In the late 1700s and early 1800s, French-Canadian canoemen, called voyageurs, played a vital role in the fur trade. These voyageurs paddled up to 16 hours a day and portaged hundreds of pounds of goods (along with the canoe) transporting beaver pelts and other items roughly 3,000 miles to Montreal. Our Voyageurs National Park itinerary allows you to learn more about this historic waterway system that, today, is a beautiful and serene outdoor playground.
While the history of this land plays an important role in its preservation, the scenery and solitude it provides are what draws people in. Located in northern Minnesota, right on the Canadian border, this is one of the most remote parks in the contiguous United States. And the unspoiled beauty of the land is something you don’t find often.
Fun fact: much of the US-Canada border follows the path of the voyageurs.
With our three-day itinerary, you’ll have time to visit each of the park’s mainland areas, learn more about the historic voyageurs that the park is named for and get out on the water.
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Getting to Voyageurs National Park
Getting to Voyageurs National Park really is not all that difficult, as long as you’re ready for a road trip. Actually exploring the park does take some advanced planning, though. That’s because roughly 40% of the park is water. And getting to much of the land area requires a boat. Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of options if you don’t have your own boat.
The gateway city for Voyageurs National Park is International Falls, MN. With a population of about 5,800, it actually is not quite as big of a city as I expected it to be. Still, it is a decent-sized town with a grocery store, a few restaurants and basic supplies. There are also a lot of lodges and resorts right around the park.
You can drive directly to International Falls. While there is an airport there, it is very small. It’s probably best to drive in from Duluth (about 3 hours) or Minneapolis-St. Paul (about 5 hours), if you are too far to drive from home.
We drove up to International Falls from Yankton, SD, where we were visiting the Missouri National Recreational River, overnighting at Maplewood State Park along the way. I have to say, the entire drive through Minnesota was gorgeous and very relaxing.
The park itself consists of three mainland areas that can be reached by car. Additionally, there are more than 30 lakes, the two largest being Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake. All of these waterways seem to merge together in and around the Kabetogama Peninsula and countless islands and marshes of various sizes.
These other land areas can only be reached by boat.
Things to Do in Voyageurs National Park
This really is a water-based park. Thus, the most popular things to do in Voyageurs National Park include boating and fishing. To truly experience the park, you really do need to get out on the water. You can do that on your own boat or with a ranger-led or private guided boat tour. Honestly, I would say that doing a guided boat tour is an absolute must-do for all visitors to Voyageurs National Park.
Additionally, there are a few hiking trails, both on the mainland, the Kabetogama Peninsula and on some of the islands. There are also a few islands with historic buildings and old mines. One island even has a rock sculpture garden that you can explore.
Camping is another popular activity and the park maintains roughly 270 boat-in campsites. While you, technically, can paddle to some of these sites, many are a long way from the nearest boat launch. Thus, having a motorboat provides you with greater access to camping and exploring the many remote areas of the park. Note: there are shuttle services available for those who want to camp but don’t have a boat.
Finally, one of the most popular things to do at Voyageurs National Park is explore by houseboat. In fact, some campsites are specifically designed for houseboats. I have to say, I think this would be a truly unique and epic way to enjoy the park! Alas, it wasn’t in the cards for us this time but maybe we’ll return and rent a houseboat one day.
Where to Go in Voyageurs National Park
The three mainland areas at Voyageurs National Park each have a visitor center: Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake and Ash River. Of these, Rainy Lake is the closest to International Falls, just a 15-20 minute drive east of town. Here, you’ll find the park’s only year-round visitor center, which is also its largest.
Kabetogama Lake is a bit farther southeast (about 30-40 minutes from town). Ash River is just about 15-20 minutes east of that. Both have a small, seasonal visitor center. Kabetogama Lake is mostly used as a boat launch and dock. There are also a number of private resorts and lodges nearby. Ash River is a larger area. It, also, has a boat launch along with a couple of hiking trails.
