The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (hereafter referred to as the BWCA) is located about 4 – 6 hours north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro area and 2 hours from Duluth, depending on the entry point. It is visited by a quarter of a million people each year and provides year-round wilderness experiences for canoeing, hiking, backpacking, fishing, skiing, snowshoeing, and dogsledding. While the vast majority of the permits issued for entrance into the BWCA are for non-motorized watercraft (canoes), the BWCA has some of the best wilderness backpacking routes available in the upper Midwest.
Spanning three Minnesota counties (Cook, Lake, and St. Louis) in the northeastern region of the state, the BWCA encompasses a million acres of protected wilderness with over 1,000 lakes, 1,500 miles of canoe routes, 2,000 campsites, and 192 miles of hiking/backpacking trails. The BWCA runs along Minnesota’s border with Ontario, Canada, and is contiguous with Quetico Provincial Park, which has nearly 1.2 million acres and over 600 lakes of its own.
Duluth and the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) both have international airports, but once you are in the arrowhead region you will need to have a car to get to all of the BWCA entry points. Official permitted entry points are dispersed over a wide area throughout the Superior National Forest, and most are accessed via gravel roads that travel deep within the forest. Shuttle services are available from various outfitters serving the BWCA. Click here for a list of outfitters: https://bwca.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=outfitting.outfitters
The most common way to access the arrowhead region is to take I-35 from the Twin Cities to Duluth, and then, depending on your entry point, you can branch-off toward Ely or go up along the north shore of Lake Superior.
To get to Ely for access to the western portion of the BWCA, take I-35 from the Twin Cities to Cloquet (just south of Duluth) and then take Hwy 33 north to Hwy 53, then again north to Virginia, and once in Virginia follow Hwy 169 to Ely. To access the eastern portion of the BWCA, take I-35 through Duluth to Hwy 61, and follow this highway along Lake Superior to the appropriate turn-off for your entry point.
There are several towns located on the edge of the BWCA that offer groceries, restaurants, lodging, camping, and outfitting. These are Ely, Crane Lake, Cook, Tofte, and Grand Marais. There are USFS ranger district stations in Ely (Kawishiwi), Cook (LaCroix), Tofte (Tofte), and Grand Marais (Gunflint).
Most entry points have a gravel parking lot and are signed, parking is free and some offer vault toilets. No park stickers or entry fees are required to park at BWCA entry points. Cars are generally safe when parked, but break-ins do occur at some popular trailheads in the summer. You should not keep valuables or personally identifiable information in your car and be sure to hide possessions well within a locked vehicle.
The BWCA has nearly 200 miles of trails for hiking and backpacking. As a wilderness area used primarily for canoe travel, there are countless portages for overland travel from one lake to another along canoe routes. While many of the BWCA hiking/backpacking trails cross or share portages from time to time, most of the trails are true backpacking footpaths and many of the campsites along these trails are not accessible by canoe portages, even though they are typically on a lake.
The multi-day backpacking routes in the BWCA are entry point-based and are standalone routes. Only two trails in the system connect to each other through the wilderness, east to west and north to south. These trails are the Kekekabic Trail and the Border Route Trail; in 2019, both trails officially became a part of the North Country Trail, which spans from northern New York State to North Dakota.
The United States Forest Service manages the trail system and campsites with help from a number of regional trail organizations, many of which are volunteer-based. A few of the notable trail organizations are as follows:
The Border Route Trail Association – https://www.borderroutetrail.org/
North Country Trail Association, Kekekabic Trail Chapter – https://northcountrytrail.org/volunteers/local-contacts/kekekabic-trail-chapter/
Friends of the BWCA Trails – https://www.meetup.com/Friends-of-BWCA-Trails/
Minnesota Conservation Corps – https://www.conservationcorps.org/
Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness – https://www.friends-bwca.org/
The Boundary Waters Advisory Committee – https://bwac.homestead.com/
Trails in the BWCA are lightly blazed and official trail markers typically correspond with major junctures in the trail system. Blazes are typical USFS markers, and most of these trails are minimum maintenance, so it is imperative that you purchase the correct map set that corresponds with the trail you are hiking to ensure accurate route finding. Two primary map companies provide up to date maps of the BWCA, WA Fisher Maps and McKenzie Maps. Both companies use a grid and number system to cover the entire wilderness area and make it easy to select the maps you will need for a trip. Designed for backcountry use, these maps are waterproof and tear-resistant. Most outdoor retailers and outfitters (near entry points) carry one or both lines of these maps, which are also available online.
WA Fisher Maps – https://www.fishermaps.com/
McKenzie Maps – https://www.bwcamaps.com/
Making sure that you have the most recent update of the map set is critical to ensure that changes and reroutes on the trail and to campsites have been noted. These are deep wilderness trails, and the proper tools for backcountry navigation are critical and could mean the difference between life and death.
