Initial Boundary Waters Trip Planning
We think everyone should experience the Boundary Waters and Quetico. (Check out our 10 reasons why every 20-something should canoe trip.) If you’re on the fence about taking a trip to America’s most popular wilderness area, here’s some real talk about what a canoe trip is all about to help you determine if a BWCA trip is right for you.
Do you like being outdoors?
Kind of a no-brainer, but the people who get the most out of their Boundary Waters experience are folks who gravitate towards spending time outdoors no matter what corner of the world they’re in. Previous camping experience definitely isn’t a pre-requisite for enjoying a BWCA canoe trip, but it is helpful if you feel at ease being outside for extended periods of time.
Are you comfortable on self-guided adventure and do you trust yourself or someone else in your group with navigation?
Tuscarora does not offer guided canoe trips in the BWCA and Quetico. 100% of our outfitting guests successfully navigate canoe country independently. We’ll set you up with the maps you need for your trip and go over your route carefully to mark any confusing spots before you leave our office, but you’ll need to actively navigate during your entire trip.
Do you like the idea of going off the grid?
Your cell phone won’t work in the Boundary Waters and Quetico and even if you bring an emergency communication device like a satellite phone or texting device, it can be hours before emergency responders reach your group. Boundary Waters campers are responsible for their own safety. You can help yourself avoid medical emergencies by moving carefully on portage trails and practicing extreme caution when using axes, saws, and fires.
Do you have stamina and can you tolerate moderate physical discomfort?
Almost all canoe trips require portaging, meaning you pick up all your gear, canoe, and paddles and carry them from one lake to the next. While the majority of portages are less than a ½ mile long, even the shortest portage can be strenuous. You can avoid a lot of the physical demands of a Boundary Waters trip by opting for a base camp canoe route. Part of going on a canoe trip means you will have wet feet from time to time and that you’ll be sleeping on the ground. A canoe trip is a far cry from the all-inclusive vacation, but we think you’ll find it an extremely rewarding and memorable experience.
Are you a-okay with things not going exactly according to plan?
Although people often refer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a “park,” the BWCA is very different from what you’ve experienced in a U.S. National Park. The BWCA is maintained to be, well, wild. There aren’t signs marking portages or lakes and you’ll probably run across at least one spot where the portage trail is obscured by fallen trees or flooding. The weather in northern Minnesota is highly variable year-round so make sure you pack good raingear and plenty of warm clothing, no matter what time of year you visit.
Intrigued? Let’s start planning that canoe trip!
How to start planning your Boundary Waters canoe trip can be overwhelming. Entry permits to secure, canoe models to select, canoe routes to choose, packing lists to compile . . . oh my!
If you’ve decided that a Boundary Waters canoe trip is right for you, give Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters a call at 218-388-2221 and we’ll walk you through BWCA trip planning step by step. Whether you’re a BWCA newbie or veteran, we can help you at any stage in your trip planning. We’re here to make trip planning easy so you can get down to what is important, enjoying your vacation! As you plan your BWCA trip, consider these three questions:
- Who’s going?
- The make-up of your canoe trip group – be it first-time BWCA paddlers, small children, multi-generational families, hardcore anglers, church groups, college kids, Boy Scouts, women’s groups – will help us customize a canoe route and trip for you. Remember, only 9 people are allowed to travel together in the Boundary Waters or Quetico, so if your group is larger than 9 people, your group will be broken into two groups going on two separate trips.
- What time of year do you want to visit the Boundary Waters and how long is your trip?
- What do you want to do on your canoe trip?
- Everyone comes to the Boundary Waters and Quetico Provincial Park for different reasons. Maybe you’re drawn to the world-class fishing. Or you just want to enjoy the peace and quiet of a wilderness setting (and you’re not opposed to sandy beaches for swimming and some blueberry picking). Do you want to base camp or would you prefer to cover as many miles as possible in canoe country during your trip? We’ll take your desires into careful consideration to craft a successful canoe trip that’s just right for you.