Finally, there is a ranger station at Crane Lake, which is roughly 1.5 hours southeast of International Falls. We did not visit that area as it is not technically part of the national park.
One of the most popular destinations in the park is Kettle Falls. At Kettle Falls, you’ll find the Kettle Falls Dam and a hotel with a dining room and a very quirky bar. Seriously, you have to check out the bar, even if you don’t want a drink!
Some of the other popular destinations include the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, Harry Oveson Fish Camp, the gold mine on Little American Island, and I.W. Stevens Island, where Stevens operated a small resort and lived year-round for nearly 50 years.
Our Three-Day Voyageurs National Park Itinerary
Since we were visiting Voyageurs National Park with our RV, we camped on the mainland and relied on boat tours to see the majority of the park. Over our three days inside the park, we spent one day exploring the Ash River area, one day at Rainy Lake and one day on a boat tour to Kettle Falls from Kabetogama Lake.
For us, having three days at Voyageurs National Park was just about perfect. Could we have spent more time out on the water exploring? Absolutely. But, in this amount of time, we were able to stop at all three visitor centers and take one tour of Rainy Lake and one of Kabetogama Lake, including a visit to Kettle Falls. For us, that seemed like a fairly comprehensive visit.
We actually had a fourth day in International Falls but we spent it doing laundry and catching up on work (these posts don’t write themselves). Over the years, we’ve found that having an extra day allows us to slow down and enjoy the journey a bit more. It also provides an opportunity to reschedule any tours that might get canceled due to rain or other circumstances.
Of course, there are many different ways to spend three days at Voyageurs National Park. If you have your own boat, want to do some tent camping or enjoy the luxury of a houseboat, those are all great options.
Finally, you can easily move around the activities and days on our Voyageurs National Park itinerary. Some tours are only offered on certain days, so adjust as necessary, depending on tour availability.
Day 1: Explore the Rainy Lake Area and Take a Ranger-Led Boat Tour
The Rainy Lake Visitor Center is the largest of the park’s three visitor centers and the only one open year-round. It is also the starting point for several of the NPS boat tours.
At the visitor center, you’ll find a small exhibit area. This includes information on the Ojibwe (the Native Americans who the voyageurs traded with), the historic winter ice roads and some of the wildlife in the area. As usual, there is also a small bookstore. Of course, this is also a great place to ask a ranger any questions you might have about exploring the park.
Just outside the visitor center is a large dock for boat tours. There is also a boat launch for anyone who wants to take their own boat out on the water.
Voyageurs National Park Grand Tour
We chose to do the Grand Tour, which provides a tour of Rainy Lake and information on the cultural history of the area. You’ll also look for and learn about wildlife along the way.
This 2.5-hour tour makes a quick 20-minute stop at Little American Island. There, you can explore on your own or listen to the ranger talk about the short-lived gold mining operations of the 1890s. On the island, you’ll find a 1/4-mile accessible walkway that takes you past a couple of old mine shafts and out to an overlook.
Back on the boat, we continued our tour east on the lookout for bald eagles, loons and other wildlife. We passed by another old mine and the Harry Oveson historic commercial fishing camp, which operated into the 1980s. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stop here, but there is a dock for those with their own boat.
Overall, the boat tour was a relaxing way to see Rainy Lake and learn more about the park’s history. While the ranger on this tour did mention the voyageurs, the narration focused more on the mining, fishing and geology of the park.
Reservations for this tour (and other park tours) must be made in advance at recreation.gov. All reservations for the summer season are available starting at 9:00 am on April 15, annually. Of course, this is subject to change, so be sure to check the park’s website for current information.
Note: this tour is a combination of the park’s Discovery Tour and Gold Mine Tour. Either of those would be good options if this one is unavailable.
Day 2: Visit the Ash River Area and Enjoy a Hike
Even though the Ash River Visitor Center is fairly small, there really is quite a bit to do in that area. In the summer, you’ll find a ranger-led interpretive canoe tour. There also are two different boat launches – one for canoes and kayaks and another for motorized boats. Finally, there are a few hiking trails and overlooks.
