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Best Outdoor Activities in MN - Boundary Waters Canoe Area

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Ely Outfitting Company

Ely Outfitting Company

Complete Outfitting for the BWCA

FROM$110 per day
Based on 216 reviews

At Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service, sharing the wilderness is their passion. Friendly, trail-wise staff provide personalized canoe trip outfitting, expert advice, and quality guided trips so that families and friends of all backgrounds and experience levels may enjoy the rejuvenating spirit of the outdoors in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park. read more

Piragis Northwoods Company

Piragis Northwoods Company

BWCA Complete & Partial Outfitting & Guide Service

FROM$48 per day
Based on 547 reviews

Discover BWCA's lakes and rivers with the Piragis Northwoods Company. Located in the action-packed outdoors Ely, Minnesota, Piragis Northwoods Company Outfitters is a full-service canoe trip outfitter for the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park.read more

Sawtooth Outfitters

Sawtooth Outfitters

Canoe, Kayak, SUP Rentals, BWCA Outfitting

FROM$42 per day
Based on 134 reviews

Located 1.5 hours north of Duluth, Sawtooth Outfitters is your one-stop Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) and Lake Superior North Shore outfitting company! They offer BWCA outfitting gear rentals, new and used canoes, kayaks, bikes and skis for rent.read more

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Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Make just one trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and your life will be changed forever. This pristine wilderness extends along 150 miles of the US/Canada border in Northern Minnesota. The region looks much the same as it did in the early 1900s when preservation efforts began. Water makes up 20% of the total area. It’s 1,100 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers and streams makes it a one of a kind destination for canoeing, hiking, camping and fishing.

Days consist of paddling tranquil lake after lake, portaging canoes between the lakes on historic routes traversed by early fur traders and shared with wildlife, and setting up camp in one of the 2000 backcountry campsites perched on the glacial lakes. If you are lucky, you may spot one of the resident moose or hear wolves howling at night as you tuck into your tent. One incredible call you have a good chance of hearing is the haunting song of the loon. These aquatic birds are an iconic symbol of the Boundary Waters. They are also the Minnesota state bird. Their distinctive calls can be heard echoing across the lake in the early evening hours. The rich wildlife and intense solitude make BWCA an ideal destination for anyone who wants to reconnect with nature and the great outdoors.

Canoeing in the BWCA

Canoeing the historic routes of the BWCA you’ll find towering pines, enormous slabs of granite, marshes, and small streams connecting lakes. With thousands of miles of canoe and portage trails, the BWCA offers an adventure for all. For day trips or with kids, a great BWCA lake to take the canoe out on is Sea Gull Lake – an enormous, versatile, and extremely scenic lake that is easy, kid-friendly, and located close to several campsites near Entry #54. For overnight or mult-day canoe trips, there are hundreds of otions across the BWCA. Beginner friendly lake routes include Long Island Base Camp, Saganaga Lake, Red Rock Loop, and Granite River. Some moderate to challenging routes include Crossbay to Poplar Lake, Frost River Loop, and Tuscarora West. The Boundary Waters outfitters featured on TripOutside can help you plan the perfect route based on your experience and preferences. Whether you desire a challenging trip over many miles paddling dozens of lakes and rivers and taking in scenic waterfalls, or a peaceful paddle to observe ancient pictographs, the BWCA has endless options. TripOutside can help you find your ideal route with outfitters based both in Ely and on the Superior shore in Tofte, who provide complete outfitting for your BWCA adventure.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Permits

Boundary Waters permits are required all year, but there are a few factors that decide which permit you will need and how to get it. If you are doing a canoe camping trip during the summer months, you will need an OP permit, an Overnight Paddle permit that allows you to paddle and camp overnight in the BWCA.  Get an OP permit for your BWCA trip at Recreation.gov.  It helps to know where you will be renting a canoe or gear first, so you can choose the outfitter as the issuing station so they can issue the permit when you pick up your gear.  Alternatively, the outfitter can also book the permit for you.

Different Types of Boundary Waters Permits

Between May 1st and September 30th

OP – Overnight Paddle: This is the most popular permit (and way to explore) for the Boundary Waters trip.  This is a permit for your typical canoe camping trip in the BWCA.

Day use only, no camping: you just need a Self Issued Permit available at the kiosks at the BWCA entry points and Forest Service offices.

