The Ten Types of BWCA Campsite

Every traveler to the BWCA has their ideal of what a campsite should look like and what features it should have. Perhaps it has a sprawling camp kitchen or a nice overlook. Perhaps it’s perched on an island or alongside a sprawling beach. But whether the campsite is easy to access or is tucked back upon distant shore, whether offering “5-star” accommodations or whether it’s the site to tell horror stories about, every BWCA campsite is a little unique in its own ways. And in this season of looking back towards canoe season and forward to a winter season ahead, I find myself reflecting on the campsites where nights have been spent. As anyone does, I have my favorites, but I also have begun thinking of them in categories. Of all the campsites in the BWCA, I have found I can categorize most of them into 10 different classifications. Different than your standard 1-5 star reviews and different even than my more complicated Small-Large with 1-5 stars reviews alongside, this article is more about the scope of the whole. If I were to traverse every campsite in the BWCA and try to group them into which ones are alike, how would I do it? This article is how I would group the BWCA campsites. It’s not just good and bad, but what makes these campsites what they are. There is of course, with all of these things, some overlap. Campsites can fall into multiple of these classes. But I believe most every site in canoe country can fall into at least one. So with that, here are the ten types of BWCA campsites:

1) The Campground:
 Some people think of these as the five-star sites, I tend to think of these as the textbook cases of overuse in the wilderness area. “The Campground” sites are large, likely able to hold 4 tents or more. They are usually near entry points or along extremely popular routes. An unfortunate side effect for these sites is numerous leave-no-trace violations including litter and debris, hatchet marks in trees, cut down living trees and branch pruning, bark pealed from birch trees, lots of rock moving, a major lack of firewood, and the normal bouts of erosion. These sites can accompany motor zones where easy access allows for more expansive camping practices. Unfortunately, some really excellent sites become campground sites when visitors specifically seek out the site leading to a higher-than-average stay night per year. For some people though, these are considered the cream of the crop of Boundary Waters campsites and their sprawling spaces work great for the 8 or 9 person groups when few other sites can. Some classic examples of these campsites includes the Pine/Mcfarland narrows site, a number of the sites through the Moose/Newfound/Sucker corridor, the stairway site on Alder, a number of sites on Basswood, and every entry point lake and busy route seems to have at least one of these.

This island site on Lake Three is still pretty nice, but I would place it into the “Campground” category. 8-9 tent pads, a biff which has been replaced at least three times, and leave-no-trace violations abound.

2) Pit Stop:
 A pit stop site is a site which seems to have been built simply to provide a convenient stopping point for folks who don’t plan to stay long. These sites are usually not the best but not the worst sites either. They rarely have unique and defining features and have little to no privacy. Many of these sites are connected directly to portages or are located on choke points near the obvious route of travel. These sites don’t require groups to go at all out of their way. As such, many groups may pass by these sites everyday meaning these may not be pleasant places for people who are looking to set up and base camp for extended periods. That said, for folks that like to travel and tend to just use a campsite for a couple meals and some sleep, these sites may do the trick. Some classic examples of this type of campsite are the Upper Basswood Falls campsites, the Fourtown narrows campsites coming from Horse, the portage campsite between Pine and the Pikes, the Thomas Pond campsite, the Sag Lake corridor sites, or the Lake Two/Lake Three narrows sites. On an added note, there is another sub-class of campsites in this category which are “mileage break-up” sites. These are more popular along long river routes like the Frost or the Isabella but can also be found along challenging portage stretches like the “three letter lakes” between Makwa and Sagus. These sites are often small and cramped, but they allow people legal places to pull off if underestimated travel times have them stuck. Interestingly, not every long river route or stretch of long portages has this option so places like South Little Indian Sioux force a very long push between campsites.

This campsite on Trapline Lake sits on a relatively quiet route, but as a campsite on a shallow, murky lake directly on the only route of travel, this falls neatly into the “Pit Stop” category.

