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A Guide to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

The great state of Minnesota is one of the most underrated hidden treasures in the country. No matter what you’re looking for, our great state has something to offer. From exploring the great outdoors to taking in the culture and diversity of the Twin Cities, there are dozens of things that you can’t do anywhere but here. One such adventurous location is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in the northeast corner of Superior National Forest.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area
The Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, Minnesota

What is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area?

If you’ve never heard of or been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, you’re missing out on the time of your life. The BWCA, sometimes called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, is a giant tract of land in the northeast corner of Minnesota in Superior National Forest. The BWCA consists of over 1 million acres of wilderness and wildlife area that’s under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service. As such, it’s a protected area that’s reserved for enjoying the wonders of nature.

Here’s a breakdown of what the Boundary Waters Canoe Area looks like.

  • Over 150 miles of borderland between Minnesota and the Canadian border to the north.
  • Voyageurs National Park is connected to the BWCA in its northwestern corner.
  • Quetico Provincial Park lies directly to the north of the BWCA.
  • Superior National Forest is both in the BWCA and also lies to the south.
  • Lake Superior lies to the east and southeast of the BWCA.
  • Nearly 200,000 acres of the BWCA, roughly 20% of it, is comprised of lakes and rivers.
  • There are 1,100 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams within the borders of the BWCA alone.
  • The remaining 80% or 800,000 acres consists of forests, mountains, and valleys.

The BWCA is of historical, cultural, and environmental significance to Minnesota and the north in general. It’s an area that was used by fur trappers, Native Americans, and explorers of all creeds and ethnicities. Today, however, it’s become one of the most beautiful and natural areas in the country.

BWCA Waterfall

History of the BWCA

Since the 1900s, Minnesotans could tell that there was simply something different about the northeast corner of its great state. They began making preparations to preserve it and keep it in its natural form. It wasn’t until 1978, however, that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was created, which officially made the BWCA a protected area.

Long before it was the BWCA, however, this part of Minnesota was significant. As long as 1300 years ago, it’s believed that the area was inhabited by the Woodland Indians. It was more recently populated with Sioux Indians, followed by the Obijwe tribe after them. The Obijwe people went on to make the BWCA part of their homeland, and they started to settle down and explore the surrounding areas in their birch bark canoes.

European Exploration

It wasn’t until 1688 that the first European explorer, a Frenchman by the name of Jaques de Noyan, ventured into the BWCA. By 1730, the area became a hotbed for fur traders and adventurers looking to make their way to the north and northwest. Famous organizations such as the North West Company and the infamous Hudson’s Bay Company set up operations in and around the BWCA.

During the 18th and 18th centuries, the BWCA was a region of hot debate in regards to who owned it. Both the United States and Canada disputed that the land should rightly be theirs. It wasn’t until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 that the border between the United States and Canada was firmly established at the northern edge of the BWCA. The act officially made the BWCA part of the US rather than Canada.

From 1842 until today, the BWCA has seen everything from gold and silver miners to trappers and traders to roaming adventurers. From the early 1900s until the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978, land was steadily added to the BWCA for protection from outside expansion.

Most recently, the BWCA was a subject of hot debate as to whether or not mining should be allowed on and around it. However, as of 2021, a 20-year ban was placed on mining in the BWCA and upstream from it.

When and Where Can I Get My Permit for the BWCA?

Now that we know a little more about the history of the BWCA and what it’s all about, let’s dig into the land itself. If you’re planning on visiting the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, this is the section that you’ll want to familiarize yourself with.

Grey Wolf walking across Rocks in a Flowing River

Wildlife Activity

The BWCA is a hub of wildlife activity. Because it’s been protected for so long, birds, carnivores, herbivores, and species of every sort have been able to survive and thrive in the region. Some of the most unique and exciting animals that you can expect to run into include deer, beavers, wolves, timber wolves, black bears, lynx, bald eagles, falcons, and so much more. The BWCA is home to the largest contingent of roaming wolves in the United States and routinely has between 300 and 400 within its boundaries.

