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Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Updated on May 11, 2015

Fall colors in the BWCA

Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Back some years ago when I lived in the Midwest the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) was my favorite place in the world to head out to for my yearly vacation. The BWCA sits at the very top of Minnesota bordering Canada and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. My sister lives right on the edge of the BWCA just out of the town of ELY Minnesota which is one of the entry points into the BWCA.

The BWCA is a 1,090,000 acre wildlife and wilderness area that sits in the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. The BWCA is under the governing body of the U.S. Forestry Service. There are rules and regulations for entering and enjoying this pristine nature area. The BWCA is a true wilderness experience and has been named as one of the top fifty destinations by the National Geographic to visit in a person’s lifetime.

The protected area was established back in 1926 and then in 1964 it was made part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The BWCA contains over 1,200 miles of canoe routes and over 2,000 designated campsites. If you are looking for solitude and to get back to nature like our ancestors lived this is the place to do it in. I have taken groups of people each year for several years into the BWCA for 10 days each time. We hired an outfitter out of Ely MN to supply us with all the permits and equipment we needed for the trip into the wilderness. The outfitter we used would take us out the drop off location and he would be back at the designated location that we set up with him to pick us back up after our trip. During the week that we were out in the wilderness we had no communication with the rest of the world and we are on our own if anything should have happened to us while we in the BWCA.


Permits for entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

To go into the BWCA you will need to have a permit to enter the park. Reservations are highly recommended since there are only a limited number of permits available for each entry point. One permit is required per traveling group and allows up to 9 people and 4 canoes per permit. It is important to note that permit reservations are well underway by mid-January so early trip planning is essential, especially if you have a large group and require multiple permits.

From October 1st through April 30th overnight permits are not required. During this time of year you may pick up a day permit at any designated issuing station the day of or the day before you entry.

The fees for the permits is not to costly, a nonrefundable reservation fee of $6.00 is charged for each permit issued. There is a maximum of 9 persons / 4 canoes allowed on a permit traveling and camping together. There is a user fee of $16.00 (adult) and $8.00 (child 17 and under) per visit.

Like I mentioned above, it is highly recommended if you are thinking of heading to the BWCA to start putting in your reservations early. With limited amount of permits available per entry point you may not get the permit you are wanting. Usually when we came out of the BWCA we would head to our outfitter and put in our reservations for the next year. This way we had a very good chance of obtaining the permits we wanted for the next year at the same time.

BWCA Campsite

Some rules while enjoying the BWCA

To keep the pristine beauty of the BWCA there are many rules with overnight camping and cleanliness of the camp sites. Please follow along with these rules they are very important and it will help keep you out of trouble with the rangers that oversee the area.

Camp only at Forest Service designated campsites; you will recognize these sites since each one has a steel fire grate and a wilderness latrine. For a fire in the fire pit do not cut down any live trees or live vegetation, there is always plenty of down timber in the area to use for firewood. A group can stay up to fourteen days on a designated site. Make sure you always drown your fire with water anytime you are going to be away from your campsite or at bedtime when no one is staying up to watch the fire. Do not leave any garbage in the fire pit when you leave the campsite. I have seen this to many times and it is a violation to leave any garbage or bottles at the site when you leave.

During high fire danger months you will not be able to have a campfire, so it would be a good idea to bring a small camp stove to cook with, this also comes in handy when it is raining outside and you cannot get a campfire started.

Use latrines at designated campsites Latrines are not garbage cans and should be used for the intended purpose only. Personal waste items such as cigarettes, cotton swabs, or plastic feminine products should always be packed out and should never go into the latrines.

Cans and glass bottles are not allowed. Containers of fuel, insect repellent, medicines, personal toilet articles, and other items that are not foods or beverages are the only cans and bottles you may keep in their original containers.

What I tell all the people that go with me is, remember what you bring into the BWCA and you do not eat you will need to take it back out of the BWCA when we leave. There is no leaving anything behind and there is no burying it at a campsite.

It is very important to follow these rules, this is a very unique place and many areas of this wilderness has never been stepped foot on by man. This is only one of very few places left in the world that can be called a true untouched by man pristine wilderness area that we can enjoy, so let’s keep it clean for the next person that comes along.

Ojibwe Pictograph of North Hegman Lake

Northern Lights in the BWCA

Moose in the BWCA

What to do and see while in the wilderness.

The BWCA is full of large and small wildlife. There are large animals from moose, black bear, white tail deer, timber wolves and fox all over the wilderness area. There are many small animals such as beavers, bobcats, rabbits, lynx and mink. There are also thousands of types birds to see while on your adventure also. Make sure that you have your camera ready at every moment because you will never know when you will come to that picture taking moment.

Another thing that you may come across depending on the route you take is Native American Pictographs. The BWCA has numerous turn of the century pictographs on the large granite walls along the water’s edge. Many canoe travelers have seen these awesome drawings and have wondered what these Native American Indians were trying to communicate.

An awesome experience to see is the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) show in the northern sky. I have had the experience to see the northern lights several times in my lifetime. If you are ever so lucky to see this spectacular light show especially in the BWCA it will be a lifelong memory that you will never forget.

There are so many things to do and see while paddling your way through the boundary waters one cannot mention them all here in this hub post. I would love to hear some of your stories of experiences that you may have encountered while you were out in the wilderness.

A great book about life in the BWCA

Ely Minnesota, The main entry town for the BWCA

ely minnesota:
Ely, MN 55731, USA

get directions


Boundary Waters Canoe Area

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Paddling the BWCA

Have you every been here before, I would love to hear your experiences.

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    • profile image

      Pam Hubbard 

      2 months ago

      May I use your black and white canoeist picture as an inspiration for my own painting? It is lovely.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 

      3 years ago from Minnesota

      Tom, I love this area, and its awesome to see this beautiful hub about it. I live in the BWCAW, which just as beautiful.

    • Tom the traveler profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Inverness, Florida

      My pleasure, thank you for stopping by.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I think it would be a thrill to kayak in that area....maybe one day I'll make it there. Thanks for the tour.


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