Here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, there are plenty of lakes and rivers to go canoe camping. Why do we drive the extra distance to enter the BWCA? For our family, it’s the special sense of place we have while we are in the wilderness. It’s a feeling we haven’t experienced anywhere else in Minnesota. It’s important that our children grow up learning and discovering in the wilderness so we put in the extra work and make our pilgrimage to the Boundary Waters as many times we can each summer.

Read more about what the Boundary Waters mean to us

With a million+ acres of wilderness containing over 1200 miles of canoe routes, over 2000 designated campsites, and 90 total entry point permit options–planning a trip to the Boundary Waters can be overwhelming to say the least. Throw in the additional stress of bringing along your small children and it’s easy to think that the BWCA isn’t a good family option. For us, we decided the kind of wilderness canoe trip that we’re comfortable taking and we want to share our criteria with you. Hopefully it will help you and your family discover this amazing place.

Most sources you will consult for planning trips to the Boundary Waters, whether they’re books, online forums, Facebook groups, or outfitter websites, will be focused on longer mileage trips that cover several lakes and involve numerous portages. If we didn’t have kids that would be the kind of trip we’d plan–we’d want to get as far into the wilderness as possible. With our kids along, our expectations have changed and the most important thing for us is to have a wilderness experience where everyone is having fun and staying safe. Therefore, we plan trips where we can set up a base camp on our first day and spend the following days doing day trips to other nearby lakes. This way, we only have to set up and take down camp once and do portages on day trips with less gear in the canoe.

Here are the factors we consider when planning a route with our baby and toddler along

Easy entry point access
Can we drive up to a boat launch and unload everything into our canoe directly into the water without an initial portage?

Easy access to campsites
When our canoe is fully loaded we don’t want to portage with our kids. We want a short paddle (~45 minutes) to a campsite where we can set up base camp. This also means if something does go wrong we have an easier exit strategy.

Smaller lakes
Being blown around on a big lake is no fun. Especially when one of you is consoling a child leaving only one parent to paddle.

Large number of campsites available
If you get a late start on paddling it’s very likely that you will come across several campsites that are already taken. We like to go to lakes that have a large number of campsites to increase our chances of finding one that’s available. Campsites are first come, first serve.

Small number of permits available per day
This goes along with the previous factor, if there are fewer permits available we hope to see fewer people on the lake.

Shorter drive time from our home in the Twin Cities
Okay, no matter what, you’re going to be driving at least 4 to 6 hours if you’re coming from the cities. Some entry points are further away than others and we definitely try to keep our drive time shorter for everyone’s sanity!

No motors allowed
As much as possible, we like to avoid lakes that allow motors. It ruins the wilderness experience for us. Plus, I don’t want to be paddling as hard as I can and have a boat motor right by us! The lakes that do allow motors are typically on the edge of the wilderness and will sometimes have restrictions for how far boats with motors can travel so you can still find motor-free solitude. Also, most of the lakes that do allow motors have horsepower restrictions to keep them from disturbing the wilderness setting.

Entry Point Selection

You must enter the BWCA at a designated entry point. Reservations for all entry points can be made on a first-come, first-served basis beginning January 25, 2017 at 9:00 a.m. CST. For each entry point listed below we’ve included a link to the relevant permit registration page.

Note that there are a few entry points that have permits that are available through a lottery that runs from mid-December to early January each year. None of those entry points are included in our list. Be sure to also familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations of the Boundary Waters. When you pick up your permit at the ranger station or your outfitter you will also watch a video covering the rules.

Read more about our packing and planning strategy for the Boundary Waters


Top 7 entry points (EP) for babies and small children

EP 37 – Kawishiwi Lake

Permits per day: 9
Motors: No
Drive distance from MPLS:  259 miles (about 4hrs 50mins)
Lake size: 420 acres
Distance to first campsite: 0.2 miles (4 minutes)
Number of campsites: 7
Recommended outfitter: Sawtooth Outfitters
View map in Paddle Planner

Campsites with sandy beaches, a rustic campground right at the EP (stay there your first night to get an early start the next morning), and a couple of day trip options make this a great option for a first-time BWCA experience. Kawishiwi Lake was our very first canoe camping experience and it couldn’t have been a better setting. The lake has a number of lovely islands for you to paddle around to search for Bald Eagles, Loons, and ducks. There are several campsites on Kawishiwi Lake, but if they’re full you can continue towards Square Lake where there are a couple more.