Hiking and camping overnight, no paddling:  You need an Overnight Hiking Permit for the location you are entering and there is no stay limit for the number of nights.

After September 30th and before May 1st

Self Issued Permit: from kiosks at BWCAW entry points and Forest Service offices. Reservations are not required and there are no recreation fees.

Getting to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

The BWCA is just over 200 miles away from Minneapolis / St. Paul – so you can fly into MSP airport and drive up to Ely, or fly directly to Duluth airport for a shorter commute to Ely and the Boundary Waters.

When to Visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area

The summer months between May and September are the most popular, but the BWCA is visited year round. Our favorite time in the Boundary Waters is late August and early September. The mosquitos that are in full force in the peak summer months have typically eased off by late August. The days are usually still warm enough to enjoy a swim in the pure, warm water. Winter is an excellent time to visit if you are prepared with the right gear. With the right gear and knowledge, winter camping in the Boundary Waters can be an extraordinary experience. There are far fewer visitors, and you will have the solitude of this incredible wilderness to yourself –  including no bugs! Seeing this pristine wilderness covered in snow is an incredible experience. Enjoy it by snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or dog sledding for a truly unique winter adventure.

Save the Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining.  The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is leading the effort to ensure permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Wilderness, America’s most visited Wilderness and Minnesota’s crown jewel, from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining.

What would a Twin Metals mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters mean? Pollution. Here’s a look at different ways this toxic mine could pollute the Wilderness. Not this mine. Not this place. #SavetheBWCA

Find out more about how you can help Save the BWCA!

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness FAQs

Do I need a permit to visit the BWCA?
Yes, a permit is required for everyone who enters the BWCA. For canoe camping trips between May 1 and Sept. 30, a quota entry permit is required and these permits are available to reserve on a first-come, first-served basis starting in January each year.

How long can I wait to reserve my BWCA permit?
Because permits are first come first serve and entry points have limits per day on the number of people allowed, you should book your permit as soon as you’ve decided on an entry point and entry date. Permits become available in January, and while permits will still be available throughout the paddling season, you may need much more flexibility for your preferred entry point and entry date.

How much does a BWCA permit cost?
BWCA permits cost $16 per adult per trip and $8 per youth (under 18 years) per trip, plus a $6 nonrefundable reservation fee per group, and a $10 nonrefundable permit acquisition fee per group when we reserve your permit.  To provide an example, the total BWCA permit fees for a group of four adults is $80.

What information is required to reserve a permit?
Your exact entry date (the day you put on the water) and entry point are required and can not be changed. Other details of your trip, such as your group size, number of watercraft, trip end date, and exit point can be changed at any time.  We recommend listing up to three Alternate Permit Holders on your permit. If the listed Permit Holder is unable to do the trip, the permit may still be issued to an Alternate Permit Holder listed when the permit was originally reserved.

What is an “entry point”?
The BWCAW has designated about 70 different entry points to choose from. Entry points are specific locations where a group can enter the Wilderness. A specified number of permits are available at each entry point for each day, as set by the US Forest Service. Some entry points may have as many as a couple dozen permits available per day, and some may have as few as just one permit per day. One permit is good for a group size of up to nine people.

Is the permit price refundable if I cancel my trip?
If your original permit is cancelled at least two days before the entry date, you will receive a refund of your original permit fee minus the $6 nonrefundable reservation fee and $10 nonrefundable permit acquisition fee. If your permit is cancelled within two days before your entry date, the price of two adult permits ($32) and the nonrefundable fees will be withheld from the refund. There is no refund of permit fees for no shows.

What if I change my mind and want a different entry date or entry point?
The same refund rules apply per the above, and you will need to reserve a new entry permit for your new entry date and entry point.

How do I reserve a BWCA entry permit?
There are several ways you can reserve a permit.

  1. You can have your BWCA outfitter reserve a permit for you.
  2. You can reserve your permit online at www.recreation.gov. If reserving your permit online, you will need to select an issuing station for pickup of the permit.  If you are working with a BWCA outfitter or renting gear, you can list the outfitter as the issuing station so they can conveniently issue your permit when you pick up your outfitting.

Am I able to transfer my permit to someone else?
No. They are not transferable. Permits can only be issued to either the Permit Holder or an Alternate Permit Holder listed when the permit was originally reserved.