When To Come
Each season in northern Minnesota is unique and beautiful with its own merits Our weather changes quickly so plan for all weather types. Even in the middle of summer you should bring along warm layers to guard against chilly nights. Don’t forget to pack your rain gear any time of the year!
Spring (May-June) – Come in spring for great fishing, wildflowers and higher water levels in the rivers (typically). Nights can still be chilly and water temps very cold so pack lots of layers!
Summer (July-August) – Summer is time for swimming, berry picking and exploring in the sunshine. The fish are more elusive with the higher water temperatures so the most successful fishing will be at dawn and dusk. Late July through mid-August is high season in the Boundary Waters, so plan your trip early for the best permit selection.
Fall (September-October) – Crisp air, changing fall foliage, fewer people and an increase in fish activity are just a few reasons to go paddling in fall. Light snow is not unheard of so bring your warm sleeping bag. We love autumn canoe trips, as evidenced in our “Ode to Autumn (Canoe Trips).”
Winter (November-April) – You may not be able to paddle during these months, but there are plenty of other activities to explore in the area, like ice fishing, cross country skiing, winter camping, snowshoeing and curling up by the fire with a good book.
Trip length can range from 1-2 nights all the way to weeks or more in the woods. The most common trip length we see are four day/three night adventures, but we accommodate any length of trip. The only BWCA regulation in regards to trip length is that a group cannot stay 14 consecutive nights in the same campsite. Typically, beginner groups spend anywhere from 2-4 nights in the woods.
BWCAW or Quetico?
The BWCAW (US) and Quetico (Ontario) wilderness areas share an international border. Both have endless canoe routes through the boreal forest. The trees, rocks and wildlife are similar, but regulations differ between the two countries. BWCAW -The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness typically sees more use each season that Quetico Park. This is largely due to it being more accessible (especially for beginners) and less expensive than Quetico.
- Permit system with a per person per trip fee.
- Group size limited to 9.
- Camping is first come first serve and limited to designated campsites with fire grates and latrines.
- Fishing is regulated by Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources.
Quetico -Quetico Provincial Park typically sees fewer visitors each season that the BWCAW, largely due to the additional expense and the permitting process. Depending on the time of year, Quetico can feel more remote, and the fishing can be more productive.
- Permit system with a per person per night fee.
- Group size limited to 9.
- Special permits are required for U.S. citizens to cross the international boundary in a remote setting.
- Camping is first come first serve with no designated sites however campers must practice leave no trace principles without clearing any brush to make campsites.
- Fishing is regulated by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.
- Organic bait is prohibited in Quetico.
Preparing for Your Trip
You know you want to go on a Boundary Waters canoe trip. Now what? Our BWCA Trip Planning Preparation Checklist walks you through every step of your BWCA trip planning right up to pulling into Tuscarora’s parking lot. Call us at 218-388-2221 at any time with any questions that might arise.
- Decide on canoe route
- Secure BWCA/Quetico entry permit
- Secure any necessary paperwork – i.e. U.S. Passport/Remote Area Border Crossing Permit (Quetico trips only)
- Make canoe and camping equipment rental arrangements
- Arrange for transportation to and from your trip’s starting/ending points
- Complete camping menu
- Pack personal items and gear
- Set arrival time at Tuscarora
- Get directions to Tuscarora
- Purchase fishing license and any needed fishing gear, tackle, and bait
- Book accommodations for the night before/after canoe trip
- Make dinner and breakfast plans for before/after canoe trip
- Get necessary maps for your canoe route
Check out our Canoe Routes page for inspiration and then give us a call at 218-388-2221 and together we’ll put together the perfect route for your canoe trip.