3) Obligatory Island:
I call these obligatory, and many who have been taking BWCA trips long enough will understand, if a lake has an island larger than an acre in size there will usually be a campsite on it. On lakes with lots of islands, the USFS won’t put a campsite on every one, but if a lake has an island and can justify a campsite that island will have a campsite. Island campsites tend to be really popular with people and because of that many island sites risk becoming Campground Sites. In fact, plenty of island sites have been closed over the years due to overuse. I understand some of the appeal since staying on an island is really cool. However, there are plenty of drawbacks too. I have stayed at many island sites which were overrun by mice who couldn’t leave. They often have a shortage of firewood anywhere close to the campsite (or the island itself is bereft of firewood entirely.) And some of the benefits of islands are entirely myth (ie: bears can swim.) That said, I do enjoy a nice island site as much as the next camper if given the chance. Obviously there are tons of island campsites in the BWCA and some of them are awesome campsites whether or not they were on an island. Some obvious examples of island sites which were/are overused include the former Big Moose island site, a number of Saganaga sites, some of the Snowbank sites, Newfound, among others. And a few lakes that show the “if we can put it on an island” mentality include Gabbro, West Pike, Boulder, and Meads to name a few. There are hundreds of island sites spread across the wilderness and some are the most beloved campsites out there and most BWCA travelers have some recollection of a favorite island campsite.

A classic island campsite on Gijikiki

4) Defining Feature:
These are some of the coolest campsites in the BWCA. Some get used a lot, some are out of the way and get used less, but they are all unique. These are campsites where a lake had such a special feature that the original campsite placers knew there was no other option but to put a site there. These campsites can be sitting at sandy beaches, perched atop rock faces, shaded by enormous trees, overlooking waterfalls, across from pictographs (or even have them in the campsite), or are graced by enormous boulders. The defining trait of these campsites is that they are always special and have a feature which sets them apart from nearby campsites. Often this makes them popular destinations that folks set their sights on if they are traveling through the region. Some examples of these sites would be the big eastern beach site on Frost, the Lower Basswood Falls sites, the site across from the pictographs on Fishdance, the Stonehenge site on the Isabella River, the cliff site on Wasini, or the huge beach and old pines at the site west of American Point on Saganaga.

The eastern site on Lake Three defined by giant pines and a sprawling overlook which allows it to fall into category 4 and 7

5) Historic Fill-In:
These are camps which were placed directly in historic sites. Sometimes these were old logging camps or prospecting areas. Other times these are directly at old home or resort sites. Sometimes artifacts can be found at or around the area. Sometimes there are foundations or old roads and trails. And every once and awhile one with a keen eye can spot plants or trees which were cultivated and now seem out of place in the northwoods. To me, though these can be really cool, many of these sites can seem crass as, at least for the old resort sites, the owners didn’t leave willingly. As land was grabbed through eminent domain processes, folks gave up livelihoods and homes. These were often built on some of the best spots on lakes sporting scenic vistas and beaches. To take that and put a campsite there sort of feels off to me. In any case, especially in some of the busiest entry lakes like Basswood or Saganaga, many campsites sit in the sites of old resorts. Other historical sites include the Fourtown “Model-T” site, the Moosecamp logging camp site, the Lake Three 1932 NIRA cabin ruins, or all the well, junk, in the immediate area around Phantom Lake.

6) Well It Was Something:
These are campsites which for better or worse are now defined by disturbances such as fire or blowdown. They might have been a special site once, but nature has taken its course and it’ll be awhile before these sites are nice again. Sometimes this is a single campsite, other times this includes most every campsite on a lake or route. These campsites usually have a lack of tent pads or at least a lack of tree cover. Some classic example of this are the Pagami Creek burn zone, the Cavity Lake/Ham Lake burn zone, many of the campsites on Snowbank from 2016 and South Lake from 2016, and Duncan Lake from 2016 and 1999.

A burned-over site on Hudson

7) Room With a View:
These are campsites which rely heavily on the view from the landing. They might not be awesome campsites in their own right: sometimes small, cramped, or with poor landings, but the view makes up for any slight. There are also some really nice campsites that happen to have amazing views. One of my qualifiers for this category is that a photo from the landing is instantly iconic. One familiar with the campsite would have zero issues distinguishing it from the wide variety of other BWCA campsites around. Some classic examples include the far eastern Pine Lake campsite, the Winchell Campsite closest to the Omega portage, the Rose Lake campsite nearest the Stairway Portage, or the Devil’s Cascade campsite to name a few.

