With over 1,200 miles of canoeable lakes and rivers, you could spend a lifetime exploring the pristine waters and rugged portage trails of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Regardless of whether that’s your plan or if you just want a taste of what the North Woods has to offer, you’ll need some ideas for where to start. Here you’ll find the best Boundary Waters routes, across a variety of trip lengths.
Use your imagination and be honest about your paddling skills and fitness when studying maps to plan a Boundary Waters canoe trip. Remember to think about your expectations; for example, do you want the focus of the trip to be fishing, relaxing, having fun as a family, or pushing yourself to cover distance? Then develop an itinerary to match.
Local outfitters are your best source of route information. They know the lay of the land and can recommend the perfect route for your experience level and expectations. The trips below make for great starting points, but don’t be afraid to make adjustments to create what is truly the “best” Boundary Waters canoe trip for you.
Once you’ve selected your route, it’s time to secure your permit. Permits for the Boundary Waters are based on entry points and can be reserved online in advance for trips taking place between May 1 and September 30. A self-serve registration system is used at entry points during the rest of the year.
[ This article is part of our Ultimate Guide To Canoeing The Boundary Waters. Find all the resources you need to plan a paddle trip in the BWCA.]
Best Boundary Waters day trips
Sawbill Lake and surrounding lakes
If you only have a half-day, explore the Sawbill Lake area. It’s a great entry point for all experience levels, including beginners. Start at Sawbill and then take the short, easy portages over to Alton, Kelso or Smoke lakes. You might see moose, loons, eagles and beavers. Look for gnarled, weathered trees growing out of rock, tamaracks, bog flora, various mosses and intriguing glacial erratic boulders.
Clearwater and Mountain lakes
If you have the whole day to explore, paddle Clearwater Lake on the eastern side of the wilderness area. A quick portage to Mountain Lake will add to your adventure. You will find towering cliffs, inspiring scenery, crystal-clear water and abundant wildlife along this historic voyageur trail.
Best 3-day Boundary Waters trips
Starting from entry point 54, this 25-mile route with six portages is a great long weekend trip for intermediate paddlers. Big lakes are the highlight on this trip, with plenty of island campsites to assure privacy.
Looking for an easy introduction to the Boundary Waters? Starting at entry point 31, this 21-mile route has eight simple portages and takes in the beauty of both branches of the Kawishiwi River, near Ely.
Best Boundary Waters 4-day trips
Lac La Croix
Make a run for the border on this 28-mile, out-and-back route starting at entry point 16. Sprawling Lac La Croix is stunning with its fleet of islands, and along the way you’ll touch on the more intimate surroundings of Nina Moose Lake and Lake Agnes. A dozen portages make this route best for intermediate canoe campers.
Launch from entry point 55 and travel 30 miles west to Ashdick Lake to explore a wilder corner of the Minnesota Boundary Waters along the Canadian border. This challenging route features 17 portages.
Best Boundary Waters 5-day trip
More time on the trail allows you the luxury of exploring a larger radius of wilderness lakes around entry point 27, east of Ely. This 38-mile route has 19 portages and plenty of challenges for intermediate paddlers.
Best 7-day Boundary Waters canoe trip
Sawbill Southern Boundary
Starting from the Sawbill Trail at entry point 50, this epic 62-mile Boundary Waters canoe route has 52 portages. Don’t let that dissuade you. Choose a lightweight canoe and pack carefully to reap the rewards of secret lakes and great wildlife viewing opportunities in the remote southeastern corner of the wilderness.
Conor Mihell is a writer and outdoor educator with extensive wilderness tripping experience, ranging from Minnesota’s North Woods to the Canadian high arctic, in all seasons of the year. He’s most at home on long journeys by canoe, sea kayak and snowshoe.