Reserve permits for EP 37 – Kawishiwi Lake


EP 38 – Sawbill Lake

Permits per day: 14
Motors: Yes, partially
Drive distance from MPLS: 260 miles (about 4hrs 29mins)
Lake size: 898 acres
Distance to first campsite: 0.7 miles (15 minutes)
Number of campsites: 13
Recommended outfitter: Sawbill Canoe Outfitters
View map in Paddle Planner

At the Sawbill Lake entry point there is a very nice tent and RV campground along with Sawbill Outfitters. Forgot bug spray? Pick some up from the outfitter as you jump into your canoe and paddle away. Plus, the logistics of picking up your permit from the outfitter couldn’t be easier. Plenty of campsites and day trips options abound in the area – one recommendation is to check out Alton Lake via a short 29 rod (1/10th mile) portage. Bonus points for immediate ice cream treat satisfaction once you return to the outfitters!

Reserve permits


EP 30 – Lake One

Permits per day: 7
Motors: No
Drive distance from MPLS: 264 miles (about 4hrs 21mins)
Lake size: 898 acres
Distance to first campsite: 2.1 miles (42 minutes) all paddling
Number of campsites: 13
Outfitter: Kawishiwi Lodge & Outfitter
View map in Paddle Planner

Lake One is a very popular entry point so be sure to arrive early to get a campsite and don’t expect solitude. What it does offer is access to a beautiful series of lakes with a large number of campsites. For day trips explore the chain of lakes: Lake Two, Lake Three, and Lake Four. Two portages are required to get to Lake Two (40 rods(1/10th mile) and 30 rods (less than 1/10th mile), but there are no portages between Lake Three and Four.

Don’t want to sleep on the ground, but still want to visit the Boundary Waters? Check out Lake One Canoe Rentals for canoe accessible cabins on Lake One.

Reserve permits


EP 40 – Homer Lake

Homer Lake. Photo courtesy of Palisade Gear

Permits per day: 2
Motors: Yes, partially
Drive distance from MPLS: 269 miles (about 4hrs 42mins)
Acres: 460
Distance to first campsite: 1.1 miles (22 minutes)
Number of campsites: 2
Recommended outfitter: Sawtooth Outfitters
View map in Paddle Planner

The Homer Lake entry point and a large chunk of the lake itself lie outside of the Boundary Waters. This means you can camp at one of the Forest Service campsites on the lake that isn’t within the BWCA without a permit. Those campsites also have picnic tables, a luxury not afforded within the wilderness! If you do cross into the wilderness area you will need to pick up a self-issued day permit from the entry point. There are day trip options to Axe Lake, Whack Lake, Vern Lake, or Pipe Lake from Homer Lake.

Reserve permits


EP 62 – Clearwater Lake

Permits per day: 3
Motors: Yes
Drive distance from MPLS: 295 miles (5hrs 14mins)
Lake size: 1,364 acres
Distance to first campsite: 1.5 miles (29 minutes)
Number of campsites: 7
Outfitter: Clearwater Outfitter & Lodge
View map in Paddle Planner

The posts Clearwater Lodge share on Facebook and Instagram from out their window are incredible. The sheer rock cliffs of the palisades rising over the lake look more like something you’d see at Glacier National Park than in Minnesota. We’re lucky to have such incredible geography in our state! For a simple family outing, stick to Clearwater Lake and explore around the cliffs. Or consider a day trip up to Mountain Lake via a hilly 90 rod (1/4 mile) portage on the Canadian border. Another option if you want to stretch your legs is to take a hike on the Border Route Trail to an overlook to get a bird’s eye view of the area.

Detailed descriptions of each campsite on the Clearwater Lake can be found on the Clearwater Outfitter & Lodge website.

