62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and drove off. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
Pennington is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep themselves and others safe. She visits new parks and adheres closely to best safety practices.
My toes curled against the cool, white plastic of the water slide as I moved dangerously closer to the smooth surface and a steep five-foot drop in Lake Kabetogama in northern Minnesota. It was a hot and sticky July afternoon in Voyageurs National Park and I was frozen solid, my hands clutching the guardrails and unable to let go. “I am scared!” I yelled down to my partner who laughed and filmed the whole effort for my future embarrassment. “Just do it!” he yelled back.
I decided not to let fear dictate me. I let go of my grip, slid down the slope, and dropped feet first into the surprisingly warm water of the lake. Somehow I felt at home. Swimming naked later in the afternoon In a secluded cove fenced in by boreal forests and lichen-encrusted boulders, the best possible medicine was for my Scandinavian soul.
The patchwork blanket of lakes and forests that stretches approximately 150 miles from Lake Superior to Voyageurs National Park is known as the Boundary Waters and is a popular retreat for canoe campers and anglers. Voyageurs, named after the French word for “traveler”, served as an important waterway for both the Ojibwa and the French-Canadian fur traders in the 18th century. Today it is bordered by a number of neighboring natural areas that form a wilderness reserve that spans both sides of the international border and extends over a million acres and includes nearly 1,200 lakes.
(Photo: Emily Pennington)
Since Voyageurs is one of the few water-based national parks in the system, I wanted to explore it in a new way. My partner and I rented a houseboat loaded with groceries and were soon sailing around a vast expanse of sapphire water with islets. For three nights we had our own portable cabin on floats, a comfortable ship perfect for getting away from the stress of the city as much as possible.
After my run-in with After the waterslide, we boarded the motorized boat that came with our houseboat and set out to find Ellsworth Rock Gardens. We zoomed in on islands not much larger than suburban houses, navigated awkwardly over a 13-mile stretch of open water, and stopped frequently to read and reread our map.
Eventually we arrived and took time to stroll through the maze of simple rock sculptures and tiger lilies that the self-taught Jack Ellsworth built and planted in the north during his two decades in the summer from the 1940s. The National Park Service has been run by the local community since the 1990s and helps maintain this historic outdoor art garden. It’s a magical place to spend an afternoon. We had a picnic in the grass near the entrance and spread out in the fabulous sunshine.
In the early evening we drove back to our floating apartment and watched the clouds glow neon pink like electric flowers. I felt delicately sewn between stars and land, full of earthen treasures that only time outdoors can offer. I felt alive.
62 parks travelers travelers info
Size: 218,200 acres
Place: Northern Minnesota
Created in: 1975 (national park)
Best for: Boating, fishing, bird watching, star gazing, canoe camping
When to go: Summer (49 to 79 degrees) is by far the best time to visit the park. Autumn (16 to 65 degrees) brings cooler temperatures and measurable snow at the end of October. In spring (12 to 67 degrees) the average ice leak date for lakes is May 3rd. Winter (minus 8 to 22 degrees) is best left to locals with snowmobiles.
Where to sleep: Local customs should be followed. Houseboats give you the best location in the country at Voyageurs and are a great way for families to enjoy the park in comfort. Ebels Houseboats offers fully equipped ships with bathrooms and beds for groups (from USD 345 per night).
Mini adventure: Take a boat tour. If you only have one day in the park, a guided boat trip is a fantastic way to learn about the area’s unique history, flora, and fauna. Although operations have ceased for the 2020 season, the park usually runs excursions from Rainy Lake, Kabetogama, and Ash River.
Mega adventure: Canoe camp around Boundary Waters. Experience the park as explorers did 250 years ago by renting a canoe and reserving one of the park’s many front-country or back-country areas. Drift through lush forests of spruce and paper birch before mooring near your own private island.
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Main photo: Emily Pennington