Last summer my husband and I took the trip of a lifetime to paddle camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) in northern Minnesota. This is the most visited wilderness area in the United States and spans over 1 million acres.
The BWCA boasts more than 2,000 backcountry campsites, 1,200 miles of canoe routes, and over 230 miles of hiking trails. It was listed in National Geographic Traveler magazine’s “50 Places of a Lifetime.”
If those reasons alone are not enough to convince you to make a pilgrimage to the BWCA, here are my top four reasons you should plan to go (in no particular order):
1. Pristine Wilderness
The BWCA is a true wilderness with no roads, strict regulations on motors, and beyond the reach of cell service. It has some of the cleanest water and abundant wildlife! Some of the lakes and rivers are so clear that you can see to the bottom (but I still wouldn’t recommend drinking the water without purifying it).
The beautiful boreal forest comes right up to the shoreline with towering pine, fir, spruce, aspen, birch, and cedar trees. Deer, beavers, otters, and birds of prey are common sightings. If you are lucky you might even see a moose! At night you’ll be sung to sleep by wolves or haunted by the eery cry of loons.
Because the BWCA is so far from civilization, there is no light pollution. The night sky is breathtaking and at times you are able to see the northern lights.
I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the world on four continents and the BWCA was still breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful. I would recommend this paddle trip on this merit alone!
2. World Class Fishing
The BWCA is teeming with life and boasts world-renowned fishing. Smallmouth bass, lake trout, northern pike, and walleye are just a few of the fish found in the area.
The fishing did not disappoint us. We fished from the shore in one area and caught fish with nearly every cast! We kept two and enjoyed fresh bass cooked over the campfire. Packing for cooking fish was simple—we folded some strips of tinfoil and brought a small plastic vile of olive oil, a baggie of spice rub, and a fillet knife. Paired with some couscous and a bag of freeze-dried veggies, it was a beautiful gourmet meal in the backcountry!
3. Amazing Campsites
There are over 2,000 designated campsites scattered all over the Boundary Waters but they’re not too close to each other, offering privacy and spectacular views. Most of the campsites are equipped with a fire pit and a latrine (located a short walk from the site).
You must camp at one of these designated campsites and there are no reservations. We had no trouble finding an open campsite with beautiful views. You can opt to set up a base camp and stay for as long as you like or you might move to other campsites. It all depends on how you choose to plan your adventure.
4. Endless Trip Options
One could probably visit the BWCA a hundred times and not take the same trip twice. There are so many lakes, hiking trails, and options that you can explore to your hearts’ content! We chose to enter through Entry Point #69 on John Lake, and set up a base camp. From there we took day trips to surrounding areas.
Because we chose to kayak instead of canoe, we opted to only do one portage (our kayaks are much heavier than canoes). But the one portage we tackled was worth the effort to explore another lake. It’s possible to plan a trip with few or no portages.
We used Van Jordahl and Gerald Strom’s book, 20 Great BWCA Trips to plan our trip and prepare for our first trip to the Boundary Waters. The information was accurate and the tips were very useful. Our first trip was so enjoyable that we plan to return next summer to explore another corner of the BWCA!
Know Before You Go
The BWCA is highly regulated, operating on an entry permit system. If you plan to stay overnight in the BWCA you will need a permit and each entry point has a limited number of permits available for each day. This system helps protect the wilderness and keep the Boundary Waters clean, pristine, and wild.
There are also strict regulations on motors. A few of the lakes do allow boat motors of 25 horsepower and under, keeping most of the Boundary Waters quiet and unhurried. If you plan to go, apply for a permit early in the season.
Prepare For Bears
Prepare to bear bag your food. While you may not see any bears, there are numerous enterprising critters who would love to help themselves to your food. And one ranger advised us NOT to use our kayaks for food storage as some bears have been known to drag bear canisters, canoes, or kayaks out into the water in an attempt to break them open.
Know How To Navigate
Be prepared with a quality map and compass. We chose to bring both a Garmin GPS equipped with BWCA maps and a paper map and compass. It is easy to become disoriented with all the inlets, islands, reed marshes, and winding rivers. It’s unwise to rely solely on a GPS whenever in the backcountry, but that is especially true in the BWCA.
Don’t Count On Having A Fire
As you plan your trip, don’t count on being able to have a fire at your campsite. During the dry season there may be a fire ban. Be sure to bring a stove for cooking.
Be Prepared To Take A Quiz
When you arrive at the Ranger Station to pick up your entry permit you will need to watch a short video about the rules of the BWCA. Then, don’t be surprised when the ranger on duty gives you a quiz to be sure you paid attention. It’s a good idea to read up on the rules and regulations in the BWCA before you leave.
Have you been to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area? What are your favorite trips or “pro tips”?