Blog Post Nicolas Brulliard Jan 30, 2018

A National Park Where You Can Drive Your Car on a Lake?

One national park in the Lower 48 includes just a few short access roads, but for a couple of months a year, park officials allow visitors to drive their vehicles directly on two of the park's lakes. Can you name this park?

Water constitutes more than 40 percent of Voyageurs National Park’s acreage, and roads into the park end at the visitor centers, each located on the shore of a large lake. So visitors who want to fully experience the northern Minnesota park’s vast wilderness of islands and boreal forests must leave their cars at the parking lot and board a canoe, motorboat or tour boat.

This all changes in the winter, when the park’s lakes are frozen solid and visitors can drive to the edge of the water — and keep on driving.

Each winter, park staff maintain two ice roads that — at least in terms of miles — actually make Voyageurs more driver-friendly than in the summer. One leads from the Rainy Lake Visitor Center to the north end of the Kabetogama Peninsula and offers access to a network of cross-country ski trails (visitors can borrow snowshoes and cross-country skiing equipment for free at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center). The other connects the Kabetogama Lake and Ash River Visitor Centers by way of a groomed sledding hill on Sphunge Island.

The roads are wide enough to allow two-way traffic and let people park their cars on the side. They total about 16 miles, but the lengths and routes vary from year to year and during the season as ice conditions change.

Driving on ice is not out of the ordinary for Minnesotans. For 24 years, one man took it upon himself to plow an ice road across the St. Croix River (another national park site) from North Hudson, Wisconsin, to Bayport, Minnesota, to shorten his and other grateful drivers’ commutes. Every winter, once the ice fishing season starts, a whole community sprouts on Mille Lacs Lake in the center of the state, complete with heated icehouses, plowed roads and pizza delivery.

Most locals know what they’re doing, but mishaps do happen, especially when the weather warms and the ice thins and cracks. A towing company that recovers vehicles in lakes statewide said it takes about six hours to recover a fully submerged vehicle, including an hour and a half to cut a hole in the ice and about 45 minutes for a diver to hook chains onto the vehicle.

Some take ice car driving to the extreme, racing at speeds up to 60 miles per hour on loops plowed in the middle of lakes. But of course, nothing of the sort is tolerated at Voyageurs, where speed is limited to 30 miles per hour (braking distances are longer on ice), and the roads are there to give visitors access to part of the park’s peaceful and quiet winter wonderland (park staff also maintain snowmobile trails, but most of the park is only accessible on skis or snowshoes in the winter). Fishing is one of Voyageurs’ most popular activities in the summer, and it remains so in the winter. People who icefish, though, must drill holes at least 50 feet away from the ice road.

Before you venture out to Voyageurs, check out the ice roads’ and ski trails’ conditions on the park website. The roads usually close sometime in March.

About the author

  • Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor

    Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.