As you drive in from the highway, you’ll pass several turnouts for overlooks. The Beaver Pond overlook is the one that we recommend stopping at. While we didn’t see any beavers, we did see a beaver lodge and a few birds. Visiting early or late in the day will likely provide the best opportunities for wildlife viewing.
Inside the visitor center, you’ll find a small store with shirts, stickers, magnets, books and other park souvenirs. You can also watch the short, 12-minute park film (just ask a ranger).
One of the best views in this area can be easily reached with just a short walk behind the visitor center out to a point. This is also where you will find the all-important Voyageurs National Park sign! As this is primarily a water-based park, the only park sign is here, right on the water. Thankfully, it’s easy to get a picture of the park sign from land (or from a boat).
Ash River North Canoe Voyage
One of the best ways to learn about the history of the park and the voyageurs it is named after is through the park’s Ash River North Canoe Voyage. Reservations are available on recreation.gov. Note: be sure to search Voyageurs National Park Special Interpretive Programs to find this tour.
The program begins with rangers dressed in period costumes, telling a bit about the French-Canadian voyageurs and the hundreds of pounds of goods they transported across the continent. While this program is a little hokey, it is also an interactive and interesting way to learn about these people and the effort it took to transport these goods.
From there, you’ll get a safety briefing and some basic information about paddling before piling into the large 12-person canoe. The canoe is a modernized version of what the voyageurs used as they paddled these waters more than 200 years ago.
The actual paddling part of the program only lasts about 30 minutes. That said, it was a lot of paddling and the kids on our tour tired quickly. This is because the rangers are doing their best to show you just how hard the voyageurs actually worked. It is not a leisurely sightseeing paddle.
While we enjoyed this program, it wasn’t exactly what we expected. We were hoping for a little more paddling and exploring. In reality, it’s more about learning the history and how difficult the journey was for the voyageurs.
Overall, though, it is an interesting program that truly brings to life the history of the park.
Note: This program is also available at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center.
Hike the Blind Ash Bay Trail
Even at a water-based park, we always like to find a hiking trail, if there is one. There’s just something about stretching your legs and getting off the beaten path that we really enjoy. At Voyageurs National Park, the Ash River area is a great place to do just that.
The Blind Ash Trail turned out to be a great hike for us. This 3-mile lollipop trail starts near the Ash River Visitor Center and takes you through the forest to Blind Ash Bay. At the beginning of the hike, you’ll have a few glimpses of water through the trees. From there, you’ll travel inland until you reach the bay.
When you get to the loop part of the hike, we suggest that you veer to the left. This will avoid a steep uphill and saves the best views for last. As you first approach Blind Ash Bay, you’ll be fairly close to the water. There are a couple of places where you can walk down and take pictures or just enjoy the solitude.
As you continue around, counterclockwise, you’ll reach a high point. This view is what makes the hike worth the moderate effort. Take time to enjoy the view, snap a few pictures and take it all in.
Overall, the trail is moderately difficult. There is quite a bit of up and down, but nothing too strenuous. Still, the rolling hills are fairly constant adding up to a total of about 500 feet of uphill. Thankfully, though, the trail is shaded pretty much the entire time, so at least you don’t have the sun beating down on you.
It’s also worth noting that the trail is quite covered with roots and rocks, so you’ll definitely need to watch where you step.
If you don’t want to do a hike quite this long, you could stop a the Forest Overlook that is along the main entrance road. Here, you’ll find a 0.5-mile trail through the boreal forest. We actually skipped this trail since we had already done a longer hike. But, it looked like a good alternative for a shorter trek.
Day 3: Kabetogama Lake and Kettle Falls Boat Tour
The Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center is another small, seasonal visitor center. Again, you’ll find a few exhibits on the wildlife and history of the park. Here, we watched a park film that focused on the historic voyageurs. This film is dated but did a great job of depicting the harshness of their daily life. Note: I would guess that both park films are available at all three visitor centers, but I can’t say for sure.
