Weekend Getaway: Voyageurs National Park
Craft a post card of Minnesota and it would likely look like the Voyageurs National Park region, with shimmering lakes and forests, world-class fishing and boating, and miles of trails across wilderness waiting to be explored.
- Best Bets
- Things to Do
- Where to Eat
- Where to Stay
- When to Go
- Getting There
Voyageurs National Park Region History
The region’s history dates back 10,000 years, when early cultures traveled the area’s waterways to hunt, fish and trade. The first people to settle in the area likely arrived around 100 A.D., as evidenced by archaeological sites that dot the landscape. More than 220 archeological sites have been documented throughout Voyageurs National Park, including a number of sites now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the 1500-1600s, the area was occupied by the Dakota people, and then the Ojibwe, who came to the area around the 1700s. Around the same time, the first voyageurs arrived – French fur traders who traveled the waterways carrying goods to trade with Native peoples for furs. They named two of the area’s waterways Rainy Lake and Rainy River, likely after the word meaning “it always is raining” in the Cree language. The Ojibwe likely also called the area “Ouichichick,” meaning “at the place of the inlets.”
By the late 1800s, the fur trade had declined and European settlers arrived in the area. Around this time, a gold strike in northern Minnesota brought about a gold rush in the area that is now Voyageurs National Park. A park was first proposed there in 1891, but it would take until 1971 for federal legislation authorizing the park to be signed into law.
In 1901, a village was incorporated and two years later it was given the name International Falls, because of the town’s location on the U.S.-Canada border.
During the early 20th century, the town grew around logging and paper. Industrialist EW Backus recognized the potential for water power and was the first to build a paper mill in the area, which was then purchased by Boise Cascade in 1965.
The area’s history centers on its connection to the water, and it’s those same interconnected waterways that attract visitors to the area today. Voyageurs National Park remains the nation’s only inland water-based park, preserving the prized waterways and areas history for generations to come.
Voyageurs National Park Region Best Bets
- You can’t plan a trip to the area without a visit to Voyageurs National Park, a true MN gem. Rent a boat and explore the lake, or better yet, get a houseboat and stay the night.
- Sign up for a boat tour at Voyageurs National Park. Explore the park’s former gold mines and learn about the area’s wildlife and history.
- Check in to the Thunderbird Lodge and spend an afternoon fishing with one of its guides. Take a boat ride to the Kettle Falls Hotel to explore the historic hotel and enjoy a meal.
- Dock your boat at Sha Sha Resort, a popular summertime destination, to enjoy dinner, drinks and entertainment.
Things to Do in Voyageurs National Park Region
Spending time in Voyageurs National Park is on the must-do list, with world-class fishing, miles of shoreline and more than 1,600 islands to explore. The park is a boater’s paradise, and is dotted with lakeside resorts, restaurants and recreation areas and camping sites accessible only by boat.
Voyageurs encompasses four major lakes – Rainy Lake, Kabetogama, Namakan Lake and Sand Point Lake – as well as about 30 smaller lakes, and they are known for their walleye fishing as well as northern, smallmouth bass, crappie. Unlike the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, motorized boats are allowed on these lakes. But the narrow waterways connecting the lakes also provide a top destination for canoeing and kayaking.
If you’re a novice or want to learn the best fishing spots, hire a local fishing guide. Several area resorts offer licensed guide services in each of the major lakes, and numerous local guides are available. Contact your resort or lodge for recommendations. Many experienced guides provide the boat, tackle and shore lunch for full and half-day trips.
Learn about the park’s history and wildlife on one of several guided boat tours offered at the park. Or explore life as a voyageur on the park’s 26-foot North Canoe.
Visit the park in the winter to enjoy ice fishing, skiing on 7 miles of groomed trails, snowshoeing on 6 miles of trails and snowmobiling on 110 miles of trails. The park also maintains a 7-mile-long ice road that starts at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center.
Outside of the park, explore the Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway, Minnesota’s northernmost scenic route stretching 191 miles along the Canadian border. Its name refers to the aurora borealis, or northern lights, which can be spotted regularly in this far-northern location. A drive along this scenic route passes towns and landmarks including Franz Jevne State Park and the Basshenge sculpture garden featuring 21 string bass steel sculptures, all the way to Baudette, Lake of the Woods, Warroad and Roseau, for the adventurous traveler. At points along the route, it’s possible to see the showy lady’s slipper, the Minnesota state flower, as well as an wildflowers throughout the summer.
