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Minnesota’s Boundary Waters is a paddler’s paradise, a million-acre wilderness with the densest concentration of lakes in America. That you knew. But here’s something that may surprise those who don’t live around here: Between all those blue circles and dots on the map run some of the finest miles of hiking trail in the Lower 48. Miles that wind through ancient pine groves, stepping to the edge of rocky overlooks. Miles that skirt marsh and shoreline where moose come to nibble. And miles that sometimes boast more wolf tracks than boot prints. Two hundred thousand people visit the Boundary Waters every year, but you won’t see them on the three little-traveled paths we’ve picked for you.
Border Route Trail
For 75 miles, this path dances with two countries, deep forests, and wide overlooks in the absolute heart of lake country.
A patchwork of forgotten and newly cut trails, the Border Route was opened in the 1980s as Minnesota’s first long-distance hiking trail. It’s divided into three sections, but the middle section (from near Crab Lake to McFarland Lake) lies closest to the soul of the BWCAW. Here, the trail skirts good fishing lakes like East Pike and Clearwater (Minnesota fishing license required), meadows bursting with wildflowers, and stands of virgin pine near Rove Lake. At night, listen for loon calls (try the camp on Partridge Lake). In the morning, discover moose (and mosquitoes) near Crab Lake while you listen to Portage Falls strum the stillness. The trail here is more rugged with several patches of deadfall, but the over-and-under hiking only makes you appreciate the unobstructed views that much more (don’t miss Rose Cliffs at mile 22.7). To extend your hike, go west on the Gunflint Lake section or east on the less-used Pigeon River section.
The 38-mile “Kek” began as a workingman’s trail, originally cut in the 1930s as an access route for forest firefighters. Back then, they called it “one of the toughest, meanest rabbit tracks in North America.” Times have changed. Reopened in 1991, the Kek today is no work and all play. Considered the BWCAW’s premier wilderness trail, it enters from the west near Becoosin and Benezie Lakes. Beaver dams and high ridges will test your legs, but you’ll find that good campsites are frequent and evenly spaced (try the rocky ledge at Medas Lake).
Like any good vacation, this one offers a range of activities: Enjoy the rapids along the Thomas River, look for moose in the thick marshes, and smell the stands of 200-year-old white pine beyond Strup Lake. The path reaches its high point (1,950 feet) above Travois Lake, then drops through rocky Agamok River Gorge to Gabimichigami Lake, Minnesota’s deepest at 209 feet. After several adventurous river crossings and a few stellar campsites (don’t miss the one on the point at Bingschick Lake), the trail leaves the wilderness and ends at the Gunflint trailhead.
Some lakes in the Boundary Waters can seem as busy as the wave pool at Water World. Not this 26-mile loop. The first few miles from Isabella Lake can be squishy (the very reason few paddlers set foot here), but at the loop intersection, you’ll go left (west), skirt Campfire Lake, and drop into a ravine near Diana Lake, where the ground dries out. The trail carves through the Precambrian Shield, some of the oldest rock on the planet. Maybe it’s the dark rocks, or the names like Myth Lake and Superstition Lake (there’s a great camp on the point), or the lack of canoes, but things seem wilder along the western edge of the trail.
Set up camp at one of the sites between Mirror, Path, and Rock of Ages Lakes, and you’ll have a front-row seat for sunset, when an otherworldly orange light glitters on the water. The northernmost site is the least buggy. Look and listen for wolves and moose. Then swing back east past North and South Wilder Lakes, taking time to watch for wildlife at the marsh just before the trail rejoins the route back to Isabella Lake.
Expedition Planner Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, MN
Trailheads Direct access to the Border Route Trail is at the Partridge Falls Road outside of Grand Portage (east trailhead) and off the Gunflint Trail Road (west trailhead). Mid-route access is possible on a series of trails and trailheads (check a map). To get to the Kekekabic, start at Fernberg Road outside of Ely (west) and at the Gunflint Trail Road (east). The Powwow Trail is a loop. Begin and end at Forest Service Road 377 near Isabella Lake. Shuttle services for The Border Route and the Kek are available (see contact).
Permits Required and readily available for all backcountry camping (see contact).
Cautions The BWCAW is bear country (wolf and moose, too). Always keep a clean camp, and hang your food at night. Never approach wildlife. Mosquitoes, black flies, and ticks can be bothersome in mid-summer (July to August).
GuidesThe Border Route Trail: A Trail Guide and Map, by Marcia Scott and Chuck Hoffman (Minnesota Rovers Outing Club; $14 members/$19 nonmembers). The Hikers’s BWCA Wilderness Companion: Kekekabic Trail , by Martin Kubic and Angela Anderson (Kekekabic Trail Club; $10). Hiking Minnesota, by John Pukite ($15).