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How to See Voyageurs National Park

“We’re almost to Canada!” I exclaimed as we entered International Falls, a quaint paper mill town bordering our neighbor to the north. Forty minutes later we turned into a gravel lane leading to the Woodenfrog Campground, part of the Kabetogama State Forest. This was our first time camping outside a national park while visiting it, but so close you could throw a stone into the prominent vein of Voyageur’s National Park: Kabetogama Lake.

Water plays the central role here, and we recommend checking out this map to see the myriad of lakes and waterways. The voyageurs of old navigated these waters to trade for beaver pelts with the Native Americans, hence the name.

How do you see this magical place?

Voyageurs may seem a bit tricky for those of us without a boat, and if we could visit again we’d do things a bit differently. So we want to take the insights learned from spending a week in Voyageurs – it’s well worth it – and let you know how to see this glimmering land where eagles fly free.

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Below we highlight two options: #1 For car campers and #2 For backpackers


1. Car campers

Whether you have a small RV, prefer camping out of your car, or just don’t like backpacking, we’ve got some great ideas for you.

Camp in Woodenfrog Campground

It’s not the only campground around, but after doing our research and staying here, we liked it the best. It’s in a good central location to reach different parts of the park.

Dock at Woodenfrog Campground on Kabetogama Lake
Dock at Woodenfrog Campground on Kabetogama Lake

Day Trip ideas from Woodenfrog:

1. Explore Kabetogama Lake via Canoe

Woodenfrog is right on the lake and minutes from the Kabetogama Visitor’s Center where you can learn even more about the park. Here you’ll want to purchase a detailed topographic map for $11, at least it helped us a lot.

You can rent a canoe for about $25 a day from one of the many small resorts next to the campground (We can recommend Arrowhead Resort). There’s plenty to see, so you might want to rent the canoe for two days. Check the weather though, that lake can get choppy!

Canoe Day Trip 1

On your first day of paddling, explore around the islands closest to the campground. Bald Eagle Island was our favorite, and yes there was actually an eagle on it when we paddled up. The eagles seem to love these islands so chances are you’ll see many. Jump in the lake for a cool swim (watch out for leeches).

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Paddling on Kabetogama Lake

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Pulling the canoe out on Bald Eagle Island
Pulling the canoe out on Bald Eagle Island
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From the top of Bald Eagle Island

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There are many inlets and coves to paddle into from Kabetogama Lake
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Keep an eye on the weather – you don’t want to be on Kabetogama in a canoe when the northwest winds pick up
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Here the lake is calm and smooth

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Flower from the Ellsworth Rock Garden

Canoe Day Trip 2

On day two of paddling, you could make your way down to the Ellsworth Rock Gardens. The gardens were created by Jack Ellsworth over a period of 20 years and feature fairytale-like paths through carved stone sculptures, flowerbeds, and stone formations. It’s quite a paddle to get there so check the weather. We were lucky to go out on a calm and sunny day with no wind to speak of.

Canoe Day Trip 3

If you’re up for a third day of paddling and want to do some hiking, head up to the Locator Lake Trailhead and hike two miles in to see Locator Lake. Roundtrip 4 miles hiking + good paddling = you deserve s’mores around the campfire that night.

2. Rainy Lake Visitor’s Center

At Rainy Lake you can see a giant replica of a moose, play checkers, see exhibits and take part in ranger programs. We recommend the North Canoe Trail. You’ll get to see rangers dress like true voyageurs and paddle with others in a replica of the canoes they used. On your way back, detour a few minutes into International Falls for a treat at the Coffee Landing Cafe. Amazing, and a good place to get some work done.

3. Ash River Hiking + Water Taxi to Cruiser Lake Trailhead

You could spend a few day trips around the Ash River Visitor’s Center – we used two.

a. Hike the trails on the mainland, they are enchanting and offer views of the lake through fragrant trees. The visitors center is smaller here, but it’s a good opportunity to get your stamps and chat with a ranger.

b. Hire a water taxi service to take you about 20 minutes across to Kabetogama Penninsula and Cruiser Lake Trail. Now, if you’re very ambitious you can hike the whole length up to Rainy Lake, but keep an eye on your time. We hiked a total of 17 miles along the trail that day (there and back), beginning at 7 AM and making it back at 7:30 PM, stopping for a few breaks along the way. It’s a long day but quite a beautiful hike. At the end you’re rewarded with a refreshing water taxi ride back at sunset.

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The forests are lush with different types of vegetation
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Cruiser Lake Trailhead in Lost Bay, Kabetogama Lake

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Forest along the Cruiser Lake Trail
Forest along the Cruiser Lake Trail
Islands in a bay of Rainy Lake
Islands in a bay of Rainy Lake, north end of Cruiser Lake Trail
View of Rainy Lake, north end of Cruiser Lake Trail
View of Rainy Lake, north end of Cruiser Lake Trail

2. Backpackers

If we ever visit this park again, here’s how we’d do it: backpack between campsites along the lakes and islands.

It takes a little more planning because you must reserve campsites online, but it’s well worth it. Simply choose an empty campsite, add it to your itinerary, and add as many as your time allows. Just be sure to keep an eye on distances between campsites. Check out the screenshot of this map:

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All the little black dots are campsites you can reserve via recreation.gov, about $20 each + a $10 fee

Go out as many nights as you and your pack can handle – rent a canoe – bon voyage!

We’d love to start around Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center, head left and go all the way around the lake. Imagine sleeping out on an island all to yourself. You can also choose sites on the Rainy Lake side in the north section.

TIPS:

  • Bring a ton of bug spray protection – my eucalyptus and lemon oil concoction didn’t work here – so get a body net. The mosquitos and flies in early August were BAD.
  • Plenty of sunscreen. Even cloudy days on the lake can get you.
  • Telephoto lens. If you’re into photography at all, make the sacrifice to carry extra weight by bringing a good lens that can handle distance. You’ll be rewarded with some majestic wildlife.
The voyageurs of old played a game similar to checkers, so we did the same from Woodenfrog campground by Kabetogama Lake
The voyageurs of old played a game similar to checkers, so we did the same from Woodenfrog campground by Kabetogama Lake
Enjoy epic sunsets
Enjoy vibrant sunsets

However you decide to visit Voyageurs National Park, we hope you’ll make it up to this area and discover it for yourself.

Not only is it rich with wildlife, it feels like a sacred place just far enough off the beaten path to allow for a silent retreat. Even the sound of motorboats disappears when you paddle far enough away from the mainland. Become like a voyageur and make it an adventure to connect with self, water and land.

We’ve given some ideas on how to see the park, but how you truly see it is entirely a personal voyage.

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