Reserve permits


EP 41 – Brule Lake

Sunset over Brule Lake, BWCA

Permits per day: 10 total  (7 from EP 41 and 3 from EP 42)
Motors: No
Drive distance from MPLS: 271 miles (about 4hrs 46mins)
Lake size: 4,313 acres
Distance to first campsite: 0.3 miles (6 minutes)
Number of campsites: 30
Recommended outfitter: Sawtooth Outfitters
View map in Paddle Planner

Yes, it’s seriously 0.3 miles to the first campsite on Brule Lake! That campsite has lots of rock outcroppings and cliffs so it isn’t the best for toddlers, as we learned. There are a lot of other campsites on the lake that have much safer landings for kids. The thing about Brule is it’s a really big lake. If it’s windy and you’re not a confident paddler then don’t go out. We definitely got blown around and it wasn’t fun. You can read more about our experience on Brule Lake. We include it here on the list as it’s easy to get to and you can drop your canoe right into the water from the entry point landing. Just get there early enough to snag a campsite and go when there is clear weather and you’ll have a great time if you’re a confident paddler!

Reserve permits


EP 36 – Hog Creek

A post shared by Becky Swedin Coppoc (@rcoppoc) on

Permits per day: 5
Motors: No
Drive distance from MPLS: 257 miles (about 4hrs 40mins)
Lake size: 1,639 acres (Perent lake)
Distance to first campsite: 3.6 miles (1 hour 22 minutes) 3.4 miles paddling, 12 rod and 15 rod portages
Number of campsites: 18 (Perent lake)
Recommended outfitter: Sawtooth Outfitters
View map in Paddle Planner

Meander down the narrow and windy Hog Creek to beautiful Perent Lake where you’ll find a plethora of campsites. This entry point does violate our no portages before our campsite rule, but we included it anyway as the portages are over small beaver dams and a very short walk from your car to the boat landing. The first campsite is 3.6 miles from your car making this the furthest away first campsite on our list.

Reserve permits


We haven’t personally used all of these entry points ourselves, but we’ll be checking them out over the coming years. Did we mess up and not include your family’s favorite entry point? Or did we miss something that makes one of these entry points not good for young families? Let us know in the comments below!

Looking to commemorate your Boundary Waters trip? Why not buy a t-shirt featuring your favorite lake?

Disclaimers: Our listed time to first campsite is an estimate calculated at an average paddle speed of 3mph taking the most direct route. Take it as a VERY rough guideline. Number of campsites listed is based off of the number listed on Paddle Planner and is likely inaccurate. Consult a map for the most accurate locations of campsites. We recommend McKenzie Maps. Pick maps up at an outfitter on your way into the BWCA.

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About the author


I grew up in a dome home on 10 acres of land in rural Minnesota with my parents and older brother. My parents enrolled me in the Boy Scout program in 1993 and I earned the honor of Eagle Scout in 2003. For 7 years I worked at Tomahawk Scout Reservation as Climbing Director, Scoutcraft Director, and High Ropes Course Director. Not only did Scout Camp provide me with invaluable leadership and outdoor skills but it is also where I met my wife in 2007 when she was working as the Horse Corral Director. We were married 2 years later and welcomed our first son, Jack, 5 years after that. Together, the three of us have enjoyed many outdoor adventures as a family. When I'm not exploring the natural world around me I work as a User Experience Designer for Amazon.

4 comments

  1. Scott

    Great post! Very helpful. I’ve been thinking about where to take our 1yr old. I’ve visited Sawbill many times, and agree, it’s fantastic, especially if you want to set up a car camp HQ, and take day trips from there. Looking forward to checking out some of the other entry points you suggest. With it’s sandy beaches, smaller lakes, and reservable campsites, The Sylvania Wilderness in the U.P. is another great option for canoe tripping with little kids.

  2. Bobby Marko

    Thanks Scott! Sounds like we’ll definitely have to check out Sylvania soon. The sandy beach we had at our campsite on Kawishiwi Lake was a big hit with our son and helped keep him occupied for hours on end so we’re always on the lookout for those kind of campsites. I’ve started a list of sandy beach campsites in the Boundary Waters that hopefully I’ll post one day in the not too distant future!

  3. Alex

    Just what I want looking for! You guys nailed it!

  4. Robert Marko

    Thanks Alex! Glad it was helpful for you. See you out on the water!

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