Want to make the most of a visit to Voyageurs National Park? For much of the year, you'll need a boat, but winter can offer some exceptions.
Water is a big deal at Voyageurs—nearly a third of the park's 218,054 acres are water, and the area includes 30 lakes, more than 500 islands and 655 miles of shoreline. The park website points out this "is a water-based park where you must leave your car and take to the water to fully experience the lakes, islands, and shorelines of the park."
This is also northern Minnesota, and during the heart of the winter, all that water takes on a very different character. "Winter brings cold to northern Minnesota, transforming the park into a glittering land of ice and snow. Visitors to the park enjoy snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing during this special time."
The winter season also offers visitors a unique experience—they don't have to leave theirs cars to take to the water. The park's two ice roads make it possible to drive a car to the vicinity of several of those islands that are normally only accessible by boat.
One current TV show features Ice Road Truckers, but travel on the ice roads at Voyageurs is intended for everyday park visitors, not big rigs. This is an area with some serious winter, but most of the locals don't let the cold keep them from enjoying the beauty of this season. Not everyone is interested in snowmobiling, however, so the park has developed a pair of ice roads to offer access to part of the area by private passenger vehicles.
Kathleen Przybylski is the park's Public Affairs Officer. She notes, "Both ice roads in the park give visitors the opportunity to see the park in its winter splendor from the comfort of their warm car. The ice roads provide access for snowshoers, skiiers and general explorers who want to see more of the park in the winter, but do not snowmobile."
People from warmer climes may wonder what it's like to drive on the ice, so I asked Ms. Przybylski to describe the trip. "Traveling on an ice road is a unique experience," she says. "Although it feels strange to drive down the boat launch and onto the ice, within a mile or two it feels like a normal road with a few more small bumps."
Ms. Przybylski says you don't need special tires or other unique equipment for your vehicle to make the trip. The ice road is wide enough to allow for parking along the edge and for two-way traffic. Visitors are allowed to pull off to the side of the plowed road and park their vehicles, so they can go snowshoeing, skiing, or ice fishing…or just enjoy a view of the winter landscape.
Don't have your own gear for winter foot travel? Snowshoes in a wide range of sizes and shapes are available for loan free-of-charge during regular visitor center hours. The park, the International Falls Community Education Department and the Friends of Voyageurs National Park have also partnered to offer cross-country ski rentals at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center.
There are a large number of adult-sized skis, poles and boots available during regular visitor center hours for $5.00 a day. Children's skis, boots and poles are available free of charge during regular visitor center hours. Call the Rainy Lake Visitor Center at (218) 286-5258 or (888) 381-2873 for availability.
If you'd like to give ice road driving a try, where can these routes take you? The Rainy Lake Ice Road extends for seven miles from the boat launch ramp at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center to a point just west of Diamond Island.
This year, favorable ice conditions and local interest led the park to add a second ice travel route. According to the park,
"The Dryweed Island loop adds an additional six miles of ice road, and leaves the Rainy Lake Visitor Center at the boat ramp. The Dryweed loop runs north to Big American Island and around the north side of Dryweed Island. Then it turns south and rejoins the park's main ice road just east of Bushyhead Island."
You can download a map from the park website to locate these landmarks.
The routes may be adjusted slightly based on current conditions, and a few basic rules apply: The ice roads are open to cars and trucks of less than 7,000 pounds gross vehicle weight; the speed limit is 30 miles per hour; and snowmobiles are not permitted on the ice roads. There are ample opportunities for snowmobiles elsewhere in the park.
Is driving on the ice safe? Ms. Przybylski says, "The National Park Service follows strict rules about ice depth and ice quality in determining when the ice road is safe to open for travel. When heavy snow, slush, or thin ice exists, the ice road may be closed or shortened for safety." Visitors are cautioned not to travel beyond the plowed section—such trips are unsafe.
The park recommends travel on the routes during daylight hours—it's just prudent to avoid the risk of getting stranded in a cold, dark and remote location. The park website notes, "The intent of the ice road is for day use enjoyment of the area." Backcountry camping is allowed in the park during the winter, and parking alongside the ice road overnight to go camping is allowed—"but discouraged for the long-term (more than 3 nights)."
Ms. Przybylski points out that "conditions may change while people are camping (i.e. drifting, warming, need to plow around vehicles). Anyone who goes camping in the park needs to fill out a free overnight permit. These permits are available at the boat launch or in the visitor center. I highly recommend that people planning to park overnight on the ice road for a short overnight stay should go into the visitor center and inform park staff of their plans."
That's prudent advice for any backcountry trip, but doubly so in a place that features Minnesota-style winters.
If you'd like to experience a drive on the ice roads at Voyageurs during the current season, don't wait too long. It's impossible, of course, to predict the weather, but the ice roads usually close around the middle of March.
Voyageurs National Park is located approximately five hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul and three hours north of Duluth. You'll find driving directions and other information to help you plan a visit on the park website. A Winter Activities page includes details on winter ice and trail conditions and things to do in the park.