Voyageurs National Park encompasses 218,000 acres in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. Composed mostly of lakes and interlacing channels, it can seem like one of the most remote, rugged places on earth. It’s also one of the most strikingly beautiful destinations in the U.S.. In winter, this magnificent wonderland’s vast lakes turn into ice fields, and its towering trees and trails tuck under thick blankets of snow, enticing snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and snowshoers. In summer, when the conifer and hardwood trees showcase green canopies, the lake waters lap gently against their shores and around their islands, and the waters teem with fish, the park becomes a haven for boaters, paddlers, swimmers and anglers. These two seasons are when the majority of travelers come to Voyageurs. But even taking these throngs into account, the park is one of the least visited in the nation and it never loses its ability to preserve a sense of isolation. In fact, the park’s topography, with its meandering bodies of water and hidden coves, all but assure it.
For experiences of truly exquisite silence and peacefulness and for rare views of nature as it first comes back to life after the dormancy of harsh winter head to Voyageurs in spring. Hike the trails to hear the delicate sounds of migratory birds as they arrive and spot budding vegetation. Get out onto the 26 small lakes and four large lakes (Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point Lakes) as they thaw and transform into navigable pathways.
In early spring, from late March to mid-April, focus on the land-accessible trails and destinations. In later spring, from mid-April through May, emphasize water-based adventures. While the park’s exact ice-out times and the things you can see and do in the spring are unpredictable, you can count on the constancy of one extremely special aspect of the park: Voyageurs National Park is a designated International Dark Sky Park and no matter when you visit, the skies here will be deeply dark and the starry views will be incredible. (It also made our list of places in the US to see the northern lights.)
Witness the Awakening in Early Spring — the Quietest Time in Voyageurs
Although Voyageur National Park’s snow and ice are not fully melted in early April, the warmer spring air and more direct sun’s rays remind one that the thaw is well underway. Voyageurs’ has a reputation for only being water-accessible (there are 84,000 acres of water and more than 600 miles of undeveloped shoreline here), but you actually don’t need a boat to explore the park. Early April is an excellent time to hike the land-accessible trails —eight trails that are suited to a variety of skill levels and are reachable by car. Pick up a detailed trail map at one of the three park visitor centers before setting out and bring binoculars with you. You’ll also want to pull over in the gem-like overlooks for awe-inspiring wildlife and lake views.
An easy trail to try out is Echo Bay Trail — a 2.5-mile loop, located three miles from the Kabetogama Lake Visitor Center off Country Road 122, which passes through lowlands and rock outcrops. One of its most unique features is a great blue heron rookery. Those seeking a moderately difficult hike can follow the Blind Ash Bay Trail — a narrow path that winds for 2.5 miles past scenery that will take your breath away. Access the trail at the Kabetogama Lake Overlook, near the Ash River Visitor Center. The longest and most strenuous trail is Kab-Ash Trail, a 28-mile system connecting the communities of Kabetogama and Ash River. Hike sections of it using the four trailheads or get broad exposure by hiking the entire trail.
You’re not likely to see others’ footprints along the trails, so attune yourself to the forest while walking — to the sounds of a robin’s song, scampering squirrels, bits of ice dropping and the lake’s surfaces cracking as they thaw. Note the lime-colored leaves that have started making an appearance.
The park overlooks involve easier treks. The Beaver Pond Overlook, which involves a 30-minute, 0.2-mile (one way) moderate hike, offers a view of an abandoned beaver pond, wonderful birding and bear and moose-spotting opportunities, too. Kabetogama Lake Overlook incorporates an easy 20-minute, 0.2-mile (one way) walk and provides a westward view over Kabetogama Lake, replete with vistas of islands and boreal forests.
- Visit the Ethno-botanical Garden Trail, which features an Ojibwe Indian camp and a native plant garden.
- Access the first ¼ mile of the Oberholtzer Trail by wheelchair just outside the Rainy Lake Visitor Center; it offers a stunning encapsulated view of the park’s diverse forests and wetlands.
- Get views of Rainy Lake on the Rainy Lake Recreation Trail, a broad, paved 1.75-mile path leading from highway 71 to the entrance of Rainy Lake Visitor Center.
- The Kabetogama Lake Overlook walk is wheelchair accessible.
Late Spring Experiences in Voyageurs
Gordon Hempton, aka The Sound Tracker, has described silence not so much as an absence of anything but a rich presence of everything. You might sense the lovely truth of this poetic take when you visit Voyageurs in late spring from mid- to late April and into May. At this time of year, the waterways are rapidly thawing, which means that snowmobiling and its attendant sounds have disappeared, but huge numbers of motorized boats haven’t yet begun filling the air with their particular din. Instead, sounds of birds, frogs and toads and rippling waves of the cold-water lakes dominate, like music in a concert hall. Hempton, who has recorded the distinctive cries of loons while paddling in Voyageurs, reminds us that nature’s sounds, if really heard, are deeply rejuvenating.
If you visit Voyageurs in mid-April, when the waterways have thawed enough to provide open access to the lakes, bring your own boat, canoe or kayak; rent locally; or book a boat tour with an experienced guide (there are many outfitters around Voyageurs) to enjoy the crystalline waters and boat-accessible hot spots. Booking a wildlife boat tour will likely let you spot new-born fawns and other animals, such as moose.
Don’t miss the Ellsworth Rock Gardens on the south shore of the Kabetogama Peninsula. The gardens were built in the 1940s by artist Jack Ellsworth on a rocky outcrop featuring 62 terraced flower beds and 200 abstract sculptures. Spring might just be the best time to visit the gardens. Why? Because 13,000 lilies burst in bloom all at once! And then there’s the most photographed area of the park: Anderson Bay. Exposed white granite cliffs rise 80 feet from the water, offering up knockout views of the bay and Rainy Lake. Both of these sites are only accessible by water.
You may decide to camp during your spring outing. All campsites in Voyageurs are only accessible by water, but there are also drive-up sites for tents, RVs and car campers near the park’s borders. Another amazing lodging option for you to consider: renting a fully outfitted houseboat that lets you explore with all the comforts of home.