We enjoyed our time in the Dakotas, visiting Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park (which my kids have since deemed their favorite), and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but we were so ready to move onto the National Parks of Minnesota! Minnesota is my home state, so of course I felt especially connected to these parks.
You likely have noticed that we love to boondock. We carry 60 gallons of water with us in our tanks, and have solar panels to charge batteries – so it doesn’t bother us to not have hookups every night. Plus, we love going out of the way to be in less-visited areas. However, it was really hard for us to find free camping spots close to Voyageurs. We did stay in Chippewa National Forest on the way out, but decided to stay at an RV Campground for a few nights so we could be within easy driving distance to the park. We stayed at Arnold’s Campground in International Falls, Minnesota. We parked next to a family with super kind, awesome kids who (though they were older than our kids), we loved having as neighbors. The town of International Falls had a nice library, a few fast-food options, gas station, and a dollar store. It was about 25 minutes away from the Rainy Lake Visitor Center.
When we moved down to the Kabetogama Visitor Center, we stayed in a boondocking spot near Elephant Lake.
Our first day in International Falls was a Sunday, so we visited the small Latter-day Saint congregation that met in their town. It was the smallest congregation I had ever attended! Our 3 kids doubled the size of their primary. We also visited the Rainy Lake Visitor Center to pick up the kids’ Junior Ranger pamphlets. This visitor center was awesome and we spent over an hour there, and would have spent longer if they weren’t closing. It has a fun museum area, a film to watch, coloring pages out for the kids, and a checkers board. It was just cozy and welcoming. While at the Visitor’s Center, we learned that the Park offered FREE canoe tours on a traditional 26-foot long North Canoe for anyone ages 5 and up. Sadly, however, they needed to be reserved in advance, and I had missed our chance. If you’re heading to Voyageurs, be sure to check out their scheduled tours + programs here, and also know that this Visitor Center is closed from late September – late May.
The day before, while visiting the church, we had met a woman who lived on an island in Rainy Lake, and her and her daughter and granddaughter invited us to visit their home and island. We met them in town, and followed them out to the lake, where we parked our cars on the side of the road. The three of them met us with their personal boat, and drove us over to their island. They chatted with us about that time of year, in between seasons, where you could neither use a boat nor walk across the ice – so people just didn’t leave their homes during this in-between phase. “Sometimes we walk across the ice and fall through. That’s a cold that you feel clear into the next day,” they told us. We ate lunch with them, and then they invited us back onto a different boat (Minnesotans love their boats!), and the boys got to try tubing for the first time!
We (Adam and I) made the mistake of letting them get on the tube together, and forgot to give them much of any instructions. This meant that before we could even get going, they were leaning too far forward on the front of the tube, and splash! – the tube had dunked them into the water. Axton let go of the handle, but Rhenner held on for dear life, getting dragged under and then popping back up with it. Both of them were screaming within one second of getting their breath back and neither of them wanted to EVER TUBE AGAIN! But, being the mean parents that we are, we forced them back out onto the tube (this time they each took a turn with Adam), to show them what tubing actually is supposed to look like.
Because we missed the chance to take a free guided canoe tour, we decided to pay for a real boat ride with a ranger. The next available tour wasn’t for a few more days, so we found ourselves with some spare time. We left our little RV campground and our awesome new friends, and headed for some more remote areas…This is how we stumbled upon Orr, Minnesota and their cute little dock + playground. We showed up here at 9 o’clock at night, and I couldn’t keep the kids away. We spent the entire next day there, and then came back for a third visit. We stayed overnight at this playground one night, not realizing that it was right next to the traintracks. Yeah….we didn’t sleep too well that night and didn’t make that mistake again. We found another boondocking site at Elephant Lake. The bugs were ginormous and unrelenting, but the views were stunning.
We finally made it to the end of the week when our boat tour to Kettle Falls departed. Being out on the water, we felt like we were finally experiencing the park the way it is supposed to be explored! We regretted not having our own modes of transportation out on the water, and vowed that if ever we returned to Voyageurs National Park, we would do so with a canoe or kayak. The park has tons of primitive campgrounds on numerous islands around the water. They are free, but you do need to reserve them in advance. The only way to get to these campsites is via water.
Our tour was amazing! The ranger and captain stopped at 4 or 5 different eagle nests, and we scouted out eagles, loons, and gulls.
Our boat stopped at the Historic Kettle Falls Hotel, where you can still spend the night. All staff at the hotel and restaurant stay on the island, because once again, the only way to get to it is via boat. After eating a freshly caught fish fry at Kettle Falls Hotel, our ranger took us on a short hike to see the nearby dam. On the way back, he passed around a book that was written by a man who lived in a cabin by himself on an island on Lake Kabetogama for over 40 years. He took daily notes on the weather, animal sightings (including a black bear knocking on his door), and what he did that day. I was completely enthralled with what his life looked like out on this lake, and what drew him to life at Voyageurs.
We chatted with a lot of friendly people while in the park, and many of them suggested we take our family to Vermillion Falls. It was a very short hike with a pretty view, and the dogs and kids enjoyed throwing rocks and dipping our toes in the water.
Next time: We would leave the dogs at home, bring our own kayaks or canoes, and paddle out to a campsite on an island.
Check out our other recent adventures: