How to Hike the BWCA this Fall

For those of us whose Boundary Waters trips don’t end with canoe season, Fall can be a challenging time to decide what activities to pursue. As the ice begins to line the outer edges of the lakes and canoeing becomes tougher, it’s just the perfect time of the year to hit the trails and backpack in the BWCA. Granted, the trails are available year round, but the spring finds low areas inundated with water and the summer heat and swarms of bugs makes hiking less enjoyable. To me, fall is the time for backpacking and late fall, after canoeing stops being practical, is truly special. Officially, hikers may only enter the BWCA at one of 15 BWCA entry points. A deeper dig into the history discovers a far more complex landscape. All of the history of land use means the Boundary Waters is a woven network of old roads, railway grades, fire trails, ski trails, and old resort and cabin sites. Some of these became the modern trails we see today, and others have been lost to time. For instance, the area that is now the Isabella and the Pow Wow trailhead used to be the town of Forest Center. From that old logging hub radiated a massive network of roads north into the area which is now the BWCA. The roads began to grow over and then Pagami Creek Fire erased what little remained, but a look over the air photos will show many of these roads plain as day. Similar road networks and railroad beds exist across the BWCA and many could be followed by the adventurous. In other places, trails were built for recreation or cabin access only to be later abandoned such as Entry Point 3 – Pine Lake Trail, Lac La Croix Trail, Crooked Lake Trail, the Pow Wow Trail (east), among others. Besides the lost trails and roads, there are a number of official Ski/Winter entry points which are assigned numbers (most in the 90s, though they don’t make the website since they are primarily off-season) such as Burntside Ski Trails, Farm Lake Ski Trails, Flour Lake Ski Trails, the Banadad, and Topper Lake. Some of these provide wonderful day hike options, but aren’t set up for overnight backpacking. This article, however, is about the 15 official trails and how they can be used for a wonderful late fall adventure as the seasons just begin to change.

The Boundary Waters hiking trails more or less neatly break into four classes of trails: big trails (3 nights+), medium loops, small loops, and short point to point and dead-end trails (one way short trails, could be done as day hikes.)

There are two big trails. These are trails which can easily be made to last 3 nights or more if someone is trying to explore every side route. The Kekekabic Trail (EP 56 and 74) running from the Fernberg to the Gunflint is about 40 miles long but can added to or broken into shorter routes using the connecting Snowbank, Disappointment Mountain, Old Pines, Benezie/Becoosin, and Centenial Trails. The Border Route (EPs 50, 81, 82, 83) runs about 65 miles and the western half has plenty of options to shorten that up into smaller loops using Loon Lake Trail, Crab Lake Trail, Sock/Mucker Lake Loop, South Lake/Partridge Lake Trail, Caribou Rock Trail, and the Daniels Lake Trail. Both trails are great to explore in the fall. The Border Route has some of the nicest overlooks in the state while the Kek has a uniquely wild feel as a person reaches the remote stretches near its center.

There are two medium loop trails to explore. The Pow Wow (EP 88) which is a wonderfully remote, wild trail which has been dutifully maintained/restored since the Pagami Creek fire. The Pow Wow runs just over 30 miles with the completed loop and accesses loads of small wilderness lakes disconnected from canoe routes which makes it truly remote. The Pow Wow is the remaining half of what used to be Pow Wow west and Pow Wow east. The eastern half extended into the area which is now Fungus Lake PMA and has now been unmaintained for decades (and the 2011 Pagami Creek fire burned most of the former track.) Similar in size to the Pow Wow trail is the Sioux Hustler Trail (EP 15) on the western end. It starts with the old trail to the fire tower near Devil’s Cascade and then proceeds to a lovely loop over high rocky hills and through ancient stands of pine. Despite being similar lengths, the two trails contrast each other remarkably well with the open light of the post-fire burn zone at the Pow Wow and the deep dense forest of the Sioux Hustler.

Both of the small trail loops could be handled in a long day hike. The Herriman Lake Trail (EP 13) sits on the far western end of the BWCA. It has a trail that heads into Little Vermillion Lake with a couple loops on either side to shorten or lengthen the trip. There are three campsites including Little Vermillion Lake, Knute Lake, and Douvre Lake. East on the Echo Trail closer to Ely is the popular Angleworm Trail (EP 21) which runs in to Angleworm Lake before looping around. In total, the trail covers about 12 miles with a variety of campsites connected via spur trails along the way. Either trail would prove great full-day destinations or easy hikes for a quick overnight trip.

And finally, there are a variety of point-to-point or dead end trails, many of which feel like after thoughts. Most of them have small to no parking with limited signage. Most of the trails work for a person looking to get away for a quick night or go for a nice day hike, but less so for someone looking for a backpacking trip. Norway Trail (EP 10) spends most of its course outside of the BWCA. It follows an old road grade to the site of the Norway Fire Tower before entering the BWCA and culminating in the north arm of Trout Lake. Blandin Trail (EP 11) has to be the weirdest BWCA entry point I have ever been to. There is a single small wooden sign along the road for parking. Follow the road down past what feels like a private gate. Walk the road until the driveways where the trail departs the road unmarked out generally in the direction of Meander Creek. The trail runs until the Lam/Ramshead portage without ever reaching a campsite. It’s an okay trail for winter travel, but doesn’t really go anywhere during open water season. Big Moose Trail (EP 76) is a small pull-off along the same road one takes to Moose River South. Both send travelers towards Big Moose Lake. The trail culminates in a shared campsite looking south over the lake. Eagle Mountain Trail (EP 79) and Brule Lake Trail (EP 78) connect to form a point-to-point trail. The southern section which leads to Eagle Mountain sees loads of day traffic on the way to the state’s highest point. The rest of the trail sees little traffic and is minimally maintained. Campsites sit along Whale and Fishhook Lakes and offer an opportunity for a single night wilderness backpacking trip. The point-to-point nature means this trail requires a person to hike it twice or arrange a shuttle.

The Boundary Waters are full of opportunities to hike, camp, canoe, snowshoe, ski, fish, and explore. Though most visitors are here for the canoe season, there are activities to be found no matter the time of year. If you have taken canoe trips before are looking to experience the BWCA in totally different way this fall, then check out the many hiking opportunities the BWCA has to offer.

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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