The trails in the BWCA are not for beginners, and some experience with wilderness travel is advised. Typically, trails have steep grades, are rocky and rough, have very few boardwalks and bridges, minimal blazing and many water and wetland crossings. These trails have a low level of maintenance and debris from storms can often block or obscure the trail. It is not uncommon for hikers to get lost in this wilderness area, so great care must be taken to always know where you are in relation to your map.
The BWCA is a one of a kind wilderness area where beaver dam crossings are common, moose sightings are possible, wet boots are a certainty, wolf howling is likely, hungry black bears urge caution, and a lonesome loon call is always welcome.
BWCA Multi-Day Backpacking Routes
There are numerous hiking trails in the BWCA, but what follows is an overview of the multi-day backpacking routes.
The Angleworm Trail
This is a 14-mile lollipop loop off the Echo Trail, which is 17 miles north of Ely, MN. While it is possible to day hike this trail, this route lends itself well to a weekend trip of 1-2 nights camping on Angleworm or Whiskey Jack lakes. The loop typically features a couple of beaver dam crossings, dramatic overlooks, and the campsites are beautiful and situated on lakes. This is a very strenuous and rough trail with continual ups and downs. Reservation entry point #21- Angleworm Trail.
Map: Fisher Map #9
The Snowbank Lake Loop
This is a 21.8-mile loop trail with options to add on additional mileage by expanding the loop. The trailhead is 21 miles east of Ely, MN. This is a difficult trail with rocky terrain, route finding challenges, blowdown debris, and many ups and downs (some are steep) that offers access to an area with old growth pines, abundant wildlife, and dramatic views. Most campsites on this trail are accessible by canoe. Reservation entry point #74- Snowbank Lake Loop.
Base loop – Snowbank and Kekekabic Trails – 21.8
Snowbank, Old Pines, and Kekekabic Trails – 26.1
Snowbank, Old Pines, and Kekekabic Trails – loop around snowbank, Disappointment and Moiyaka/Medas Lakes – 33.8 miles; add on the Becoosin-Benezie loop for an additional 1.5 miles
Maps: Fisher Map #31 or 10 & 11
The Sioux Hustler Trail
This is a 32-mile lollipop loop about 21 miles east of Buyck, MN (near Cook, MN). This is a minimally maintained and difficult trail due to route finding, trail obstructions, and the terrain. The trail enters into a very remote area of the BWCA, and the USFS recommends that only experienced hikers attempt this loop. Campsites are available on three different lakes: Emerald, Devil’s Cascade, and Pageant Lakes. The scenic highlight of this trail is the Devil’s Cascade that falls 75 feet through a granite gorge flowing from Lower Pauness Lake. Reservation entry point #15 – Sioux Hustler Trail.
Map: Fisher Map #16
The Pow Wow Trail
This is a 30.1-mile lollipop loop 17 miles north of Isabella, MN. The trail originates from Forest Center, an abandoned logging town from the ’50s and ’60s. The trail is part overgrown logging road, which makes for easier hiking and a traditional wilderness trail, which is more challenging. There are numerous wetland and beaver dam crossings and hikers will get wet early and often, as there is only one maintained bridge on the trail. This area is interesting due to the 2011 Pagami Creek fire, which radically altered the landscape and offers the opportunity to view the regrowth of an old forest. Moose and wolves are abundant in this area, and most trail campsites are not accessible by canoe. The trail has been impassible until recently but is now open due to the efforts of volunteer trail clearing crews. It is a good idea to contact the Kawishiwi Ranger District (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/superior/recarea/?recid=37021) to get an update on trail conditions before making a reservation. Reservation entry point #86 – The Pow Wow Trail.
Map: Fisher Map #4
The Kekekabic Trail
This is a 42-mile trail that transects the BWCA from just east of Ely to the top of the Gunflint Trail along the Canadian border and connects to the northern terminus of the Border Route Trail. Originally built in the 1930s for fighting fires, the trail is typically referred to as the “Kek” and even has an old USFS cabin about halfway through the route on Kekekabic Lake, where there used to be a fire tower. Windstorms, clear-cutting, and limited use have made this trail hard to navigate with many obstructions blocking or obscuring this minimum maintenance route. Volunteer crews have been working diligently the last few years to open the trail, and it is currently passable though still quite challenging. The terrain is rocky with many ups and downs and trailblazing is minimal with rock cairns placed along the route, which crosses one of the most remote sections of the BWCA. At least half of the campsites on the route are accessible by canoe. Aside from the challenge of backpacking this route, this trail requires two cars or an outfitter shuttle as the Western trailhead (Ely) is 180 miles (4.5 hours) away from the eastern trailhead (Gunflint Trail – 47 miles Northwest of Grand Marais). Reservation entry point #74 – Kekekabic Trail West (Ely) or #56 – Kekekabic Trail East (Gunflint Trail).
