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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

A watery paradise, a hiker's secret.

by: Peter Leschak

PAGE 1 2

Contact Information:

U.S. Forest Service Box 338 Duluth, MN 55801 218/720-5324 Gunflint Trail Association: 800/338-6932

Superior Hiking Trail Association 123 Waterfront Dr. Two Harbors, MN 55616-0004 218/834-4436

Location: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is in northeast Minnesota, Cook County, at "the tip of the Arrowhead," west of Grand Portage, 105 miles north of Duluth. Local towns include Grand Marais, Tofte, and Ely. In Cook County, there are over 80 outfitters.

Getting There: Take U.S. 61 north out of Duluth to Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail, which is now paved.

Seasonal Information: The best backpacking is in late summer and fall, but plan for warm days and cool evenings. In spring and early summer bring clothes for cold, wet weather and expect hordes of mosquitoes and biting flies. Fall colors peak around the end of September ~ a good time to spot wildlife.

Expect 70- to 90-degree F daytime temperatures in August, with generally cool (40 to 50 degrees F) nights. In September expect warm days (50 to 70 degrees F) and brisk nights (30 to 40 degrees F).

Extended wet periods are always possible, and September snowfall is not unheard of. There may be occasional morning frosts any time after the middle of August.

The number of visitors is particularly high mid-July through Labor Day.

Wildlife: Northern Minnesota is the last stronghold of the timber wolf in the lower 48 states. Over 300 of the large carnivores still roam the forest.

Common are moose, black bears, beavers, otters, loons, bald eagles, and various small mammals. Birds and waterfowl are abundant.

Be sure to carry a Minnesota angler's license; the odds of landing pike, bass, and panfish are excellent.

Insects: Contact park office for information.

Plant Life: Sunlight filters through aromatic conifers, and needles carpet the trail for long stretches through majestic stands of old-growth red and white pine.

The mixed boreal forest is particularly grand in autumn, with aspen, birch, and maple fiery in the midst of green pine, fir, and spruce.

Facilities: Camping is primitive backcountry within the wilderness.

There are 2,000 designated campsites with fire areas in the forest. Near the edges of the wilderness are Echo Lake, Lake Jeanette, Fenske Lake, Fall Lake, Kawishiwi Lake, Sawbill Lake, Baker Lake, Trail's End, Iron Lake, Flour, and East Bearskin campgrounds. Stays are limited to 14 days. Drinking water is generally provided, but not hook-ups. Reservations are accepted at Flour Lake (800/346-2203), and Iron Lake and Trails End (218/388-2212).

Parking: Contact park office for information.

Permits: Permits can be reserved for $9 by calling 800/745-3399 or write to:

BWCA Reservation Service P.O. Box 450 Cumberland, MD 21501.

Fees at forest campsites range from $5 to $16. Free sites include Baker Lake and Kawishiwi Lake.


  • No metal cans or bottles permitted.
  • There is a watercraft limit of nine people per group.

Hazards: Bears (and even squirrels) are always a threat, so take your food with you or hang it from a tree any time you leave the campsite.

Leave No Trace: All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps: Maps are available from the forest service at the above address. A detailed forest map is available for $3 plus tax.

A durable map is also available for $5.75 plus tax from:

W.A. Fisher Co. Box 1107 Virginia, MN 55792 218/741-9544.

USGS topo maps of the forest are available from:

USGS 1400 Independence Rd. Mail Stop 231 Rolla, MO 65401 314/341-0851.

A number of guidebooks are also available. These include Superior National Forest: A Complete Recreation Guide for Paddlers, Hikers, Anglers, Campers, Mountain Bikers and Skiers by Robert Beymer, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Vol. 1 and 2, by Robert Beymer, A Boundary Waters Fishing Guide by Michael Furtman, and Canoe Country Camping by Mike Furtman. They are available from:

Lake States Interpretive Association 3131 Highway 53 International Falls, MN 56649 218/283-2103 fax: 218/285-7407

Other Trip Options:

  • There are many scenic roadways from Duluth to the Canadian border.
  • The Superior Hiking Trail is a long-distance hiking trail that follows the scenic ridgelines above Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior. When completed, the trail will extend nearly 300 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border. Two-thirds of the trail has been completed to date.
  • For cyclists, there is the Lutsen Mountain Bike Park 218/663-7281
  • In nearby Ely, you can visit the International Wolf Center (call 800/ELY-WOLF or email). The center has a website at
  • Located off Highway 61 at the border between the United States and Canada, Grand Portage State Park ~ a day-use facility which opened in 1994 ~ offers 120-foot falls.

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