The area is such a significant hub for birds that the American Bird Conservancy named it a globally important bird habitat. Winged creatures from all over the world and the country migrate to this part of Minnesota on a regular basis. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a moose or woodland caribou milling about.

Forest Ecology

Perhaps the only thing more striking than the amount of wildlife in the BWCA is the ecology of the land. Dozens of tree species and hundreds of plants grow within the Boundary Area. Unfortunately, a string of fires has burned out well over a hundred thousand acres and millions of trees within the forest over the past 50 years.

Rules While Visiting the BWCA

The rules in the BWCA are simple, straightforward, and necessary to protect the forest and its inhabitants. It’s important for us to remember, as visitors, that we don’t own the forest and shouldn’t act as if we do. It’s our duty to protect the BWCA by being responsible and leaving no trace behind us when we leave. Here are some of the rules you’ll be expected to adhere to during your stay.

  • Clean up after yourself by properly disposing of your human waste. Bathrooms aren’t available everywhere throughout the BWCA, so act accordingly.
  • Store and dispose of your food properly so that animals don’t have access to it.
  • There is no cutting down of live trees within the Boundary Area or Superior National Forest.
  • You must enter the BWCA at designated points.
  • Permits are required to enter the BWCA and Superior National Forest.
  • NEVER leave a campfire unattended.
  • Here’s a link to the complete set of rules and regulations while in the BWCA. Essentially, the goal is to leave no trace behind you when you exit the BWCA. In other words, the next people who roam where you roamed shouldn’t be able to tell that anyone was there before them.
BWCA Canoeing

Permit Requirements for the BWCA

A permit is always required to enter the BWCA Wilderness:

  • If you plan to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area on an overnight trip or day trip via a motorized vehicle of any sort, you must get a permit between the months of May and September. However, reservations are recommended.
  • If you want to go the route of a walk-up permit, you can get them at any entry point entering the Boundary Waters Area. You can get these permits the same day or the day before you plan to enter the park.
  • Between the months of October and the end of April, you must receive a self-issued permit for any non-motorized visits or overnight visits. You can get these permits at various entry points and kiosks employed by Forest Service personnel.
  • A single permit is limited to four water vehicles and a maximum of four people to enter the BWCA.

Gear Guide for the BWCA

What you bring to the BWCA depends on what your intentions are and what time of year you’re visiting. If you’re planning a winter trip, be warned that you should expect a ton of snow and freezing temperatures. Make sure to wear plenty of layers and invest in some high-quality and waterproof footwear and outer layers.

Here are some of the other essentials you should bring to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

  • Waterproof jacket and rain pants. Preferably not a poncho since they aren’t as good or long-lasting.
  • Swimwear in case you go for a dip.
  • Several extra shirts and pants as well as sleepwear.
  • Hat for sun protection.
  • Bug protection.
  • Pots, pans, utensils, and other cookware for cooking over a campfire.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses
  • Toiletries and personal hygiene products, including toothpaste, toothbrush, and soap.
  • Flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries kept in a waterproof package.
  • Pocketknife or multi-tool
  • First-aid kit
  • Fishing gear, including poles, bait, and tackle. Don’t forget your license!
  • Canoeing gear, including canoe, paddles, and life jackets.
  • Waterproof navigation map.
  • Compass
  • Waterproof tent
  • Waterproof tarp
  • Rope
  • Sleeping bags
  • Sleeping pads
  • Water filtration system
  • Firestarter or matches
  • Food and a water bottle for filling along the way
  • Any other cooking, camping, or medical amenities that you need.

It might be challenging to carry all of these items, so make sure that you choose a backpack system that works best for you. The main thing is that you store all of your items in waterproof packs because getting wet is inevitable in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Northern Lights

Places to Visit in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Once you’ve made your way into the Boundary Waters, there’s no shortage of things to do and places to see.

The Gunflint Trail

The Gunflint Trail is a paved road that runs from north to south through the BWCA. The Gunflint Trail is the main hub in the BWCA, and you’ll take it to get to many of the resorts, hiking trails, lakes, rivers, and hunting areas in the region. It also provides necessary access to outfitting stores, campgrounds, and pretty much everything within the BWCA.

