Boundary Waters Canoe Area Adventure Guide
If you want to get in touch with nature, escape the crowds, and disconnect, Northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is just the ticket. Located in the Northwoods of Minnesota, the BWCA is 1.1 million acres of untapped wilderness with a bonus, a neighboring Canadian park, Quetico, which has another million acres. This massive and pristine area was carved out by the glaciers leaving thousands of lakes, valleys, and ridges for us to explore via canoe in the warmer months and via ski, dogsled, or snowshoe in the winter months. Highlights of a trip to the BWCA area are canoeing, fishing, swimming, camping under the stars, and hearing the songs of loons.
If this sounds like an adventure right up your alley, let this Boundary Water Canoe Area adventure guide help you navigate the ins and outs of the area, Boundary Waters camping, permitting, and locate the best Boundary Waters Canoe Area outfitter for your trip.
How to Get to the BWCA
Most visitors fly to the Twin Cities and drive to Ely or Grand Marais. This takes about three hours and forty five minutes. Others continue from the Twin Cities via a short flight to Duluth, which is a two hour drive from the BWCA. However, there is a lot to be seen from Duluth to the BWCA. Most locals would advise more time for special stops along the way for waterfalls, scenic overlooks of Lake Superior, hikes, and stopping for pie, ice cream, and smoked fish.
Canoeing Boundary Waters – Best Way to Get Around
The most popular way to experience the BWCA is via canoe. Although some of the lakes allow other boats, including motorized crafts, in order to witness the true, off-the-beaten-path BWCA, you will need a light-weight canoe for paddling and portaging. It is important to note that the BWCA is an area dotted with lakes. However, most are not interconnected. Thus, learning how to portage (carry a canoe over land to the next water source) is essential.
Most locals and Boundary Water Canoe Area outfitters have a padded yoke in the center of the canoe to assist in portaging the canoe. This padded yoke comes in handy as the best way to portage single handedly is by turning the canoe upside down. With over one thousand and two hundred miles of canoe routes, you can select the best for your trip by availability of permits, ability of your group, and campsites.
Canoe Routes in the BWCA – Where to Paddle in the Boundary Waters
Canoeing the historic routes of the BWCA you’ll find towering pines, enormous slabs of granite, marshes, and small streams connecting lakes. With thousands of miles of canoe and portage trails, the BWCA offers an adventure for all. For day trips or with kids, a great BWCA lake to take the canoe out on is Sea Gull Lake – an enormous, versatile, and extremely scenic lake that is easy, kid-friendly, and located close to several campsites near Entry #54. For overnight or mult-day canoe trips, there are hundreds of otions across the BWCA. Beginner friendly lake routes include Long Island Base Camp, Saganaga Lake, Red Rock Loop, and Granite River. Some moderate to challenging routes include Crossbay to Poplar Lake, Frost River Loop, and Tuscarora West. The Boundary Waters outfitters featured on TripOutside can help you plan the perfect route based on your experience and preferences. Whether you desire a challenging trip over many miles paddling dozens of lakes and rivers and taking in scenic waterfalls, or a peaceful paddle to observe ancient pictographs, the BWCA has endless options. TripOutside can help you find your ideal route with outfitters based both in Ely and on the Superior shore in Tofte, who provide complete outfitting for your BWCA adventure.
Entry Points for the BWCA
The Boundary Waters has about 70 different entry points in which paddlers can enter the wilderness for day trips or overnight trips. Typically, there is parking available at each entry point to leave a vehicle while in the BWCA. There are three general areas in which you can enter the BWCA: on the western side of the BWCA in Ely, MN, on the eastern side near Tofte, MN and off the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais, MN.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Permits
Boundary Waters permits are required all year, but there are a lot of factors that decide which permit you will need and how to get it. Chances are that you will need an OP permit, an Overnight Paddle permit that allows you to paddle and camp overnight in the BWCA. Get an OP permit for your BWCA trip at Recreation.gov.
Different Types of Boundary Waters Permits
Between May 1st and September 30th
OP – Overnight Paddle: This is the most popular permit for the boundary waters trip.
Day use only, no camping – you just need a Self Issued Permit available at the kiosks at the BWCA entry points and Forest Service offices.
Hiking and camping overnight, no paddling – You need an Overnight Hiking Permit for the location you are entering and there is no stay limit for the number of nights.
After September 30th and before May 1st
Self Issued Permit: from kiosks at BWCAW entry points and Forest Service offices. Reservations are not required and there are no recreation fees.
Boundary Waters Campsites
Camping in the Boundary Waters is a life-changing experience. It is a wonderful opportunity to bond with your family and friends. In fact, many choose to make the Boundary Waters a yearly trip. However, in the BWCA, you must camp in official campsites. A BWCA map highlights these campsites. Each is numbered. Typically, there are a few campsites per lake, but it is a first come first serve basis. Planning your route depends on the length of your stay, physical abilities of the group, permit availability, and Plan A & B for campsites.
Boundary Waters Camping List
The secret to a successful Boundary Waters trip is packing light and the right gear. Regardless of when you paddle the BWCA, your gear will get wet. Pack light in drysacks, or line your pack with a heavy plastic bag (available at BWCA outfitters).
Here are the essentials for Boundary Waters Camping:
- Lightweight tent with rainfly
- Sleeping pads, bags and pillows
- Gas cooking stove, pot, cup, and utensils (we recommend a jetboil)
- Water filter for drinking and cooking
- Bug repellent (The mosquito is Minnesota’s state bird!)
- First aid kit
- Weather radio + EPIRB
- Swiss Army knife or leatherman
- Rope to hang food bags in trees away from bears
- Rain gear
- Water shoes + dry pair of sandals for camp
- Dehydrated meals and drinks (tea/coffee)
- 2 sets of clothes (wash at end of day to sun or wind dry)
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Outfitters
To get insider’s knowledge, advice about your route, as well as rent gear, local outfitters are a wise choice. All of our trusted BWCA outfitters have reviews with four-stars or above to ensure a great experience by all. Piragis Northwoods Company located in Ely has been around since 1979. Hear local tips, tricks, and more from its co-founder, Steve Piragis in this TripOutside podcast. If your planned trip is more Easterly, check out Sawtooth Outfitters, which are in Tofte, closer to the Gunflint Trail.
When to Visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
The summer months between May and September are the most popular, but the BWCA is visited year round. Our favorite time in the Boundary Waters is late August and early September. The mosquitos that are in full force in the peak summer months have typically eased off by late August. The days are usually still warm enough to enjoy a swim in the pure, warm water. Winter is an excellent time to visit if you are prepared with the right gear. With the right gear and knowledge, winter camping in the Boundary Waters can be an extraordinary experience. There are far fewer visitors, and you will have the solitude of this incredible wilderness to yourself – including no bugs! Seeing this pristine wilderness covered in snow is an incredible experience. Enjoy it by snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or dog sledding for a truly unique winter adventure!
After getting BWCA basic tips and tricks, you are ready to plan your Boundary Water adventure. Whether you choose a long weekend or a week-long canoe camping trip, you will not be disappointed. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a magical place worth exploring over and over again.
Happy Canoeing and Camping!