The Boundary Waters: The Complete Guide

The sun sets over a peaceful lake along a rocky shore

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Located along the U.S.-Canadian border between Minnesota and Ontario, the Boundary Waters have been a popular destination for explorers, adventurers, and active travelers for decades. Spread out over more than a million acres of wilderness, this region is made up of dense forests, sprawling lakes, and a spiderweb of interconnecting rivers and streams. For anyone looking to get away from it all, this is a place where you can leave the trappings of civilization behind and immerse yourself in nature that has remained largely untouched by man for centuries.

Three canoes sit on the bank of a peaceful lake
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History of the Boundary Waters

Carved by glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, the Boundary Waters are made up of striking landscapes that feature rolling hills, broad valleys, and seemingly endless forests. Its countless waterways form a natural border between the U.S. and Canada, flowing eastward towards Lake Superior. These waterways were often used by early explorers and fur traders who helped open North America during the 17th and 18th century.

When referring to the Boundary Waters, most people associate it with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a large protected area that was established in 1964 as part of the US. National Park system. In reality, the broader Boundary Waters region is made up of several subsections which also include Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park and Grand Portage National Monument on the American side of the border, and Quetico and La Verendrye provincial parks in Canada. Collectively, each of these areas makes up the Boundary Waters, creating a massive outdoor playground for those adventurous enough to experience it all.

How to Get There

Located in the far north of Minnesota, just reaching the Boundary Waters can be a bit of an adventure. Those traveling by plane will likely fly into Minneapolis or possibly Duluth, but even then a long car ride is required to reach this beautiful wilderness. You'll need to budget five to six hours of drive time from Minneapolis or two to three hours from Duluth. That drive is a scenic one however, quickly leaving urban settings behind in favor of the dense Northwoods. Sharp eyed travelers may even be able to spot deer, moose, or even black bear along the way.

For the absolute best driving experience, make your way along the 57-mile Gunflint Trail, a national scenic byway that begins in the town of Grand Marais and ends at the Trail's End Campground, a good launching point for a Boundary Waters adventure. The drive, which approaches the Boundary Waters from the east, is remote and beautiful from start to finish. That said, there aren't many places to stop or resupply along the way. Be sure to have full gas tank and plenty of road trip snacks before setting out.

Those coming from the west can start their Boundary Water experience in Ely, Cook, or Crane Lake. These quaint little upper-midwest towns are friendly, accommodating, and a great place to purchase last minute supplies before leaving civilization behind for awhile.

Two young wolf pups peer out of the forest
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What to Expect

As already noted, the Boundary Waters are a remote and wild destination. Visitors can expect miles of dense forest on their drive to the border area, where they'll discover dozens of interconnected rivers and more than 1,175 lakes of varying sizes. Wildlife is in abundance, throughout the region too, including more than 200 species of birds to go along with the deer, moose, wolves, lynx, black bear, and more than 40 other types of animals. Visitors are advised to take caution when encountering those creatures. Although they are seldom aggressive, they can be dangerous when surprised or cornered.

Travelers shouldn't expect much in the way of amenities while in the Boundary Waters, including cell phone service. The wilderness area is located miles from any urban environment, which means don't expect to be sending text messages, making phone calls, or sharing photos on social media. In fact, once you enter the protected area, there are almost no manmade structures to be found, leaving the region almost completely untouched by humans. So much so that even aircraft are prohibited from flying below 4,000 feet while over the Boundary Waters, something that no other wilderness area in the U.S. can claim.

One of the best things about spending time in the Boundary Waters is just how peaceful and quiet it can be. Because it is located in such a remote place, visitors typically only hear the sound of the wind, the water, and the call of wild animals. At night, it is a dark zone, far from any city lights. That makes it a great spot to go stargazing, free from light or air pollution.

Things to See and Do in the Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters are a dream destination for outdoor enthusiasts. With more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes to paddle, 12 long-distance hiking trails to walk, and 2,000 designated campsites to pitch a tent, visitors can spend a lifetime wandering this wilderness and still only see a fraction of what it has to offer.