Boundary Waters and Quetico Permits
A permit is always needed to enter the BWCA and Quetico. During the summer months (May 1 – September 30), the number of overnight travelers is limited by a permit quota system, allowing only so many groups per day enter the BWCA or Quetico through each specific entry point. As soon as you decide on your canoe route, be sure to reserve the necessary BWCA or Quetico permit to guarantee going on your first-choice canoe route. (Daily quotas for popular entry points can fill up as early as six months in advance of the trip starting date.) We can assist you with reserving the permits necessary for your trip – just call us at 218-388-2221 to make arrangements. Boundary Waters permits become available for the current paddling season on the last Wednesday of January. Quetico permits can be reserved five months out from your trip’s starting date. If you prefer to reserve your own permits, you can reserve BWCA permits on recreation.gov and Quetico permits through Ontario Parks. If you’d like to pick up your BWCA permit at Tuscarora, be sure to select Tuscarora as the issuing station when you make your permit reservation.
- Learn more about BWCA permit fees, rules and regulations on our BWCA Information page.
- Learn more about Quetico permit fees, rules and regulations on our Quetico Information page.
Your permit must be officially issued to you on your entry date or the day before your entry date. We can issue BWCA permits in our office, or you can pick it up at Gunflint Ranger Station outside of Grand Marais. Quetico permits are issued at Cache Bay Ranger Station on Saganaga Lake.
Other Necessary Paperwork
If you’re headed to Quetico, U.S. Citizens need both a U.S. Passport and Remote Area Border Crossing permit (RABC) to paddle into Canada from the US. The RABC permit application process can take up to 6 weeks and you should allow 8 weeks to receive a U.S. Passport, so apply for these items as soon as you know you’re headed to Quetico. Application cost is CAN$30. Due to the sensitive nature of the requested information, all guests must apply for their own RABC and Passports – Tuscarora cannot secure these for you. You do not need any special paperwork beside your BWCAW permit to travel in the Boundary Waters.
As a full service outfitter, Tuscarora can supply your group with everything needed for a successful canoe adventure. We offer various outfitting packages as well as partial outfitting for those who just need a canoe, a few pieces of camping equipment, or just a shuttle or bunkhouse stay. Start your outfitting reservations online or call us at 1-218-388-2221.
Tuscarora outfits canoe trips that start and end from any Gunflint Trail BWCA and Quetico entry points. Within a nine-mile radius of our base, all shuttles are complimentary for guests who use Tuscarora for an outfitting package or canoe rental. For shuttles more than nine miles from Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters, we charge $2.00 per vehicle per mile one-way. For Quetico canoe guests and BWCA guests who are traveling west down the border from Saganaga Lake, we offer tow service on Saganaga Lake for those who wish to get a jump on the day’s paddling.
If you’ve reserved an outfitting package with Tuscarora for your canoe trip, be sure to submit your completed camping menu to us at least one month before your trip’s starting date.
What to Pack
You will carry every single item you pack for your canoe trip, so take time to pack carefully and communicate with your group to avoid packing duplicate items. The only pack that gets lighter is your food pack. Our personal gear packing list will help ensure you have all your camping needs covered. Check out our tips for packing light.
Set arrival time at Tuscarora
Tuscarora is open from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. before Memorial Day weekend and after Labor Day weekend. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Tuscarora is open every day (including Sundays and holidays) from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. We recommend getting as early a start to your canoe trip as possible to ensure you have the best selection of campsites to choose from. Most Tuscarora guests prefer to make the long drive north to Tuscarora the day before they enter the Boundary Waters or Quetico so they can get on the water in the early a.m. If you’re staying in one of our bunkhouses before your trip, you’re welcome to arrive after hours. Just let us know and we’ll leave a sign out directing you to your private bunkhouse. Remember to keep your noise level low if you roll in after hours to respect other Tuscarora guests.
Get directions to Tuscarora
From Duluth, follow U.S. Hwy 61 northeast approximately 110 miles to Grand Marais. In Grand Marais, turn north onto the Gunflint Trail (Cook County Hwy 12). Follow the Gunflint Trail 47 miles and then turn left onto the Round Lake Road (Cook County Rd 47). Follow the Round Lake Road one mile to Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters. Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters is an approximately 6 hour drive from the Twin Cities and a 12-13 hour drive from Chicago.
Purchase fishing license and any needed fishing gear, tackle, and bait
To help get you on the water as quickly as possible, we recommend purchasing your fishing license online before heading up to Tuscarora.