There’s really not much else in this area, other than the boat launch. And, that’s where we met for our tour to Kettle Falls.
We originally had a tour to Kettle Falls scheduled with the National Park Service. Unfortunately, they had to cancel our tour due to limited staffing. Thankfully, we were able to find a private tour to take instead. Honestly, though, I think it worked out for the best.
On the private tour, we got a few extra stops that were not included on the park tour. Additionally, it was nice to be on a small boat and really get to interact with the captain and get to know the other guests a little. Finally, our private tour was a little more flexible with the timing, allowing us to join in on an unexpected ranger tour at the rock garden. Yes, this means you should not make set dinner plans!
Kettle Falls Boat Tour
The historic Kettle Falls Hotel, located right on the US-Canada border, is the only lodging within Voyageurs National Park and is only accessible by boat. It is also one of the most popular destinations within the park for day trip visitors.
We met Captain Paul at the Kabetogama Visitor Center. Our tour consisted of just 8 adults and 1 child. It was super relaxed and friendly, with Paul slowing down or stopping periodically to tell us personal stories and park history all throughout the journey.
Our first stop was the Ellsworth Rock Gardens. Jack Ellsworth and his wife spent their summers here, where he worked on this garden from 1944 to 1966. The rock garden sits atop a large granite outcrop and all sculptures are made from rocks he found around the island.
Be sure to pick up a brochure with information as you walk ashore. As mentioned previously, we lucked out and happened to be there right as a ranger-guided tour was beginning. I could not find that this was advertised anywhere, so you might want to ask ahead of time if anything is scheduled.
The second stop was I.W. Stephens Island. This remote island was Stephens’ year-round home for nearly 50 years. He also welcomed guests at the Pine Cove Resort from 1937 to 1959. While here, you can tour a couple of historic buildings and learn more about life on this remote island.
Kettle Falls Hotel
Finally, we made it to Kettle Falls! Construction of the Kettle Falls Dam and the nearby hotel started around 1910. The small dam (along with its Canadian counterpart on the other side of an island) was built by the logging industry to raise the level of the lake, making it easier to get logs out of the area.
The hotel was, reportedly, financed by Madame Nellie Bly. As such, the rooms were sparsely decorated as they really were used for just one thing and let’s just say there, typically, wasn’t a lot of sleeping involved…
Just a few years later, Robert Williams bought the hotel for $1,000 and four barrels of whiskey. It’s been in business as a hotel ever since. Today, the rooms are used by legitimate overnight guests but it is my understanding that the rooms are still very basic. This truly is a place you go to get away, not for luxury!
Also at the Kettle Falls Hotel, you’ll find a dining room, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner for both overnight and day-use guests. We’ve heard that the Wild Rice Soup is fantastic but we opted to just hit the Lumberjack Saloon for a drink and a snack.
Whether you are interested in getting a drink or not, you should definitely pop into the bar. I don’t want to spoil all the fun, but let’s just say that the bar has “settled” with the hotel over time. And, the artwork pays homage to the hotel’s sordid beginnings.
Still, the saloon has a decent beer selection, with both local and well-known options. Additionally, it has a full bar. Its signature drink is the frozen “pink drink,” which is simply frozen vodka and pink lemonade. I’ll just say, it may not be fancy, but it is good! And dangerous. Seriously, I had to stop myself from just gulping it down like it was a Slurpee from the 7-11.
In terms of snacks, they offer either a cream cheese or a jalapeño stuffed pretzel. We opted for the jalapeño, which was not at all spicy but definitely tasty. If desired, you can grab a drink at the bar, then head over to the dining room for a full meal.
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Kettle Falls. The boat tour itself was absolutely perfect, even if we did get a little wet at times. The Kettle Falls Hotel really is a blast from the past. No frills, just basic accommodations in the middle of nowhere. I could definitely enjoy coming here for a few days to escape!