When visiting the Boundary Waters, travelers will have to make two choices—how long they want to stay and how they want to explore the area. Most come for just a few days, camping, hiking, and canoeing on the edges of the wilderness. Some will venture further into the interior of the region, something that can only be accomplished by canoe or kayak. A few will even paddle the Boundary Waters from end to end, spending upwards of two weeks in the backcountry along the way.

Part of the fun of visiting the Boundary Waters is setting your own itinerary and exploring the areas that most call to you. But if you have a limited time or are looking for some direction, try canoeing on Sea Gull Lake, an easily-accessible body of water that is generally calm, beautiful, and fun. On sunny days, its waters turn to a stunning shade of blue as well, providing an extra level of tranquility.

Hikers will find numerous trails to wander, both short and long. For instance, Big Moose Lake Trail is 2.5 miles out and back, and is great for stretching your legs in some wonderful scenery. Meanwhile, Eagle Mountain Trail is 3.5 miles in length and climbs to the highest point in the state of Minnesota. Backpackers looking for a significant challenge should put the Kekekabic Trail on their bucket list, as it is 38 miles of pure backcountry bliss.

Camping is a popular activity in the Boundary Waters of course, with literally hundreds of campsites available. The vast majority of those campsites are primitive in nature, without running water or other facilities. Many are located in remote areas only accessible by canoe, so be prepared to fully self sufficient while in the wild.

Unsurprisingly, anglers will find plenty of great fishing spots in the Boundary Waters too. The waters that make up the region are teeming with smallmouth bass, northern pike, and walleye. If you fancy yourself a fisherman or woman, pack your pole and tackle box. You'll be hard-pressed to find better opportunities to land a big one anywhere else in the continental United States.

A red canoe drifts across a calm lake
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Where to Stay

As mentioned, there are more than 2,000 designated campsites located throughout the Boundary Waters, allowing visitors to pitch their tent in the vary heart of the wilderness. Camping is of course the best way to experience this amazing destination, so bring a good tent, comfortable sleeping bag, and all of the gear you'll need for your stay. If you do plan on camping, keep in mind that you'll need a permit for backcountry travel at all times of the year. You'll also need a reservation for campsites during the busiest time of the year, which falls between May 1 and Sept. 30. Those permits can be obtained at recreation.gov.

Those who prefer not to camp while visiting the Boundary Waters have a few options to choose from. Hotels and lodges can be found in Grand Marais, Ely, Cook, and Crane Lake. You'll want to book your stay well in advance of course, and staying in one of those towns means you'll be commuting back and fourth throughout your visit.

You'll also find some rustic lodges located throughout the region. Places like the Gunflint Lodge, the Bearskin Lodge, and the Clearwater Historic Lodge are more conveniently placed and offer good access to the wilderness. In addition to accommodations, they can also organize outings or provide gear and supplies for day trips too.

When to Visit

The peak travel season in the Boundary Waters is in June, July, and August. The weather is fantastic, with warm days and cool nights, making it a perfect time to camp out in a tent. Of course, this is also the busiest time of year, which means more traffic on the roads, busier campsites, and crowds on some of the more popular trails.

If solitude is what you seek, then wander deeper into the Boundary Waters to escape the influx of visitors or visit during the shoulder season taking place in May and September. The upside of visiting during this time of the year is that the seasonal stores, shops, and lodges are all open for business. During the colder months, many of those outlets shut down or operate on a reduced schedule. That means that while you'll be avoiding the busy tourist period, you may have to plan further ahead in order to have all of the supplies and gear that you'll need for your journey.

Autumn comes early in northern Minnesota, but it is utterly spectacular in the Boundary Waters. The leaves change to an array of brilliant colors, making it a great time to be in the wilderness. It is often less crowded during this time of year, though a steady flow of leaf peepers can line the roadways. Once again, getting into the backcountry will help avoid the traffic and provide for a wonderful adventure at the same time.

Winter can be long and harsh in the Boundary Waters, but if you enjoy cold weather outings there is much to like in this part of the country. Cross country skiing and dogsledding can take you deep into the backcountry, where you'll discover a wilderness that is empty and quiet. Only experienced adventurers should consider making such a trek, but those that do will be rewarded with endless miles of trails and frozen waterways all to themselves.

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