The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a Wilderness area within the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. The BWCAW is renowned as a destination for both canoeing and fishing on its many lakes and is the most visited wilderness in the United States.

Quick facts:

  • 250,000+ annual visitors
  • 1000+ lakes
  • 2,200+ campsites
  • 1,500 miles of canoe routes
  • 1.1 million acres
  • Contains the highest point in Minnesota, Eagle Mountain, at 2,301 feet
  • Contains some of the oldest rock on Earth, up to 2.7 billion years old
  • Federally designated as a wilderness in 1964 and more fully protected in 1978


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Most visitors to the Boundary Waters travel through the region of lakes and rivers by canoe, portaging their canoe and gear over portage trails that connect the waterways. Camping is allowed only at designated campsites, which are clearly marked on commercially-available maps and have a fire grate and a widerness latrine. Trips can range from a single day excursions to multi-week adventures deep into the wilderness’s interior.

Regions

The BWCAW is typically split up into a eastern and western regions. The eastern region includes the Gunflint Trail, a historic road which runs near the Canadian border from Lake Superior at Grand Marais to its terminus in the heart of the wilderness some 55 miles inland, near Saganaga, Seagull and other entry points. Other entry points in this region are accessed via the Sawbill Trail, a 30 mile road from Lake Superior at Tofte and which terminates at Sawbill Lake.

The western region is primarily accessed through the town of Ely. Entry points are scattered all over the area, including along the Fernberg Road, which runs east from Ely for approximately 20 miles before terminating at the Lake One entry point. The Echo Trail provides access to entry points northwest of Ely, and Highway 1 runs toward Lake Superior and provides access to other areas of the wilderness.

Every entry point gives visitors access to a different, unique area of the wilderness. Some visitors find an area they love to return to year after year, while others enjoy the adventure of exploring new areas and seem determined to visit through each of the 80+ entry points.

Outfitters

There are dozens of outfitters available to help visitors experience the Boundary Waters. Outfitters will rent you a canoe and paddles, or an entire package so you just have to show up with your clothing. Some offer guide services, and any will help visitors with trip planning or answer any other questions.

To find an outfitter, select which region you would like to visit:

Permits and Regulations

All visitors are required to possess a permit, which allows for entry at a specific entry point, on a specific day. From May 1 to September 30, permits are subject to a daily quota system which restricts the number of parties which can enter on that day. For that reason, it is a good idea to reserve your permit as early in the year as possible. Permits can be reserved here.

There are other rules in place as well that help maintain the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters, including a group size limit of nine people or four canoes (and no more than that number should ever assemble anywhere in the wilderness); it is also illegal to use soap in the lakes (for washing dishes or bathing). For a full list of the regulations, visit the official BWCAW website.


External resources:

  1. Wilderness.net: BWCAW
  2. BWCAW page on Wikipedia