Sea Gull Lake

Sea Gull Lake is one of the largest and most popular lakes within the BWCA. It offers tons of fishing opportunities, and there are also numerous campsites set up around the lake. There are also over 100 tiny islands in the lake, and you can feel free to pitch your tent on anyone that looks decent enough.

The turquoise waters of the lake will make you feel like you’re canoeing or swimming in the Caribbean rather than in Minnesota. No extended visit to the BWCA is complete without trying out Sea Gull Lake.

Visit Grand Marais

Grand Marais is on the southeast corner of the BWCA and is one of the largest nearby towns. Grand Marais is also on the coast of Lake Superior, and it’s one of the quaintest and most picturesque cities you’ll ever see. With lighthouses, scenic views, shops, restaurants, and so much more, Grand Marais makes an excellent stop at the beginning or end of your trip. The Gunflint Trail runs straight through it.

Vista landscape from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA)

Things to Do

Hiking

There are 11 designated hiking trails spanning hundreds of miles running throughout the BWCA if canoeing and water activities aren’t your thing. There are plenty of primitive tent camping sites along the trail in designated areas for the ultimate roughing-it experience.

RV Camping

Unfortunately, RV camping isn’t allowed within the BWCA itself. However, you can set up your rig in the surrounding Superior National Forest and venture into the Boundary Waters from there.

Tent Camping

Whether you’re out on the lakes of the BWCA or hiking along its trails, there are tons of camping options to choose from. With over 2,000 designated campsites, you are sure to find a spot somewhere within the BWCA. Reservations aren’t required for primitive camping sites. Just make sure to clean up after yourself when you leave.

Cabins, Resorts, and Lodges

If you don’t feel like roughing it during your stay in the BWCA, there are over a dozen cabins, resorts, and lodges to choose from. Unlike the primitive tent sites, you will likely need to make a reservation to stay at one of these fine establishments, especially during the busy season of summer and fall.

Canoe on the shore of the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota

Kayaking and Canoeing

By far, the number one activity in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is canoeing and kayaking. With over 1,000 lakes to choose from and much of the region accessible only through water, canoeing is an absolute must to get the most out of the BWCA. Make sure to pick up a map before you start your journeys, however, because it’s easy to get lost in the fray.

Hunting and Fishing

While hunting is allowed in the BWCA, it’s somewhat of a challenge because motorized and wheeled vehicles aren’t allowed in wooded areas. However, hunting is indeed allowed during the allotted seasons and with the proper permits and licenses.

On the other hand, fishing is much more prevalent and successful in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Shore fishing, canoe and kayak fishing, and even fishing from approved motorized boats are common in the BWCA. This area has some of the best fishing locations in the state, thanks to how primitive and reclusive it is.

Walleye, northern pike, smallmouth and largemouth bass, lake trout, and so much more are roaming the Boundary Waters. You have the option to catch and release or keep a few of your catches and cook up a delicious supper.

Dog Sledding

That’s right. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. There are actual dog sleds in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. If you visit during the winter months, you can take a tour of the surrounding area on a thrilling and magical dogsled ride! You can either mush the dogs yourself or tag along with a professional.

Northern Lights Viewing

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is one of only 15 Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world. It’s one of the few places in the US outside of Alaska where you can get clear, unobstructed views of the Northern Lights. If you’ve never seen this unbelievable sight, they’re worth a trip to the BWCA on their own. Outside of the Northern Lights, incredibly dark skies mixed with an array of stars will greet you every time you lay down your head at night.

Time to Explore the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

If you aren’t convinced yet to take a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota, I’m not sure what will. The BWCA is one of the most beautiful, tranquil, and undisturbed areas in the United States. It’s one of National Geographic Traveler magazines’ “50 Places of a Lifetime” and is considered a must-see destination. With all the fantastic things to do, experience, and see, it’s not hard to see why.

To discover more amazing adventures within our great state, check out our Minnesota Guides.

Are you an avid angler? Don’t miss our Minnesota Fishing page where you’ll find everything you need to know about fishing in Minnesota.