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Theodore Roosevelt and Voyageurs national parks offer greatly different outdoors experiences within a similar distance from Grand Forks

Plateaus and tops of buttes provide expansive views of the buttes and river valley floor in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The North Unit has a higher elevation than the South Unit, and more barren buttes offer striking landscape views. (Photo/ Mark Hoffman, National Park Service)

National Park Week begins Saturday and continues through April 23, and the annual event offers an opportunity to learn more about these recreational jewels and what they have to offer.

Summer is peak season for national parks, but the outdoor opportunities are available year-round.

"Our national parks are our national treasure," Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a statement. "My formative years were spent in Glacier National Park and one of my biggest mentors was a park ranger and football coach. The lessons you learn from the land and the park rangers cannot be learned anywhere else on earth."

There are 417 national parks across the country, including two within about a five-hour's drive of Grand Forks: Voyageurs National Park to the east and Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the west.

The two parks offer vastly different outdoors experiences. Here's a closer look:

Voyageurs National Park

The western gateway to this water-based national park on the Minnesota-Ontario border is 12 miles east of International Falls, Minn., about a four-hour drive northeast of Grand Forks.

At 218,000 acres, Voyageurs National Park is 40 percent water and covers parts of Rainy, Namakan, Sand Point and Kabetogama lakes. There's very little road access.

"Voyageurs is a park that takes a little more work to figure out how to explore," said Christina Hausman, executive director of the Voyageurs National Park Association in Minneapolis. "It's not the kind of park where you pull up in your car and drive through it. You have to experience it by boat."

Lisa Maass, the park's education specialist in International Falls, said tour boat excursions are available throughout the summer for a fee for visitors who don't have their own boats, canoes or other watercraft; free canoe tours are another option.

Especially popular is the tour boat trip to the historic Kettle Falls Hotel, built in 1912 on the eastern edge of Rainy Lake. The hotel only is accessible by water or floatplane.

Hiking trails ranging from a half-mile to 3 miles long are available within park boundaries, Maass said, along with an extensive system of backcountry hiking trails, the longest being 9½ miles.

Voyageurs National Park was established in 1971 and officially opened in 1975, Maass said.

There's no fee to access the park, and visitor centers are available at the main headquarters east of International Falls, at Ash River and on Lake Kabetogama. The communities of Ranier, Kabetogama, Ash River, Crane Lake and Orr, Minn., are other gateways to the park.

Peak season in the park begins in June and continues through mid-September, Maass said, and that's when most of the interpretive programs occur.

The park has more than 270 camping and houseboat sites and more than 20 day-use sites, all of which only are accessible by water. Campsites can be reserved through recreation.gov.

"All the campsites were designed so you can never see another campsite where you're at," Hausman said.

Fishing also is a big attraction for park visitors, and anglers can target everything from walleyes and pike to smallmouth bass and crappies. International Falls might be known as "The Icebox of the Nation," but there's no winter break in the park.

"It's kind of interesting up here," Maass said. "We like to say the park is more accessible by vehicle in the winter than in the summer, which some people find odd. We have plowed ice roads on the lake as long as ice conditions are good, and any vehicle type can go out on the ice roads. You don't have to have a four-wheel drive."

Winter activities include skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and ice fishing. The park also offers winter educational programs for area schools, Maass said.

Voyageurs National Park drew 241,000 visitors in 2016, Maass said.

More info: nps.gov/voya

voyageurs.org/explore

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Head about 5½ hours the other direction from Grand Forks, and you'll come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a setting every bit as rugged and beautiful but in a drastically different way. The Little Missouri River, which flows through the Badlands, connects the three sections of the 70,466-acre national park: The North Unit near Watford City, N.D., the Elkhorn Ranch Unit farther south and the South Unit near Medora, N.D.

This is the place that inspired Theodore Roosevelt to build his Elkhorn Ranch along the Little Missouri River. Roosevelt's time in western North Dakota helped solidify his ideas about conservation, said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

"He fell in love with the area because of the ruggedness, and he really enjoyed the people," Andes said. "He really liked the cowboy life and ranching life, and for 11 years he traveled back and forth between this area and New York."

According to the park's website, Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was established April 25, 1947 and included basically the South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch site. The North Unit was added in 1948. The park received national park status Nov. 10, 1978, and 29,920 acres of the park were designated as wilderness, the website states.

The park is a place where people can experience a world Roosevelt enjoyed, Andes said.

"Our wildlife is really easy to see without the crowds you would find in a place like Yellowstone," Andes said. "You can go to, say, the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of the park and enjoy the same kind of quiet and solitude Roosevelt was looking for when he built his ranch house there. His time in the Dakota Badlands, it was a life-altering experience, and any time people come to a park or to this park, they might have the opportunity to have the same kind of life-altering experience."

Hiking, camping, wildlife watching and canoeing the Little Missouri River—water levels permitting—are just some of the activities that draw visitors to the park, Andes said. A variety of ranger-led interpretive programs are offered from early June through September in both units of the park, Andes said, and free evening amphitheater programs are offered in the South Unit.

Guided hikes, talks and tours of Theodore Roosevelt's cabin and occasional trips out to the Elkhorn Ranch also are offered. Camping is first-come, first-served in both units of the park and backcountry camping is available with a free permit.

An astronomy festival has become a popular September offering in the South Unit, Andes said, and the annual Badlands Star Party is set for July 28-29 in the North Unit. This will be the fifth year for the September astronomy festival, while the Badlands Star Party dates back more than 30 years, Andes said.

In honor of National Park Week, fee-free weekends are set for April 15-16 and April 22-23, Andes said. Hikes and interpretive programs also are scheduled the two weekends. Nearly 754,000 people visited the park in 2016, National Park Service statistics show.

"A lot of people see us as a summer destination, but actually, it's a year-round destination," Andes said. "The park is open seven days a week year-round, and it is really fun to see the differences in the way the character of the Badlands changes from season to season and at different times during the day."

More info: nps.gov/thro.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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