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Frequently Asked Questions

Table of Contents: 

I.  Basic questions, basic answers

    1.  What is the BWCA (BWCAW), Boundary Waters? 
    2.  Who maintains it? 
    3.  How does one get there? 
    4.  Who may travel in the wilderness area?  How are permits obtained?           
    5.  Which modes of travel may be used? 
    6.  What are the different regions and entry points? 
    7.  What Forest Service rules must visitors abide by? 
    8.  How does one read a BWCA Map?  (What's a rod?) 
    9.  How much do reservations and user fees cost?

II.  Questions, Answers and Trivia.
    1.  A user has an entry permit.  What comes next?
    2.  May rapids be "run" in the BWCA?
    3.  Where may pictographs (Indian paintings) be found?
    4.  What's the hardest portage? 
    5.  Who is Dorothy Molter?  Where was her cabin? 
    6.  How is an outfitter selected?



I.  Basic Questions, Basic Answers 

1.  What is the BWCA or BWCAW? 
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (often called the BWCA or BWCAW or Boundary Waters) is known as a canoeist's paradise, although it offers opportunities for kayaking, hiking, cross country skiing and dog sledding as well. The area is quite beautiful and pristine. 1,200 miles of canoe routes traverse this 1 million acre area of northeastern Minnesota, and it's visited by about 180,000 people each year. It's part of the National Wilderness Preservation System and the Superior National Forest. 

Numerous lakes are interconnected by a network of portage trails. Most of the area, consequently, is designed for canoe travel only. Some lakes near the outer borders of the Wilderness are accessible by motorboats up to 25 hp.

About 100 miles of hiking trails crisscross the area, including the 40-mile Kekekabic, 20-mile Pow Wow, Sioux/Hustler, Eagle Mountain and Border Route trails. More information about BWCA hiking trails.

The area is protected with a permit quota system which limits the number of groups entering the wilderness. 

2.  Who maintains it? 
Simple answer: The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), US Department of Agriculture.  Duluth, Minnesota is the main headquarters for the BWCA, and each region has a ranger station. Each also has a permit issuing station, and can offer advice on local conditions and recreation opportunities. Volunteers also help to maintain the Wilderness.

3.  How does one get there? 
There are two main sides to the BWCAW; east and west. From Duluth, Minnesota you can go to the western entrance areas by heading north on HWY 33/53 to Ely, Cook, Crane Lake or Buyck. You can also head from Duluth on HWY 61 up the North Shore, where you can access the eastern side; primarily the Sawbill Trail, Gunflint Trail and Arrowhead Trail, all County Roads.
Flights are available through Delta and other carriers to Minneapolis, or Duluth.

4.  Who may travel in the wilderness area?  How are permits obtained? 
Anyone with a travel permit may enter the BWCA Wilderness. When staying overnight, or using motorized day travel, you need a permit which locks in your entry point, date, and mode of travel.

Permit entry fees begin in 1998. Fees are per person, per trip. Season passes are available and discounts for children and Senior Citizens apply to all fees. The entire fee is due when the permit is reserved, and you must pick up the permit at the location you designate when making the reservation. Location can be your canoe outfitter, or the nearest ranger station to your point of entry.

Permits are available from the:
BWCAW Reservation Center

P.O. Box 462
Ballston Spa, NY 12020. Phone: 877-550-6777 (toll free)
TDD: 877-TDD-NRRS (toll free)
FAX: 518-884-9951

Web Site:

5.  Which modes of travel may be used? 
Depends. Most areas are paddle-only (canoe/kayak). Some areas allow motorboats, and must be designated on your travel permit. Hiking-only permits are separate, and must be designated as such. You may canoe in, using a canoe permit, then begin hiking in the wilderness if you wish (under your canoeing permit) as long as you leave the Wilderness in your canoe. If you have a day permit, it must be specified as a motor permit if you are traveling by motorboat and it must be reserved. 

6.  What are the different regions and entry points? 
Each region has a ranger station which serves as a permit issuing office. View the entry points at: Canoeing & Motoring Entries and Hiking Entries. You may contact the individual ranger stations for detailed information on routes and conditions. 

