If you’re an avid canoer, you could choose a worse location than the land of 10,000 lakes.
Well, it’s called the land of 10,000 lakes, but the truth is there are 11,842 lakes over ten acres in size.
Minnesota has over ten million acres of protected wilderness. State and National Forests checker the map, connected by thousands of miles of waterways.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota is one of the most visited, yet least known, nature getaways in the country, while also one of the world’s premier canoeing and fishing destinations.
Pristine wilderness, endless destinations and breathtaking scenery abound in Minnesota. Some of the oldest and most sweeping national protections, as well as the states naturally rugged and isolating geography, have left some of the United States last true untouched natural grandeur.
From the sweeping planes in the west to the northern “Big Forest”, there is nowhere better for paddling. Whether you’re looking for a casual day out with the family or an epic whitewater ride, we set out to find the best canoeing experiences the North Star State has to offer.
Before you hit the water, a word of caution.
Very few of Minnesota’s wild animals are dangerous to humans. Though there is a massive array of fauna, including river otters and swans, larger animals like grizzly bears live further west. The list of deadliest animals in the state includes deer and bees.
That is absolutely not to say, however, that setting out into the wilds of Minnesota is 100 percent safe. Quite the contrary. With such a vast amount of protected wilderness there is a very small chance of being found if you wander off the beaten path, and, well, canoes aren’t particularly great for staying on beaten paths.
Especially if you’re traversing a lake between waterways or finding somewhere to pull off and camp for the night, there is always a chance of getting blown off course or getting hit with unexpected weather.
Canoeing Minnesota can be one of the most laid back and enjoyable days or weekends you ever have, but a cold snap or sudden storm can leave you stranded with no supplies and no way home.
The most important areas to consider before you set off are:
Registering with the forest service
If you’re planning a day trip on well regulated and maintained rivers like one of Minnesota’s 35 state water trails or you’re just taking the kids around the lake by your vacation rental, it may be a bit much to go so far as to register with the National Forest Service.
You don’t even need a license for canoes under ten feet and, frankly, if you’re caught without one on a fifteen footer, you’ll probably just get a warning if anything. The license is only ten bucks.
However, if you’re planning on going off-book and charting your own path through one of Minnesota’s state forests…yes. Register with the forest service. It doesn’t cost anything at all to call in a weekend itinerary and set up a check in time.
That way, if you went down the wrong channel or a flash storm sunk your canoe thirty miles from the nearest outpost, the Forest Service will send out a rescue patrol to find you when you don’t check in.
Just make sure to actually check in when you finish. They really don’t like sending out search and rescue for someone that’s already back at the hotel.
Minnesota park guidelines
State Parks and Forests are a wonderful resource for canoeing Minnesota, and a large portion of your options will fall into their jurisdiction. Minnesota has notoriously stringent protocols and guidelines for visiting their protected wildernesses, and the rangers will have no qualms kicking you out of the park or arresting you if you don’t follow them. Actionable offenses include:
Lighting large fires without proper permits
Being destructive or disorderly.
Drinking too much
Fishing without a license.
Poaching. Do not do that. There are plenty of hunting grounds in the state. Go there.
Illegal activity. It’s still illegal in the woods.
For a complete list of rules www.dnr.state.mn.us.
Canoeing Minnesota in the cold season
Minnesota wilderness is absolutely gorgeous year round, but the winter months definitely add an edge to nature outings that the spring and summer don’t have.
Notoriously unpredictable weather and fierce winds can make a sunny november day into a dangerous, freezing ordeal.
So when canoeing between summer and spring, especially someplace isolated, take these measures.
Warm clothes (jacket, gloves, hat, etc.).
Emergency Heat Blankets.
An emergency radio.
A hammer or hatchet in case of freezing waters.
dry clothes in a waterproof container.
If you start a campfire, make sure that you have enough fuel to keep it burning through the night. It sounds scary, yes, but it’s a very unlikely scenario that anything will happen to you if you come prepared.
Minnesota alcohol restrictions
While Minnesota doesn’t have any heavy restrictions on drinking as long as you’re 21 and don’t litter or become a nuisance to other nature lovers, we definitely have to urge against canoeing intoxicated. It’s just dangerous.
The very essence of traveling in unrestricted wilderness is the element of unpredictability and self reliance, and you’re not going to be particularly great at building a fire with wet wood or re-navigating a river too swollen to get through safely if you’re in the bag. Please be responsible.
The Best Canoeing in Minnesota.