The view from the eastern campsite on Lake Three

8) Lost Routes:
These are the campsites which leave a person scratching their head when panning over maps for future routes. These are the campsites off the normal route sometimes by a mile or more. These tend to overlap well with the following category, often they are the same, but a “wild side” campsite can be along a nicely established route. These are so far out of the way that they do, by extension, provide wondrous solitude since they are usually unpopular due to their inconvenience. Some of these too are so far out they seemingly have become forgotten by the USFS and have seen little to no maintenance for decades (some even still sporting their wooden thunderboxes.) This category of campsites holds one thing in common, they exist because of routes which no longer exist. Portages close with time, PMAs were formed, trails faded away, but the campsites remain. With that, campsites which were once convenient stopping points for people about to take a long portage or strike out on the rest of their route now seem way out of place. Some awesome examples of this include Diana (no longer official, but a former through route between Isabella and the Wilders), the southern sites on Fishdance (used to service the Screamer portage), Neewin, Bear, or the far SW site on Gabi.

One of the two western campsites on Adams which once connected to the through route into Smite

9) The Wild Side and Ranger Specials:
The BWCA for better or worse gets a rap as a “not-wild wilderness” because of the high visitation and relative ease of access
. Because of that, some campsites may be left feeling like a state park instead of a wilderness site (see category 1.) The irony is though that high use, “nice sites” get progressively more use because of their reputation and bad sites get worse as fewer people use them and keep them open. On the flip side though, a “less-used” site often has a greater wilderness aesthetic and a feeling of being truly remote that can be lost in some of the more popular sites. A few defining characteristics include a greater abundance of firewood, limited signs of human disturbance, a smaller fire grate area, no signs that the BIFF has frequently been replaced, and fewer developed tent pads. These sites can even exist on busy routes due to strategic construction such as set-back campsites or campsites tucked into back bays. Some examples include the Gaskin site straight north of the Winchell portage, a couple of the sites on Mountain Lake, or even some of the back bay sites on Saganaga can feel this way. These can also simply be poor sites which don’t attract the traffic and thus remain smaller. A wild feeling campsite may also be acchieved through actual physical remoteness. Many of the hiking sites, for instance, feel incredibly remote because of the buffer-zone between them and the canoe routes. There are also a wide variety of campsites one portage off a major route which accomplish this since fewer people are willing to take an extra portage twice. Sites on challenging routes have this also. Personally, I seek out these campsites off onto dead-end lakes for this reason of privacy and remoteness. Some examples include Zephyr, Spice, Rabbit, Trillium, Boulder (the western one), or Gogebic. And a final sub-class of this type of campsite include what I call “Ranger-Specials.” These are some of the strangest campsites in the BWCA. Often they sit way off a normal route without an obvious purpose either currently or historically. They leave a person confused about what ranger decided a campsite needed to go way back there, though they often represent past hopeful routes. Sometimes they don’t even have an obvious route to access currently. Some great examples include Barto, Jig/Maxine, Batista, or the awful back bay site on Vista.

A true “Ranger Special” on Maxine – note the ferns growing through the fire grate

10) The Textbook:
And finally, the seemingly straightforward, if not the least exiting, classification of the standard, run-of-the-mill campsites. These are your classic BWCA campsite with a camp kitchen facing the lake, a small landing possibly of stone or along a grassy bank. There might be some pines overhanging the site to provide shade but not so much to prevent the breeze from keeping the bugs away. In many ways, these are the sites we sit at work dreaming of. The special sites are the ideal, but the standard BWCA campsite represent this place to many of us. There’s nothing particularly special about them. They don’t have some iconic features. No one finds themselves heading out of their way in search of them, but they won’t complain if they have to spend the night. The view is beautiful, but could be a snapshot of most BWCA lakes. These are the middle of the road sites found throughout the BWCA.

The snow might not be familiar to everyone, but the campsite could be. This site on Fire is a middle of the road site which could seemingly exist on most any BWCA lake.

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.

1 Comment

  1. […] emanating out from the camp kitchen, and there are some themes seemingly weaving through the sites (see our article from last year.) There is also astounding variety and in the wonderful individualism of campsites we can learn […]

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