Superior National Forest Supervisor's Office

Address: 8901 Grand Avenue Place

District: Forest Supervisor

Phone #:
(218) 626-4300 Fax #: (218) 626-4354

Hours of Operation:
08:00 AM to 04:30 PM

SOUTHBOUND I-35: take Grand Ave. exit (Hwy 23), go 2.7 mi. Look for Forest Service sign & turn right onto Grand Ave. Pl. -- NORTHBOUND I-35: take Midway/Beck's Rd exit, turn right. Follow to Commonwealth Ave. (Hwy 23) and turn left (becomes Grand Ave.). Travel 2.25 mi., look for Forest Service sign and turn left.


Gunflint Ranger Station

Address: 2020 W. Highway 61

District: Grand Marais Area/Gunflint Trail

Phone #:
(218) 387-1750 Fax #: (218) 387-3246

Hours of Operation: 07:00 AM to 05:00 PM

Directions: Located on Hwy 61 on the right hand side after entering the 40 MPH area.

Open daily May 1 to Sept 30. After Labor Day - Daily 8:00 am - 4:30 pm

Isabella Work Station

 Address: 3989 Forest Service Dr.

District: Tofte; serving the Isabella Area

Phone #: (218) 323-7722

Hours of Operation:
07:30 AM to 04:00 PM

Directions: CLOSED ON MONDAYS AND TUESDAYS. May 1 - Fishing Opener, also closed weekends.

After fishing opener - Sept 30, Wednesday - Sunday. Hours are 7:30 - 4:00.

Kawishiwi Wilderness Station

 Address: 118 S. 4th Ave E.

 District: Ely Area/Kawishiwi

Phone #: (218) 365-7561 Fax #: (218) 365-7563

Hours of Operation: 07:00 AM to 05:30 PM

Directions: 1/4 mile East of Ely on Hwy 169 within International Wolf Center.

Open daily May 1 to Sept 30. After Labor Day - Daily 8:00 am - 4:30 pm

Tofte Ranger Station

Address: PO Box 2159, 7355 HWY 61

District: Tofte

Phone #: (218) 663-8060 Fax #: (218) 663-8095

Hours of Operation:
07:00 AM to 05:00 PM

Directions: Located on Hwy 61. Open daily May 1 to Sept 30.

After Labor Day - Daily 8:00 am - 4:30 pm

LaCroix Ranger Station

Address: 320 N Hwy 53

District: Western BWCA Area/La Croix

Phone #:
(218) 666-0020 Fax #: (218) 666-0022

Hours of Operation: 07:00 AM to 05:00 PM

Directions: Located on Hwy 53. Open Daily May 1 to Labor Day 7:00am - 5:00pm.

After Labor Day - Daily 8:00am - 4:30pm.

Laurentian Ranger Station

Address: 318 Forestry Road

Phone #:
(218) 229-8800 Fax #: (218) 229-8821

Hours of Operation:
08:00 AM to 04:30 PM

Directions: Across from football field in Aurora.

Open Year-round Monday-Friday 8:00am - 4:30pm. Closed on Saturdays, Sundays and Federal Holidays.


7.  What Forest Service rules must visitors abide by? 
See The Rules Page for a partial list of key rules. You may ask your outfitter or the U.S. Forest Service permit issuing station (ranger station) for an introduction to the BWCA rules and regulations. They help you to leave no trace of your visit, and preserve the land.

8.  How does one read a BWCA Map?  (What's a rod?)
First, we recommend only using a Fisher Map for your trip. Camp at the designated campsites marked by red dots. Entry points are marked by a triangle or circle with the entry point number. Portages are marked as red lines, and measured in rods. A rod is about one canoe length, or 16.5 feet. A portage of 50 rods or so is considered "easy", 100-200 "moderate" and over 200 "rugged". Difficulty depends on your physical condition, weight of gear, traveling companions, weather and the terrain. The 320-rod (1 mile) Horse Portage is generally flat, but some short portages can be straight up. This brings us to the terrain lines or "contours". Most maps show contours, and if a portage crosses many terrain lines it's probably rugged. Also, look for an "I" denoting Indian pictographs. 

II.  Questions, Answers and Trivia.

1.  A user has an entry permit.  What comes next?
An entry permit designates a start date and entry point. Visitors must enter the Wilderness on the date and at the entry point shown (and using the mode of travel listed). 

The permit also shows how many people are in your party, estimated number of days and exit point. You're not locked into any of these things. This information helps the USFS keep track of usage trends.

