A Rocky Wonderland in the North Woods

Most people visit Voyageurs National Park to experience the scenic splendor of its forests, view its diverse wildlife, and enjoy boating on its pristine lakes.  However, there’s one surprising attraction at Voyageurs that owes its existence not to nature, but to one very imaginative, relentless craftsman. 

In the 1940s, Chicago carpenter Jack Ellsworth spent summers with his wife on land that later became the national park; it was there that he had a vision. He began to carve complex terraced gardens on a prominent rocky outcrop near his home, using the native materials that he found on-site. 

Over the next 20 summers, Ellsworth constructed 62 rock-bordered flower beds which he connected with stone stairways, grassy paths, bridges, and stepping stones.  He filled the terraced beds with more than 13,000 lilies and other flower varieties, creating a colorful artistic wonderland now known as the Ellsworth Rock Gardens on the shores of Kabetogama Lake.

Over time, Ellsworth accented his landscape with whimsical stone sculptures ranging from monoliths and carved animals to benches, chairs and tables.  Many of his sculptures are carefully balanced rock formations, created without mortar. 

The rock gardens soon became a popular tourist destination despite its remote location.  Ellsworth continued to maintain and embellish his gardens until the mid-1960s, when his health began to fail and he could no longer visit the area.  Without his supervision, the nearby forests slowly engulfed the terraced gardens and many of his sculptures deteriorated.

Soon after Voyageurs became a 218,000-acre national park in 1975, the National Park Service acquired the Ellsworth Rock Gardens land as well.  The aging cabins and outbuildings were removed but no real maintenance was performed on the area until the mid-1990s.  Then NPS staff and volunteers began removing the invading vegetation and shoring up the historic features.  They also built a new dock where park visitors can moor their boats during their garden visit (the site is only accessible by water) and installed interpretive signs. 

Credit: NPS

If you’re planning a trip to Minnesota this summer, carve out time to visit the Ellsworth Rock Gardens.  You won’t be disappointed.