Map: Fisher #F10-11-12
The Border Route Trail
This is a 65-mile trail along the Minnesota and Canadian border of which 35 miles are inside of the BWCA. There are additional loops and add-ons to this trail, and it is possible to section hike it as there are many resorts in close proximity to parts of the trail and it roughly parallels the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway (Hwy 12 from Grand Marais). This trail offers dramatic views of border lakes, cliff vistas, old-growth forest, and waterfalls. There are some stretches of the trail with no water access, and backpackers must plan accordingly. This trail connects the northern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail (https://superiorhiking.org/) with the Kekekabic and is part of the larger North Country Trail. There is a guide book available from the Minnesota Rovers Club and can be ordered by calling (651) 257-7324. There are multiple entry points for this trail, reservation entry points #81 (west), 82 (center), or 83 (east).
Maps: Fisher Maps #12-13-14
Other Hiking/Backpacking Trails of Note in the BWCA
The Big Moose Trail – 6 miles out and back, a BWCA campsite is located near the trail on Big Moose Lake. Entry point #76, Fisher Map #9.
The Eagle Mountain Trail – a 7-mile out and back hike to the highest point in Minnesota (2301 feet), there are two BWCA campsites on Whale Lake. Entry point #79, Fisher Map #7.
The Herriman Trail – a series of loop trails that can be interconnected for a 3-14 mile hike or backpacking trip, there is only one campsite that is not accessible from canoe routes. Entry point #13, Fisher Map #15.
The Norway Trail – 8 miles out and back with no campsites. Entry point #10, Fisher Map #8.
The South Lake Trail – 7 miles out and back with one BWCA campsite on Partridge Lake. Entry point #59, Fisher Map #13.
Permits and Regulations
You need a permit to enter the BWCA. Between May 1 and September 30, reservations are required for overnight trips and each entry point has a daily quota for the number of groups that may enter. Between October 1 and April 30, reservations are not required. All permits are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis and there is a flat fee:
- $6 – permit fee
- $16 per adult (not per night, flat fee per adult)
- $8 for youth under 18 (not per night, flat fee per youth)
You must pick up overnight permits in person at the appropriate ranger district or at select outfitters. A pre-trip orientation is required of all overnight visitors and is provided by the USFS or the outfitter.
Day-use permits are self-issued at each entry point USFS kiosk, and they are free.
Make overnight permit reservations online at Recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777. https://www.recreation.gov/permits/233396/registration/detailed-availability?type=OvernightHike&date=2019-07-16T19:16:06.372Z
BWCAW USFS Trip Planning guide (pdf): https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprd3799760.pdf
One of the great things about backpacking in the BWCA is that the campsites are located on lakes, have a USFS fire grate and latrines. Campsites are first-come, first-serve and it is important to get to your campsite early enough in the day to avoid having to travel further than expected to find a place to camp because your desired site is occupied.
Dispersed camping is allowed but it is discouraged, and should only be done as a last resort. Leave no trace rules apply and fires are absolutely prohibited except in USFS fire grates at designated campsites.
BWCA Search and Rescue
In Minnesota, the local county sheriff’s office conducts search and rescue operations. For the BWCA, three counties have jurisdiction: St. Louis, Lake and Cook. If there is an emergency, and you have cell phone reception, call 911 or directly to the appropriate county sheriff. Cell phone coverage is not reliable at all in the BWCA, so it is advisable to carry a satellite communication device or to communicate a trip plan to family or friends so that they can call on your behalf should you fail to exit the wilderness per plan.
The search and rescue resources for the BWCA are as follows:
- Lake County Sheriff – Ely/Isabella area – 1-800-450-8832
- Cook County Sheriff – Grand Marais/Tofte area – 1-218-387-3030
- St. Louis County – Ely/Cook area – 1-218-365-3344
The BWCA has a very healthy population of black bears. You must be prepared to properly hang your food with a bear bag or use a bear canister. When picking up your permit, the USFS staff or outfitter issuing the permit will orient you and your group on the proper procedures for keeping your food and camp safe from bears. Bear canisters are not mandatory in the BWCA and there are no bear boxes at backcountry campsites.
Water is abundant in the BWCA, and in most cases, you will be able to resupply multiple times per day on the trail and as needed in camp, which will be on a lake. You should always consult a map while hiking to determine if you will be entering a long stretch of trail with limited water sources. It is highly recommended that you filter or purify all water that you plan to drink or use for cooking.
The BWCA is an incredible place to backpack, and since most permits issued in the BWCA are for canoeing, there is less pressure on the trail system than there is on the canoe routes. This quick and dirty guide provides all the information you will need to plan a backpacking trip into this pristine wilderness area.
Here are a few additional resources I have found helpful for planning trips into the BWCA on foot or by canoe:
Superior National Forest (USDA) website (https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/superior/home)
North Country Trail, Minnesota Chapter (https://northcountrytrail.org/trail/minnesota/)