natural properties of the park. There are 20 properties that the National Park Service will retain and upkeep due to their historical significance.

the entrance sign to Voyageurs National Park
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How Voyageurs Was Formed

The geological formation of Voyageurs is a story of eruption, uplift, and superheating

The geological features of the park influenced the park’s history, even very recently, with the 1890’s gold rush. Here is a brief timeline of the geological formation of the area that is now Voyageurs.

The Formation

Voyageurs National Park has a highly unique landscape, which includes exposed rock. This exposed rock is the southern edge of the volcanic bedrock. This forms the core of North America, and is from the birth of the continent. The rock you see and touch is half the age of the earth. Years and years and years ago, a series of volcanic explosions deposited layers of ash and lava on the landscape. These eruptions were followed by a period of uplift, folding, pressure, and superheating, which resulted in the creation of igneous and metamorphic rocks. Eventually, erosion wore away at the volcanic range, and the glaciers of the ice ages came to make their own contribution to the formation of the landscape. The glaciers moved rivers of ice and destroyed younger rock lawyers, exposing the roots of the mountains. The roots are made of granite, migmatite, and biotite, and can still be seen in the park today. The glaciers eventually receded, and created melted water which filled the lower elevations of the park. This melt is responsible for the lakes and bogs that make Voyageurs so unique.

The Gold Rush

The oldest rock in the park is estimated to be 2.8 billion years old. Fault zones in the park exposed a greenstone that revealed gold embedded in quartz veins. The discovery created the short lived gold rush of the 1890s, which brought in many newcomers to the area. Many of the descendants of the newcomers still make their homes in the area surrounding the park.

the sun coming over a horizon at Voyageurs National Park
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