Note: the NPS offers tours to Kettle Falls from both Ash River and Rainy Lake. Additionally, there are a number of private companies and lodges that offer group tours or private charters. We found our tour with Captain Paul through a Voyageurs National Park Forum Facebook group. You can also find a list of the approved concessionaires on the park’s website or check with someone at your hotel or campground. We were able to make the reservation for our Kettle Falls tour just a few days in advance. Of course, the sooner you book, the more options you are likely to have.
Voyageurs National Park in the Winter
Just like many northern national parks, Voyageurs National Park is very different in the winter. The lakes freeze over, turning this summer boaters’ paradise into a winter wonderland.
In the winter, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing are popular activities. There are also a couple of ice roads. I have to say, that is an idea that is both intriguing and terrifying for me!
Visiting Voyageurs National Park is absolutely possible in the winter. That said, it will be a much different experience. Personally, I would love to visit in the winter but I think you probably get a better idea of the park, initially, in the summer.
If you are interested in a winter visit to Voyageurs National Park, check out the park’s website to know what to expect before you start planning.
Where to Stay at Voyageurs National Park
International Falls makes for a great base for visiting Voyageurs National Park. You could also check in the tiny little town of Ranier, which is just east of International Falls.
Oddly, there aren’t many big chain hotels in the area, but there are a few local options. You will also find a variety of private lodges, resorts and campgrounds in International Falls and Ranier.
We chose to camp at the Rainy Lake RV Park, which is about halfway between International Falls and the Rainy Lake Visitor Center. This is a relatively small campground that sits right on the water. In fact, it even has several boat docks. That makes it popular with locals – it is obvious that many guests are long-term/seasonal residents.
Overall, we enjoyed this campground. The sites are well-spaced apart for a private campground and offer a picnic table and fire pit. The biggest downside is the lack of a bathroom, not great cell service (AT&T) and spotty WiFi.
In our book, Moon USA RV Adventures, we also recommend The Pines of Kabetogama Resort (a private campground with full hookups) and Woodenfrog Campground (a state park with primitive sites). We haven’t actually stayed at either one, but both looked interesting from our research.
Of course, if you really want to get away for a few days, you could also stay at the Kettle Falls Hotel. The hotel will help you arrange transportation if you do not have your own boat. Staying at Kettle Falls or renting a houseboat are both something we would like to do on future visits!
Where to Eat and Drink in International Falls
I’m going to be honest, we really weren’t overly impressed with the dining options in International Falls. In fact, we didn’t recommend any restaurants in our book, other than the Lumberjack Saloon at Kettle Falls.
Still, we did eat out a couple of times and discovered one gem that you should definitely check out.
Sammy’s Pizza and Tavern
We ended up at Sammy’s Pizza Tavern after our Kettle Falls tour. After a long day on the water, we just didn’t have it in us to cook anything! The menu includes a variety of pizzas, strombolis, pasta and sandwiches. You can sit in the dining room or in the tavern.
To start, we decided to finally try some traditional poutine fries, a Canadian staple. I have to admit, there’s something about fries topped with cheese and gravy that doesn’t really sound all that appetizing. But, it actually did work and we both enjoyed it.
In terms of meals, Grant opted for a stromboli and I kept it simple with a cup of Chicken & Wild Rice soup and a dinner salad. The soup and salad were ok but nothing to get excited about. Grant did enjoy the stromboli, though.
This is a solid option if you are staying in a hotel or just need a night off from grilling at your campsite. But, I wouldn’t say eating here is a must.
Located in the tiny town of Ranier, the Cantilever Distillery is a hidden gem that you should definitely check out. The distillery and restaurant are located on the bottom floor of the Cantilever Hotel.
We each started with a flight – the aged spirits for Grant and clear spirits for me. Each flight consists of three tastings, two from their Woody’s label and one Cantilever. Grant’s flight included a rye whiskey, an Am-Can blend and bourbon. His favorite of these was Woody’s Rye. Later, he sampled the Cantilever Rye, which is, ultimately, what we bought a bottle of.