Tuscarora doesn’t rent fishing gear, but we do sell tackle, a limited selection of fishing rods, as well as live leeches, in our gift shop. Learn more about fishing regulations and how to prepare for fishing success on our fishing page.
Book accommodations for the night before/after canoe trip
Reserve a spot in one of our bunkhouses for the night before or after your trip. At Tuscarora, we have 9 private bunkhouses – very basic accommodations with twin beds and electricity, located close to our shower house facility. Plan on using your sleeping bag for your night’s stay. Bunkhouses are private for your group, so no worries – you won’t be bunking with strangers!
Make dinner and breakfast plans for before/after canoe trip
We do not serve an evening meal, but the nearest restaurant to Tuscarora is just four miles down the Gunflint Trail. Ask us for restaurant recommendations in Grand Marais and on the Gunflint Trail. If you prefer to cook your own dinner, use the picnic tables near Tuscarora’s bunkhouses for dinner or travel seven miles up the Gunflint Trail to Seagull Lake’s Blankenburg Beach for a cook out and bonfire. Each morning, by reservation only, Tuscarora cooks up a hot breakfast of all-you-can-eat French toast, fruit cup, hard boiled egg “canoes,” coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. We serve breakfast promptly at 7 AM. A gluten free option is available upon request at time of reservation. Breakfast reservations are required by noon the day before you wish to dine. Give us a call at 218-388-2221 to book your breakfast.
Get necessary maps for your canoe route
We sell W.A. Fisher and McKenzie maps for your canoe trip navigation. If you prefer to purchase maps before, check out your specific canoe route page to learn which maps you’ll need for your trip or just give us a call at 218-388-2221.
Starting Your Trip at Tuscarora
Most folks arrive in the late afternoon or early evening the day before they plan to enter the wilderness. If you arrive during operating hours (7 a.m. – 7 p.m.) on the day before your trip, we’ll take care of issuing your permit and trip orientation before you head to your bunkhouse for final packing and preparing before bed. During the orientation, we’ll introduce you to your gear and give you camping and orienteering tips. We’ll go over your route on the maps you’ll take with you and answer your questions to make sure you feel comfortable and confident as you head into the woods. If you’re staying in one of our bunkhouses for the night, you’re welcome to arrive after hours. Just let us know and we’ll leave a sign out directing you to your private bunkhouse. Remember to keep your noise level low if you roll in after hours to respect other Tuscarora guests.
We serve all-you-can-eat French Toast in our dining room at 7 am the morning of your trip. Advanced reservations are required. Typically we have a single seating every morning for breakfast so please be on time or we will come wake you up!
Starting your canoe trip
After breakfast, head over to the office whenever you’re ready to go over any final questions or preparations. If you arrived late the night before, we’ll issue your permit and do your trip orientation at this time. We’ll get your group set up with your canoe and gear and will shuttle you in one of our vehicles to your trip’s starting point if necessary. If you are leaving your vehicle in our parking lot, we will keep your keys in our safe during your trip, but we can not be responsible for your valuables.
Getting picked up at the end of your trip
If you aren’t ending your trip at Tuscarora’s beach or at the Cross Bay entry point 300 ft down Tuscarora’s driveway, you’ll need to give us a call when you reach the end of the trip so we can come pick you up. All entry points have pay phones in the parking lot or nearby. When you return from your trip, simply call our 800 number and we will bring you and your gear back to Tuscarora. If you’re taking advantage of our Saganaga Lake tow service, we will pick you up at a specific spot at a pre-arranged time. We will set your pick-up time during your trip orientation at Tuscarora.
Showers and Unpacking
Whether you’ve been camping overnight or for two weeks, a hot shower feels great at the end of your trip. Take advantage of our clean shower house before your journey home. Use the picnic tables next to the shower house to unpack your bags and sort your gear. Don’t forget to swing by the office to give us a run-down of the trip’s highlights and to pick up that all-important souvenir t-shirt in the gift shop.