Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is renowned worldwide for its extraordinary natural beauty, its vast wildness, and its remoteness from the modern world. It is not, however, renowned for its ease or creature comforts.
Perhaps you’d like to experience some of the peace and beauty of this magnificent region, but don’t feel up to lugging a canoe and heavy pack over rugged portages to a primitive campsite without running water, electricity, or your car. Perhaps you’d like the option of a rainy day of playing cards with a roof over your head, or heading into town for a first-rate meal you don’t have to pack and cook over a campfire. Perhaps you’d like a hot shower.
The Boundary Waters is a true wilderness preserved within the Superior National Forest’s 3 million acres, and offers its many visitors an experience of a lifetime. But it isn’t the only place to take in the area’s beauty. Much of the forest shares the BWCAW’s distinctive, rugged beauty—craggy, stubborn jack pine trees clinging to granite cliffs and boulders, surrounding more than 1,000 cool, clean lakes and streams filled with walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, eating-size perch and more.
Other options for a comfortable wilderness-like experience include full-amenity resorts, state parks, and state forest campgrounds on the edge of the BWCAW. Just to the west is Voyageurs National Park, wild and remote like the BWCA but open to houseboats and other motorized watercraft.
Superior National Forest Campgrounds
The portion of the national forest outside the Boundary Waters has 23 developed campgrounds with hundreds of drive-in sites. Charging campers a modest fee, all of the sites are on lakes or rivers and have running water within the campground. Most have boat launches, many have swimming beaches, and some have electric hookups for RVs.
The beauty of many of these sites easily rivals spots deep within the Boundary Waters, and while you’ll see more people than you would in the BWCAW, many campgrounds can be quite secluded and peaceful. An advantage of going in the fall, beyond the beautiful foliage and absence of mosquitoes, is the considerably smaller crowds, when kids are back in school and temperatures are cooler. The fishing tends to be better, too.
The largest developed campground in Superior National Forest, at Fall Lake east of Ely, has a modern bathhouse with showers. Several others—East Bearskin, Cadotte Lake, Whiteface Reservoir, Little Isabella River and McDougal Lake—have a few cabins for rent as well as campsites. Many can be reserved, with some sites in all campgrounds available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The less-developed campsites in Superior National Forest are free and cannot be reserved. There are 17 rustic campgrounds in the forest, with outhouses, tables and fire rings, but no running water or garbage cans. (Remember to cart everything out that you brought in, and leave the site cleaner than you found it.) Most are for tents only, but some will accommodate a small RV or trailer.
There are also backcountry sites, accessible by boat or on foot, consisting of little more than a fire grate, flat spot for the tent, and an open-air wilderness latrine, much like what you would find in the Boundary Waters. Unlike those in the BWCAW, these sites require no fee or permit.
A final option allowed within the forest is what the National Forest Service calls “dispersed camping”: camping outside of designated sites, with no latrines, fire rings or any other facilities. Make sure you leave no trace of your presence when you break camp, and contact the National Forest offices for advice and regulations.
Resorts Serving the Boundary Waters
Another option for a less arduous vacation in the “wild north” is staying at one of the many canoe outfitters that also function as resorts on designated BWCAW “put-in” lakes, where wilderness campers begin their trips. There are many of these both on the Gunflint Trail, on the eastern end of the wilderness, and outside of Ely on the western end.
The bulk and the interior of the Boundary Waters is paddle-only, with no motorboats allowed, but a number of the most popular put-in lakes are open to motorboats below a certain horsepower. This is where most of the area resorts are located. East of Ely, Kawishiwi Lodge & Lake One Outfitters lays claim to being the sole paddle-only resort in Minnesota, including one cabin that can only be reached by paddling across a small bay.
A stay at any of these resorts typically comes with a Boundary Waters day-use permit, allowing guests to paddle not only on the local lake, but to pack a picnic and paddle and portage to a more remote wilderness lake—far easier when not carrying camping gear. Stay in a cabin or lodge, or camp in a tent or RV at a resort campground. Both campers and those staying indoors have access to resort facilities, which often include a beach, sauna, dining facilities and hot showers.
State Park & Forest Campgrounds
The region is also home to a couple of state parks and several state forest campgrounds on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Minnesota’s newest state park, Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, is still under development and has no campsites yet other than three boat-in sites on the beautiful, island-studded Lake Vermilion. There are 16 miles of hiking trails, a fishing pier, a boat ramp and a picnic area.
There is also a fun and fascinating tour of the Soudan Underground Mine, which operated as a separate state park for years before combining with the adjacent new one on Lake Vermilion. Daily through September and weekends into October, the park takes visitors half a mile underground into the mine, and on a 3/4-mile rail ride to where miners last worked before the mine closed in 1962.
Bear Head Lake State Park, 20 miles southwest of Ely, is quiet and beautiful, great for canoeing, but also open to motorboats, with a 10 mph speed limit. The park has 73 drive-in campsites with electric hookups and hot showers nearby, as well as several remote hike-in sites and one accessible only by boat.
Several trails loop through particularly gorgeous country, some of it fairly rugged. One of the trails intersects with the 165-mile Taconite Trail between Grand Rapids and Ely. Canoe rentals are available, and two lovely smaller lakes within the park are managed for brook trout.