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The creation of the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, a unique and intriguing point of interest in Voyageurs National Park, began in the 1940s by a man named Jack Ellsworth.
Also known as the “showplace of Lake Kabetogama,” the gardens have welcomed visitors for many years. Both impressive and intriguing, this collection of sculptures is unlike anything else we’ve experienced.
We’ll fill you in on all you need to know about the history, logistics, and what to expect when planning a visit to the Ellsworth Rock Gardens in Voyageurs National Park!
Where are the Ellsworth Rock Gardens?
On the shores of Lake Kabetogama and the Kabetogama Peninsula, within the borders of Voyageurs National Park, you’ll find the Ellsworth Rock Gardens. The park is located in the very northernmost areas of Minnesota, along the Canadian border.
Fun fact: There are points in the park where you can stand on United States ground, look south, and you’ll be looking at Canada!
The closest town is International Falls, Minnesota, with a population of just under 6,500 people. There is a small international airport in town with direct service to the Twin Cities
Driving times from other major cities in Minnesota to the Voyageurs National Park area include about 2 hours and 30-minutes of driving from Duluth and 4 hours and 15-minutes drive from the Minneapolis area.
How to get to the Ellsworth Rock Gardens
This highlight of Voyageurs National Park is that it is only accessible by boat.
Tours are offered by the National Park Service and reservations can be made ahead of time on recreation.gov.
Local guides also provide tours and shuttles to the Gardens and around Lake Kabetogama.
Renting a boat or bringing your own boat to explore the lakes of Voyageurs National Park is an option, too. Motorized boating options are the easiest, but it is possible to canoe or kayak here from some other spots on Lake Kabetogama.
Just be sure to familiarize yourself with maps and navigation, first. It is easy to get disoriented and confused with so many small islands and coves if you’re not familiar with the area.
We’d recommend the National Geographic Trails and Paddling maps. They provide information on distance, topography, camping, points of interest, and more! Best of all, they’re water-resistant!
History of Jack Ellsworth and the Ellsworth Rock Gardens
Jack Ellsworth was a carpenter and contractor from Chicago. He began the construction of the rock gardens in 1944 as something to occupy his time while spending his summers on the beautiful Lake Kabetogama. He continued this construction every summer until 1966.
He had no formal art education. He just motored along in his creativity with rocks and his homemade mortar.
Through his 20 or so years spent on the lake, he created over 60 terrace-style flower beds, holding over 13,000 flowers in addition to the rock sculptures. He maintained the grounds so meticulously.
As Mr. Ellsworth aged, his health made it more difficult to care for the gardens. The summer of 1965 was the last he and his wife, Elsie, spent at their summer home. Mr. Ellsworth passed away in 1974.
Shortly after Voyageurs became a National Park in 1975, the Ellsworth Rock Gardens land was acquired by the National Park Service in 1978. No real maintenance was performed on the area until the mid-1990s, so as you can imagine, the area was quite overgrown!
More about the Sculptures
There are over 200 different rock sculptures within the area! The sculptures are made entirely of rocks, some held together with mortar.
Many resemble tables and chairs. Others direct visitors through the terraces and along the paths. Some are feats of gravity, with various sizes of rocks balanced one on top of the other, held together with a small amount of mortar. Some appear as if they will topple in the next strong wind.
One special formation of note to make sure you see is the Arrowhead. It stands at the top of the hill and has quite a meticulous design!
Facilities around the Gardens
Although many of the original supporting structures are now gone from the area, a few remnants can be found on the grounds.
The picnic shelter is currently located where historically the Ellsworth summer home sat. Some of the hydrangea plants and the fireplace from the home still remain around the picnic shelter.
A workshop building near the restrooms and a privy behind the picnic shelter are original.
A new dock has recently been installed to accommodate more boats. Restroom facilities and paths between them and the docks have been updated and are now ADA-compliant.
The picnic shelter, tables, and charcoal grills are available for visitors planning an afternoon picnic.
Costs to Visit the Gardens
Currently, there is no fee required to enter the Ellsworth Rock Gardens. There is, however, a donation box near the entrance, if you feel moved to leave a contribution.
All of the money left in the box goes towards maintaining the gardens, as well as restoring them.
Most of the work is done by volunteers. Significant upgrades have been made, especially over the last few years, with even more in the future plans.
What to Expect During Your Visit
Your visit will begin upon arrival at the dock. The NPS has expanded the area recently, allowing for more space for boats to dock.
At the end of the dock, there is a welcome sign. If you haven’t brought one with you, here is where you may find brochures for self-guided tours through the gardens. The brochures provide some additional information about the sculptures and general locations throughout the gardens.
You’ll wander up the path, past the restroom facilities, and begin. Some of the early points, including the initial signpost and the sundial, have been reconstructed due to damage.
Continue across the meadow, and there will be a path marked by columns on either side, leading up the fairly steep hillside, over a series of rock stairs. The path weaves through the gardens, around the structures, and back down towards the picnic shelter and privy.
Don’t forget to take in the views of the lake while at the top of the hillside!
The tour path finishes at the signature stone at the base of the gardens. This is a great spot to stop and take in one last view to appreciate the many, many hours of work that went into these creations.
When planning your visit to the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, it is really important to consider how much time you’d like to spend on the grounds. Typically, 1-2 hours is plenty to wander through the terraces, take in the views, and admire the rock sculptures.
If you’ve packed a picnic lunch, add some extra time to enjoy the views of Lake Kabetogama.
Other Sites to Visit in Voyageurs National Park
Points of interest in Voyageurs National Park are typically natural, beautiful views. However, in addition to the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, there is another historic point to add to your itinerary.
Be sure to plan a visit to the Kettle Falls Hotel! Don’t be fooled by the name. The “falls” are now actually a dam. The hotel has had many uses throughout its years of existence, but now, it is a secluded haven on the Minnesota-Canada border and a great getaway from many modern annoyances that feels like taking a step back in time.
The Ash River Visitors Center is also worth a visit. The center, housed in a historic log cabin-type structure known as the Meadwood Lodge almost takes you to another time. Also, a few trails, including the Blind Ash Bay, Beaver Pond Overlook, and Kab-Ash Trails can be found at or near this visitors center.
In addition to these sights, spending at least a night or 2 at one of the many campsites scattered throughout the park is a great way to experience Voyageurs. Beautiful stargazing is one of the highlights. You may even get the chance to spot the Milky Way or the Northern Lights!
Wrapping Up: Final Things to Know Before Visiting the Ellsworth Rock Gardens
The best time to visit this spot in Voyagers is any time after the snow has melted. In the spring, there will typically be less of a crowd, as many of the visitors to the park are fishermen. Even though the flower gardens are not what they once were, you may see some beautiful flowers in bloom, especially in the summer. Fall brings beautiful foliage to enhance the views. You really can’t go wrong!
If you’re cruising around the lakes in Voyageurs, keep an eye out in the treetops for one of the many bald eagle nests in the park. There are over 40 pairs making a permanent residence in the area!
If you’re planning a visit to Voyageurs National Park, be sure to stop by and check out the Ellsworth Rock Gardens. The hard work, creativity, and self-taught craftsmanship are a sight to see!
Have you stopped by Ellsworth Rock Gardens in Voyageurs National Park? What did you think? What was your favorite spot in Voyageurs?