We picked some choice locations from all around Minnesota, all of which are worth visiting. The diverse geology and endless choices make it impossible to pick one canoeing experience, but we went out of our way to find what we considered the most memorable.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Located within the Superior National Forest in Northeast Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is over 1,000,000 acres of primitive forests, glacial lakes and rivers. Stretching along the Canadian border and running along Lake Superior, the BWCAW is the largest remaining uncut forest in the eastern United States.
The National Bird Conservancy has named the BWCAW as a globally important bird habitat, and it’s very common to see birds ranging from loons and swans to bald eagles and peregrine falcons, as well as moose, beaver, otters, deer and otter.
Native Americans inhabited this area as far back as 8000 B.C., and as a protected old growth forest you’ll see the world they lived in almost exactly as they did minus a mammoth cave bear or two.
Permits are required for overnight stays, but the large number of primitive campsites dotted throughout the wilderness give an almost limitless number of possible travel routes.
Though thousands of visitors come to the BWCAW every year, it remains one of the few places in the country so vast that you might be able to paddle in, spend the day exploring and fishing, pull up at a campsite, stay for the night and paddle out without encountering another person. Just you and the echoes of the past.
Voyageurs National Park
To the west of the BWCAW lies another gem or the northern border. Voyageurs National park is named after the trappers and fur traders that traveled through the areas during the french colonization of the area.
It sits on a geographical area known as The Canadian Shield, an ancient petrified lava field with some of the oldest rocks on the plant, between 1 and 3 billion years old. This makes for some of the states most unique natural formations, from high plateaus to cascading river steppes.
The central focus of the park is the Kabetogama Peninsula, essentially and island surrounded by the three major lakes that make up the parks borders. Not having any roads accessing the peninsula, it is only visitable by water and as such has become a de facto nature preserve, as there is no hunting in the park and very few humans take the time to venture through the fifty miles of hiking trails it offers.
This is somewhere to see nature unbothered by civilization and untouched by deforestation and hunting.
The Headwaters at Lake Itasca
In northern central Minnesota there is a small lake, roughly 2 miles in area. It’s quite lovely. Lake Itasca is especially noteworthy for being one of the few places that show examples of the three great North American Habitats:
The Deciduous Forest of the south, the Coniferous Northern Forests, and the Great Western Plains. It truly is a sight to behold, these epic staples of America all brought together around a small isolated lake.
What makes this particular lake good for canoeing, however, has less to do with the land around it than what the water itself leads into. You see, Lake Itasca is the beginning headwaters of the great Mississippi River.
From this humble seat springs the lifeblood of the nation, and it travels 2,300 miles across the continent to the Gulf of Mexico. There is a kinetic feeling to looking down the river leading away from Lake Itasca, a kind of magnetic draw pulling you southward. A little call to adventure in your ear, urging you to take the current as far as it will take you.
Well, we wouldn’t be doing the thrill seekers reading this any justice if we didn’t mention our favorite whitewater experience of Minnesota.
With a name like Devil Track, you can be pretty sure you’re in for some challenging breakers. A five mile run that takes you through multiple hefty drops and into a long, scenic canyon before throwing you out suddenly onto the serene shores of Lake Superior.
Depending on how you take it, Devil Track has been rated from a level 2 difficulty to a level 5, so even less experienced whitewater canoers can give it a shot. A word of warning though- if you don’t have a guide that knows their course already, the level 2 you’re shooting for can turn into a level 5 without you even knowing.
Be prepared and hire a guide, because you really don’t want to go over the final pitch (nicknamed “The Admiral”) without knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
The Minnesota River
We would be remiss in our duties when speaking of canoeing Minnesota without mentioning its namesake: The Minnesota River.
Named “The River of Cloud Tinted Water” by the native Dakota, the Minnesota travels a 318 mile course along a path carved out by a glacier some 11,000 years ago. Bisecting the southwestern quarter of the state, the blue-green river snakes its way through granite cliffs, pine forests and beautiful wetland marshes.
While perhaps not the most exciting trip, you could spend a week or more traveling the river end to end, stopping at the many campsites along the way and replenishing food and water at available rest stops. If you’re looking for a good way to get away from it all and clear your head, nothing beats this all American excursion.
Canoeing Minnesota is an adventure
Minnesota is beautiful in ways that we couldn’t begin to describe. The majesty of nature surrounds you at every turn. The Old Growth Forests, the endless languishing rivers, the thousands upon thousands of lakes teeming with life, the unique and ancient rock formations, the valleys and streams carved by glaciers millenia ago.
The very breath of history swirls about in the water with your every paddle.
Very rarely in life do we get to commune with the Earth the way that ancients did, breathing and appreciating the wonders of untouched nature.
Don’t miss out on your chance. Minnesota is waiting for you!