In town, take a tour of the International Bridge and stop into Fort Frances, Canada, for shopping, dining and a chance to say you traveled internationally on your vacation! On your way back, pick up a souvenir at Border Bob’s gift store.
In International Falls, play a round of golf at the 18-hole Falls Country Club golf course, take a picture with Smokey Bear at Smokey Bear Park, and visit the Koochiching Museum & Bronko Nagurski Museum. The museums hold a range of local artifacts recognizing the town’s history during the voyageur, gold rush, and logging eras.
Where to Eat in Voyageurs National Park Region
Thunderbird Lodge: Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a full bar, Thunderbird Lodge offers fine dining, including steaks and walleye, ribs, chicken and pasta. Its Lounge menu includes hamburgers, sandwiches, soups, salads and pizza, along with a full appetizer menu. During the summer, dine out on the deck
Sha Sha Resort: The casual bar and grill serves lunch and dinner daily. Its menu includes sandwiches, burgers, salads, and a kids menu. Sandwiches include pulled pork and hand-breaded walleye, served with homemade kettle chips. Dine on the extensive deck, or enjoy the large bar during top sports games.
Ice Cream at Tara’s Wharf: Enjoy a waffle cone, float, milkshake or sundae along Rainy Lake. Tara’s also serves hold and cold sandwiches, cheese and snacks.
Where to Stay in Voyageurs National Park Region
Thunderbird Lodge: A year-round resort on Rainy Lake, Thunderbird offers lodging, dining, a marina and fishing guides. Choose from a lodge room or one of 11 cabins for rent, including wifi, private cabin decks and BBQ grills at cabins. Its on-site restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a full bar. And its marina offers fish cleaning and guides during summer and winter months, as well as ice houses in the winter.
Sha Sha Resort: This seasonal resort offers eight cabins on Dove Island in Rainy Lake. Named for Chief Sha Sha who used to hunt and fish in the area, the resort offers boat and canoe rentals for guests to explore the lake. It’s dock is also a popular spot for boaters to stop for lunch or dinner – its restaurant is open seven days a week, featuring walleye, hamburgers and Long Island ice tea from its hand crafted red wood bar.
Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats: Voyagaire operates the largest houseboat fleet in the Midwest from its location on Crane Lake, where it has operated for more than five decades. Its boats accommodate from two to 12 guests, and may include private staterooms, a hot tub, grill and a water slide. Some boats are air conditioned. In 2013, it built a lodge to accommodate guests who prefer to stay the night on land and those who visit in the winter. The 14 rooms and suites are Northwoods style and include private baths. Some suites include kitchens and a lake view.
Kettle Falls Hotel: The only hotel within Voyageurs National Park and accessible only by water, the Kettle Falls Hotel offers a unique historic stay. The hotel offers 12 rooms with three shared bathrooms, as well as villas with air conditioning and kitchenettes. Breakfast, lunch and dinner is served in the dining room and enjoy a drink at the hotel’s Lumberjack Saloon.
Island View Lodge and Cabins: The seasonal resort on Rainy Lake offers 15 cabins or lodge rooms, and includes a full-service marina, lounge and gift shop. Fishing guides are available and the resort welcomes pets for an additional fee.
Camping in Voyageurs National Park: Experience Voyageurs the way its earliest visitors enjoyed it by spending the night. The park has 270 sites for houseboat and tent camping, as well as day use within the park. All sites are accessible only by water, and those arriving without a boat can reserve a watercraft at the park for day or overnight use. Group camp sites are available.
When to Go to Voyageurs National Park Region
Summer: Outdoor recreation in Voyageurs is second to none, including boating, fishing, swimming, canoeing and kayaking, hiking and birding. Visit in July for the annual International Tug-of-War against Fort Francis, Canada.
Winter: The region is a top destination for ice fishing and snowmobiling, with miles of trails across frozen lakes. Several resorts in the area offer ice house rentals, gear and guides. Who wouldn’t want to be able to say they’ve visited the “Icebox of the Nation” in the winter?
From Minneapolis, take 169 North to Mille Lakes. Take Hwy 6 to 71, into International Falls.
From St. Paul, take Hwy 35 to Cloquet. Take Hwy 33 to 53, which will take you straight to International Falls through the Iron Range.
Each route is about 300 miles from the Twin Cities.
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