Happy anniversary to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (commonly known as the BWCAW/BWCA)! On October 21, 1978 President Jimmy Carter signed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act into law, amending the national Wilderness Act of 1964.
While the 1964 National Wilderness Act included the BWCAW in the National Wilderness Preservation System, the new Act signed in 1978, set the course leading to the wilderness as it is known today. Each year, over 150,000 visitors travel from around the globe to explore the pristine waters that are home to moose, wolves, bears and more.
You may be wondering, exactly what is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?
The BWCAW is a protected wilderness area accessible only by boat, foot, ski or dogsled that spans over 1 million acres located within the Superior National Forest in the northeastern part of Minnesota. Beyond that, it extends for nearly 150 miles along the international boundary of Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, the Canadian equivalent to the BWCAW. It is also bordered on the west by Voyageurs National Park with Grand Portage National Monument to the east. The area contains over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails and more than 2,000 designated campsites.
The BWCAW is managed by the US Forest Service and all visitors who want to experience the area must obtain a permit to enter the wilderness. Visitors taking an overnight paddle, hiking trip, or a limited-motorized day trip into the BWCAW from May 1 – September 30 are required to obtain a quota permit. From October 1 – April 30, self-issuing permits are required for non-motorized day and overnight use. BWCAW permits are generally easy to obtain and you can get a permit from many authorized canoe outfitters, forest service offices or online. There are 86 entry points into the BWCAW and here in Cook County, we have 44 of those entry points (32 paddle only entries, 4 paddle or limited-motor entries, and 8 hiking entries). Access to the BWCAW is available from every community in Cook County: Lutsen, Tofte, Schroeder, Grand Marais, Hovland, Grand Portage and the well-known Gunflint Trail. While there are no homes or resorts within the Boundary Waters, luxuries like WiFi and a good meal can be found adjacent to many popular entry points.
In its 40 history, the BWCAW has become a beloved wilderness attracting visitors from around the world. But like any relationship, it hasn’t been all smiles and roses. This archived broadcast by local radio station WTIP features several interviews about what the creation of the Boundary Waters meant to folks in the region. You can also read a comprehensive history on how the BWCAW came to be on the Superior National Forest Service website.
If you haven’t yet experienced the BWCAW, we encourage you to start making plans today. As National Geographic states, it is one of the world’s “50 Places of a Lifetime” and should be at the top of anyone’s bucket list. Download our Boundary Waters trip planner to find route suggestions and a packing guide.