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The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota

Minnesota

An Insider's Guide to Minnesota's Boundary Waters

By: Jess Moss

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  • States:
    Minnesota

It’s one of the largest wilderness areas in the U.S.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness encompasses some 1,000 glacial lakes over 400,000 forested hectares of the Midwest along the U.S. and Canada border. There are no roads here. No stores or restaurants. No other people, once you paddle your canoe far enough. You go here to canoe, fish, camp and hike, and to find peace away from the busy world.

Getting to the Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is about 430 kilometers north of Minneapolis, Minnesota, near the towns of Grand Marais and Ely. There are multiple designated entry points, but you will need to secure a permit to visit. The type of required permits varies depending on when you are going, how long you are staying and the type of activities you will be doing. If you’re spending the night between May and September, you’ll need to reserve a permit and pay as early as January or February because these permits often sell out. It’s easier to secure a free permit at the entry points for day visits or trips from October through April.

Most visitors come May through September. Minnesota winters are extreme; temperatures can plummet far below 0 degrees Celsius and snowdrifts pile 1.5 meters or higher. That said, winter offers ideal conditions for outdoor sports like dogsledding, skiing and snowshoeing. 

Keep in mind that this is a true wilderness. Restrooms are available at some campsites, but otherwise it’s you and nature. Everything must be brought in and carried out with you when you leave.

The Boundary Waters have nearly 2,000 kilometers of canoeing trails.

The Boundary Waters have nearly 2,000 kilometers of canoeing trails.
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Exploring the Boundary Waters

True to its name, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness’ greatest draw is canoeing. There are nearly 2,000 kilometers of canoe trails through the lakes and streams, some of which require you to carry your boat over land to continue the journey. (Motor-powered watercraft are permitted on certain lakes only.)

Many people come for multiple days to paddle, camp and go fishing in these peaceful waters. Others come for a quick one-day visit. You don’t need to be a seasoned outdoors explorer to travel here. Local operators like Way to Go Canoe Outfitters lead tours through the wilderness. Keep an eye out for wildlife such as bears, moose, wolves, loons and eagles.

Other Places to See While You’re Here

Voyageurs National Park: Directly west of the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs continues the lake-filled setting along the Canadian border. The Voyageurs lakes are much larger than those of the Boundary Waters, so motorized boating and house-boating are popular activities.

International Wolf Center: You might not want to cross paths with a wild wolf on your canoe trip, but at this research center in nearby Ely, Minnesota, you can safely observe the animals.

Minneapolis Lakes: On your way to or from the Boundary Waters, save time to explore Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The two cities, known as the “Twin Cities,” are separated by the Mississippi River and known for their arts scenes and outdoor activities. Rent a bike and pedal around the Chain of Lakes, a trail connecting four urban lakes: Lake Harriett, Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake. You can also try the route on Rollerblades like a local; the in-line skate company was founded here.

Take a detour to nearby Voyageurs National Park to extend your experience.

Take a detour to nearby Voyageurs National Park to extend your experience.
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Kayaking and fishing at Hyland Lake Park Reserve

Destination

Bloomington

Entering the city via the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River

Destination

Minneapolis

Sailboats pass underneath the Aerial Lift Bridge

Destination

Duluth

The Rochester skyline at sunrise

Destination

Rochester