My flight included two different gins and vodka. I don’t typically sip straight vodka or gin, so it’s a little difficult to compare to other labels. Still, I really enjoyed both from the Woody’s label. We ended up getting a bottle of vodka for friends. I restrained from buying a bottle of gin that day. But, when we spotted it in a liquor store near Minneapolis, I decided to grab a bottle.
In terms of food, we had the smoked salmon dip to start. Then, Grant had the Torta al Pastor and I opted for the Pan Seared Lake Trout, which was served with Greek-style potatoes. We later found out that the executive chef is Greek and the sous chef is Hispanic. That definitely explains the fantastic flavors that we both found in our meals.
Finally, the cocktail menu here is absolutely phenomenal! The bartender stayed busy all night and was cranking out drinks left and right. The menu includes some unique offerings, such as a Smoked Lavender Old Fashioned.
We highly recommend stopping by to at least check out the spirits and enjoy a cocktail. And you certainly can’t go wrong with the food, either! Reservations are recommended and can be made on their website.
Nearby National Parks
As a remote park, the term “nearby” might be a bit misleading. Still, Grand Portage National Monument and Isle Royale National Park aren’t too far away and pair nicely with a visit to Voyageurs National Park.
In fact, we originally included a stop at Voyageurs National Park on our Great Lakes trip in 2019. Unfortunately, we had some significant damage to our trailer and had to cut our trip short after leaving Grand Portage, MN.
Grand Portage National Monument
Located on the western shore of Lake Superior, Grand Portage National Monument was a fur trade outpost and hub of trading between the native Ojibwe and Europeans. It is also a great place to learn more about the grueling portage the French-Canadian voyageurs made here.
Before visiting Voyageurs National Park, I really didn’t make the connection between the two sites. Now, it makes complete sense and I am very glad that we made the stop at Grand Portage National Monument several years ago.
The drive between International Falls and Grand Portage is roughly 4.5 hours. Visiting both sites gives you the opportunity to learn about both the canoe voyage and the portage to understand the full scope of the voyageurs.
Isle Royale National Park
Isle Royale National Park is even more remote than Voyageurs National Park. This island park on Lake Superior can only be reached by boat or seaplane. A boat ride will take a minimum of 2-3 hours. Yes, this is where you truly go to get away! We also visited this park in 2019.
Before we even got off the boat, we understood why it is the most revisited national park, even though it is the least visited, in the “lower 48.”
The scenery of Voyageurs and Isle Royale are similar but they certainly are not the same park. Voyageurs is fairly easy to get to; it’s getting around that is more difficult. Isle Royale is harder to get to but, once there, you have a variety of hiking trails and paddling options to easily explore the island.
You can reach Isle Royale from Grand Portage but it’s a really long boat ride to the lodge. If staying at the lodge, it is probably better to leave out of Copper Harbor or Houghton, MI.
Yes, getting to Isle Royale National Park is difficult and somewhat expensive. For the scenery and solitude, though, it’s worth it!
For more information on both of these parks, read our full article on visiting Isle Royale National Park.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Voyageurs National Park
Grant and I both really enjoyed Voyageurs National Park. It is breathtakingly beautiful. And, not crowded (at least not when we visited).
We really enjoyed getting out on the water and just taking in the solitude and scenery. But, without your own boat, you will be somewhat limited in how much you can see.
Still, there are many options for tours or private charters so you should be able to see and do as much or as little as you have time (and money) for.
Our three-day Voyageurs National Park itinerary allowed us to do tours on both of the biggest lakes and explore several of the historic points of interest. We even got to lace up our hiking shoes and hit the trail.
While we do feel like we had a complete visit to the park, we could also see ourselves returning one day to do even more. Staying overnight at Kettle Falls Hotel, spending a few days on a houseboat or even snowmobiling in the winter would all be fabulous.
After visiting 48 “National Parks” and 300 total park sites, it’s great to still find new and interesting places that we’d love to return to!
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