From the entry point, it's up to you and your group. Some groups choose to travel in a short way, then base camp for the week. Other groups like to push the entire week, traveling to a different campsite each day. Some groups come out the same entry point, and others come out a different entry point.  Remember to leave a car at the other entry point or arrange a pickup time with your outfitter if you plan to exit at a different point, and stick to your plan!

Route planning involves judging your group's ability level, strength and perseverance against the portages and lakes in the Wilderness. Novices or groups with children will probably be happier on a route with portages less than 100 rods. Those who travel the BWCA often see no portage as a hindrance, though, and you should always strive to expand your boundaries.

2.  May rapids be "run" in the BWCA?
Consider the risk of running rapids in a Wilderness Area where your only rescue may be a day-long paddle out, then an hour ride to the hospital in the car. Outfitters often display a photo of a shiny aluminum canoe folded over a rock, irretrievable until the late fall or winter months. It's really up to you.

3.  Where may pictographs (Indian paintings) be found?
The most popular spot is on South Hegman Lake, an easy day paddle in the Ely area. You will also find pictographs on the eastern shore of Lac la Croix on Irving Island, and on the western shore of Crooked Lake just north of Lower Basswood Falls. Look on your map for an "I" (stands for "Indian painting") or, on the National Forest map, "Pictured Rocks."  You will be glad you planned your route where there are ancient paintings we still know little about. Photo of Pictograph

4.  What's the longest portage?
Technically, it's the Grand Portage -- an eight-mile ordeal from the Pigeon River to the old fort at Grand Portage National Monument on the North Shore. It's a glorious, arduous way to end a canoe trip. Other long portages are: the Rose Lake/Rove lake portages east of Gunflint Lake. The Angleworm Portage, two miles long near Ely, which is also a hiking trail. And the Stuart Portage, 1 and a half miles long, just off the Echo Trail north of Ely.

Many seasoned veterans will tell you, though, that a short portage of 60 rods may be harder work than a flat mile-long portage! 

5.  Who is Dorothy Molter?  Where was her cabin?
Dorothy Molter, AKA "Root Beer Lady" lived in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a wilderness along the border of Northern Minnesota and Canada, for more than fifty years before she died in 1986. After visiting as a young woman from Chicago, Dorothy worked as a registered nurse and began to spend winters in the north woods. Eventually she adjusted to the rigors of the cold Minnesota winters and became comfortable working within a male-dominated environment.

In 1948 she began to operate a resort in the Boundary Waters. Then the United States Forest Service purchased her land in 1964 when the surrounding area became a National Forest.

For the next 22 years Dorothy lived alone in a remote area of the Boundary Waters. She became known to canoeists and naturalists as a rugged individualist who lived according to her own principles. In fact, Dorothy lived fifteen miles from the nearest road. Four portages were required to reach her island. Despite her isolation, over the years thousands of curious visitors made the annual trek to Dorothy's in order to say hello and taste her homemade root beer. Root Beer Lady Web site

6.  How is an outfitter selected?
You may already be overwhelmed by the dozens of outfitters pining for your business as you plan your trip in the Wilderness. Most of them are excellent, providing great service -- gear, showers, route advice and a cold beverage after your trip. 

Get to know your outfitter by asking a few questions: How many years have you been in operation? Which entry points do you serve? What types of canoes and tents are available, and how old are they? Do you offer guide service or route planning? Are cabins, bunkhouses, or a campground nearby or on site? You can then match the answers you receive with the level of service and quality you desire.  

Some people like to get "partial outfitting" -- just a few items like canoes or packs -- and some like "complete outfitting" which includes everything down to the matches, soap, and maps. Consequently, complete outfitting costs are generally very high while partial outfitting can be dirt cheap. Many places will even provide a guide if you like, and most will offer route planning or route advice. 

Be sure to select an outfitter close to your entry point if you already have a permit. Outfitters do have "turf" in a way; most choose to serve only nearby entry points. Don't have an entry point yet? Tell the outfitter what type of trip you're looking for (fishing trip, rugged trip, base camp, etc.) and they will likely have a plan already in mind for you. They answer many of the same questions every day and are experts on the area and its travel.  BWCA Canoe Trip Outfitters or Quetico Park Canoe Outfitters

Don't forget to have a fun time on your trip too, and send those "big fish" photos back to the lodge for their bulletin board. Remember, a wide angle lens can make your fish appear much bigger!

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Published from the edge of the Boundary Waters
Canoe Area by Chad Jones

Updated Aug 26, 2016

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