The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) is a 1 million-acre wilderness area located within the Superior National Forest. This pristine area is accessible only by hiking or paddling your way in, there are no motorized vehicles are allowed. It’s a great way to experience the incredibly beautiful (and peaceful) Northwoods without the distractions of modern technology. In this guide, we will help you experience a day trip or overnight trip into the BWCA with Cascade Vacation Rentals.
There are three ways you can explore and enjoy the BWCA:
Take a Day Trip by Canoe
Free day passes allow you to experience the BWCA without needing to spend the night in the wilderness. There are many, many routes you can take to experience the BWCA with a day trip. You can find the passes usually in a kiosk near entry points, or obtain one from any Forest Service station. There are no reservations required. You can also contact any of the outfitters in the area to rent a canoe and gear for your day trip.
Here are some of our favorite day trips:
- Hungry Jack Lake to Rose Lake: This popular Gunflint Trail BWCA destination features a picturesque waterfall and stairway portage. The Exploring the North Shore podcast did a Day Trip to Rose Lake feature including a video and podcast episode. The article includes details on how to get to Rose Lake from Hungry Jack Lake. The trip includes traveling on four lakes with three portages.
- Poplar Lake to Horseshoe Lake: Another popular route along the Gunflint Trail, this day trip also includes four lakes with three portages. Start out at Poplar Creek Retreat on Little Ollie Lake for direct access to the Lizz/Swamp Entry Point. Journey across the small but scenic Lizz Lake to Caribou Lake. A small portage between Caribou Lake brings you to Horseshoe Lake, one of my personal favorite lakes in the BWCA.
- Sawbill Lake to Alton Lake: Located at the end of the Sawbill Trail in Tofte. This route is a family-friendly day trip into the BWCA. Launch from the public boat landing and enjoy a short portage onto Alton Lake. You can also paddle to the north side of Alton Lake and take another short portage into Kelso Lake.
- Loon Lake to Crab Lake: Guests at our rental Portage House on Loon Lake will love this short day trip into a lesser-visited lake. Crab Lake is a bit of a dead-end in the BWCA, so not as many people visit it. However, the short portage to Crab Lake is just a tiny paddle away from Portage House. So this is a great day trip to make during your stay.
- Clearwater Lake to Little Caribou Lake: Clearwater Lake itself is half in the BWCA and half out of it. So, technically, you don’t have to leave Clearwater Lake to enjoy the BWCA. But, if you do… There are a few portages to get to Caribou Lake from Clearwater Lake. If you are staying at our property Clearwater Castle, you’ll be just a short paddle across the lake to portage 830. This will lead you into Caribou Lake which leads to Little Caribou Lake via a short portage.
Take an Overnight Summertime Paddle Trip
Go in for a night, go in for a week. We know many of our guests will base camp from one of our BWCA Access homes. From there, some members of the group will head into the BWCA for a couple of nights. This is a great idea if some members of your family want to camp in the BWCA overnight and others prefer the comforts of a vacation rental.
An overnight experience in the BWCA is much different from a day trip. Finding a campsite, setting up camp, fishing, cooking dinner over an open fire, and enjoying sleeping under the stars (well, usually in a tent, the BWCA still has mosquitoes)! For many, it’s a trip of a lifetime!
Unlike a day trip, overnight trips happening between May 1 and September 30 require the advance purchase of an overnight paddle permit. You can purchase a permit starting in late January each year through Reacreation.gov. If you already know when and where you want to go, and what Entry Point (EP) you will be using, we recommend you purchase your permit sooner rather than later. Popular EPs will book up within days of permits becoming available! Others have enough daily permits that you may be able to get one just a week or two ahead of your trip. But, it’s best not to gamble with permits and book early!
Overnight permits need to be obtained from an outfitter or Forest Service office. Overnight permits have other requirements, as well. These include viewing BWCA videos to help you know how to safely and respectfully visit this vast wilderness area.
Most of the day trip routes above could make for a great overnight trip into the BWCA.
Exploring the North Shore goes into more details on overnight camping trips along with more suggested routes for beginners in their Beginner’s Guide to the BWCA.
We also have an article on overnight camping in the BWCA that includes links to some recommended outfitters.
Take a Backpacking/Hiking Trip
While best known as a paddling destination, the BWCA also features miles of hiking trails. There are five trail systems that lead through the BWCA, the most popular of these being the Border Route Trail. The Border Route Trail is a 67-mile trail that leads from Swamp River west of Grand Portage to just past Gunflint Lake. Aptly named, most of the trail follows close to the US/Canadian border. Since sections of the trail go into the BWCA, permits are required for overnight trips in these areas. If you plan to overnight hike on the Border Route Trail, we recommend you book your permit early as there are only one to three permits per day at each of the trail EPs.
You can also enjoy the BWCA from the Brule Lake Trail and Eagle Mountain Trail (which both have unlimited permits so advance booking is not required).
Enjoying the BWCA by hiking the trails is another great way to experience the wilderness area. You can hike, camp, and enjoy the lake shorelines for fishing or dipping in your toes along the way.
Experience the BWCA with Cascade Vacation Rentals
If you want to experience the BWCA while also staying in a vacation rental, check out our homes that have access to the BWCA. Note that Birch Lake Retreat is marked as having access to the BWCA. However, actual access from Birch Lake is a bit difficult and does not have an EP associated with it. We are going to take this route this summer so we can create a better BWCA guide for each individual property.
EP’s For CVR Properties:
- Birch Lake Retreat: Does not have direct access to an EP but has access to the South Lake Trail and Moss Lake Trail for hiking. EP 60 Duncan Lake is nearby.
- Poplar Creek Retreat: EP 47 Lizz/Swamp is closest to Poplar Creek Retreat. EP 47 is a short portage to reach the BWCA and is ideal for beginning paddlers.
- Clearwater Castle: EP 62 Clearwater Lake will be the permit you want to get to enjoy BWCA access from Clearwater Lake.
- Portage House: Can access the BWCA via a short portage to Crab Lake. However, there are no camping sights on Crab Lake. This does bring you near the Border Route Trail (west) access point for hiking trips.
We hope to expand on this article with more trip ideas in the future.