Experience Unique Outdoor Water Adventures At This Underrated Midwest National Park

As America's heartland, images of the Midwest are dominated by sprawling prairies, robust agriculture, and welcoming communities. Most tourists head to its vibrant cities, like Chicago and Minneapolis, or charming small towns. Despite boasting gorgeous lakes and rivers, the Midwest is less well-known for its water-based vacations. While the Great Lakes get their fair share of attention, another gem hidden in this vast region offers a water adventure like no other: Voyageurs National Park. 

This breathtaking park is nestled in Northern Minnesota and hugs the Canadian border. It covers over 218,000 acres, with around one-third comprised of water. In Voyageurs, you can canoe or sail through interlinking lakes, wetlands, and streams, hike in northern hardwood and southern boreal forests, and discover 2.8 billion-year-old rocks.

Despite its many scenic attractions, Voyageurs is one of the least visited national parks in the U.S., attracting just over 221,000 visitors in 2022. For comparison, Zion National Park covers 146,597 acres but received almost 4.7 million visitors in the same year. Though disheartening, the absence of crowds at Voyageurs National Park makes for a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the visitors who make it there.

Water adventures in Voyageurs

One of the main reasons to visit Voyageurs National Park is to get out on the water. There are a ton of ways to do this, from boating and canoeing to fishing and houseboat rentals. The park has four main lakes — Rainy, Namakan, Kabetogama, and Sand Point — all connected by smaller waterways. You can bring your own boat or rent one in the park. You can also take a guided tour of some lakes and rivers. 

One of the most unique ways to explore the park is by renting a houseboat. These boats allow you to explore the farthest reaches of the park and stay overnight (you must have a permit for this) along the picturesque shoreline. If you're a novice boater, don't worry; navigating the waters on a houseboat is easy and a slow-paced, delightful way to see the park. You can canoe and kayak in the park, but some visitors warn against it. User cat_likes_pizza in the subreddit r/duluth wrote that canoeing is impractical as most people have larger boats, and the lakes are enormous.

Beyond the water in Voyageurs

Fishing is also a popular activity in the park. You'll need a license, and once you have one, you can cast your net for species like Smallmouth Bass and Northern Pike. There are an average of 120 ideal days in Voyageurs from June to September, so summer is the best season to spend time on the water. One unexpected thing about Voyageurs is that it's known as a bit of a party park. Redditor u/thoughtsturnedof confirms this in the same subreddit and notes that the bars, group campsites, and boats contribute to this exciting atmosphere.

Voyageurs National Park isn't only about the water. People come here to hike, go wildlife spotting, birdwatching, and stargaze. Blind Ash Bay Trail is a 2.9-mile loop that takes you through some of the park's boreal forest and gives you excellent views of Kabetogama Lake. It's also a good trail for birding and wildlife sightings. For another scenic hike, hit the Echo Bay Trail, which passes through wetlands and forests and is an excellent trail for spotting local birds. 

Nighttime and winter adventures

At night, the park transforms. Voyageurs is an International Dark Sky Park. This means that it gained certification from the International Dark Sky Association for its starry nights, dark skies, and low levels of light pollution. This means stargazing here is exceptional, and there is a good chance of seeing the Milky Way in summer, and the Northern Lights are sometimes visible. The park runs Star Parties at certain times during the year — check the site for details. The sunsets in Voyageurs are pretty stunning, too, so the park does offer a 24-hour experience.

Voyageurs doesn't shut down for the winter, either. You can go skiing and snowshoeing on dedicated trails in the park or take a snowmobile out on the 110 miles of trails there. The daring can drive their cars on the park's ice roads, which cut across Rainy Lake and Kabetogama Lake, while families can enjoy tamer pursuits at Sphunge Island Sledding Hill. And finally, fall is a special time to be in Voyageurs (really, there's no bad time!). For a glimpse of the area's beauty during fall, check out this video from "More Than Just Parks."