Voyageurs National Park is either home or temporary host for a wide array of wildlife. The makeup of the population changes throughout the seasons, but of the many animals that might be observed in the aquatic and terrestrial upland habitats of the Park, there are over 240 different species of birds, including bald eagles, loons, cormorants, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, osprey, white pelicans, and a myriad of songbirds; 42 species of mammals, including moose, black bears, gray wolves, white-tailed deer, lynx, beavers, river otters, and porcupines; 10 species of reptiles and amphibians, including snapping turtles, blue-spotted salamanders, wood frogs, and red-bellied snakes; 53 species of fish, including lake sturgeon, walleye, northern pike, black crappie, and smallmouth bass; and numerous invertebrates.
The best time of the year for wildlife viewing is mid-spring through early fall. During these months the Park is both a waypoint and an endpoint for a number of migratory birds, and the summer months are when much of the non-migratory wildlife is most visible and active. However, winter in Voyageurs also presents its own unique wildlife viewing opportunities. Though many animals either migrate or enter a state of dormancy to avoid the harsh elements of north woods winters, the presence of others – such as wolves, lynx, snowshoe hare, and deer – can become somewhat easier to discern by the many distinct tracks left in the snow.
Voyageurs National Park has a cool, continental climate with short, warm summers followed by long winters. Average summer highs are 70°F to 80°F and average summer lows are 50°F to 60°F; average winter highs are 15°F to 25°F and average winter lows are -5°F to 5°F. July is generally the warmest month and January is generally the coldest. Average annual precipitation in the park is 24 inches, with the greatest amount of precipitation tending to occur during the summer. In the winter, the lakes are usually frozen from around mid-November through mid-April.
Weather conditions in Voyageurs National Park can be extremely variable, so it is important to always be prepared for a range of temperatures and conditions while visiting the Park. In the summer, storms can rise quickly, making travel on large lakes hazardous. Additionally, though it is rare, summer temperatures have been known both to reach nearly 100°F and to drop down below freezing. In the winter, low temperatures and wind can combine to create conditions of extreme cold. On occasion temperatures can persist below 0°F for a period of a few days and have even been known to dip below -40°F. However, there have also been instances where winter temperatures have reached up to around 40°F to 50°F. Stay especially aware of travel conditions in the winter, as hazardous conditions can arise from thin ice, slippery roads, high winds, and/or heavy snowfall. Current lake conditions and short-term weather forecasts can be obtained at the visitor centers.
Voyageurs National Park is a land defined by its expansive waterways, interconnected lakes, rocky outcrops, boreal forests, extensive wetlands, and big skies. However, the geography of the region today provides only a few hints into the more dramatic history that created it.
Situated on the southern portion of the Canadian Shield, Voyageurs National Park contains the most complete and extensive Precambrian geologic features in the United States. In fact, the rock formations in the park, many more than 2.5 billion years old, are some of the oldest exposed rock in the world.
What is now Voyageurs National Park was born of underwater volcanic eruptions that created mountainous islands rising from a sea that does not exist today. Billions of years of rainwater erosion cut away at the rock to a depth of several miles, effectively leveling out the landscape. However, the unique geography of the park is mostly a product of the region’s comparatively more recent past.
For roughly 2 million years, advancing and retreating glaciers further eroded the land, scouring and sculpting an area that may have previously resembled the Great Plains. What was left behind was the water of melted glaciers and a barren, jumbled landscape of ancient bedrock, polished and marked by glacial striations.
Water from glacial melt filled in the areas of rock gouged out and quarried by glacial ice to create large lakes. 8000 years ago much of the area that is Voyageurs National Park today may have been covered by Lake Agassiz, what is possibly the largest freshwater lake to have ever existed. As portions of the glacial melt drained, land masses of ancient bedrock became exposed and life gradually returned to the region. Lichens, mosses, grasses, and shrubs colonized the surfaces, probably along with modest populations of birds and other wildlife. In turn the decay from these early arrivals produced a layer of soil thick enough to allow the forests in the south to spread north.
The features that define the landscape of Voyageurs National Park today are the product of this long and shifting history.
The plant life of Voyageurs National Park, like the landscape itself, is a demonstration of diversity and change. Vegetation in the Park is primarily mixed forest. The Park is located in an area called an ecotone, which is a transition area between different ecological communities containing species from both. At Voyageurs the shift is predominantly between deciduous northern hardwoods forest and conifer dominated southern boreal forest, although the Park’s array of ecosystem types includes fire-dependent forests, mesic hardwood forests, wet forests, peatlands, fens, marshes, rocky outcrops, and lakeshore environments.
Late spring into early fall is the time to observe the full array of the estimated 900 or so different species of flora that exist in Voyageurs National Park, since winter brings a state of dormancy for most plant life. Pine, spruce, and fir mixed with birch and aspen comprise much of the tree cover, although elm, oak, and maple also occur. Ferns are very abundant throughout the Park, as are aquatic plants due to 40% of the Park being covered by water. A broad collection of wildflowers occurs in the Park, including species of irises, lilies, and orchids like Minnesota’s State Flower, the Lady’s Slipper. Also, through the summer and into the fall, different wild berries such as raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries are plentiful.
While the land of Voyageurs underwent its most dramatic changes several thousand years ago, the plant life of Voyageurs has faced its greatest challenges and transformation during only the last hundred years or so. In the past, vegetation experienced disturbance mostly from fire, wind, and weather, but the 20th century brought with it ever-increasing disturbance from the presence of humans. Plant life in the Park today has been shaped by logging, changes in wildlife abundance, invasive species, the general presence of humans both visiting the Park and living in the surrounding areas, and now climate change. Voyageurs has been identified as one of the national parks most likely to experience vegetation change as a result of global warming.