Permits & Quotas
When to go
Where to go
Storm damage

When to go

The most popular time to travel in the Boundary Waters is during the open water seasons from early May until late October. In a typical year the ice breaks up on large lakes in early May, and by late October it has already returned to the smaller lakes. In theory the canoeing season extends from ice-out to ice-in. In reality most canoeists limit their travel to the middle of May until the end of September.

There is no "best" time to canoe the Boundary Waters. If you go in early May you may be the first human visitor many lakes and portages have seen in at least six months. Portages tend to get plenty of winter use by deer, wolf, and moose, and you are likely to see signs of their activities -- everything from abundant wolf droppings to perhaps the sparse remains of a deer or moose killed by wolves. You will also encounter more than your share of down trees along portages that obstruct your trail until you can find a way around, under, or over the downfalls. If spring comes late you might experience iced over lakes even in the middle of May, and measurable snow is possible all month.

The second half of May is also relatively quiet, but attracts people fishing for lake trout, northern pike, and walleye. Some of the best fishing in the Boundary Waters is from the mid-May fishing opener through June. This is a particularly good time to seek lake trout, and waters with established "laker" populations can be quite popular soon after the opener, even lakes relatively deep into the interior of the BWCAW. You are also likely to be treated to the distant drumming sound of ruffed grouse seeking mates.

Although use of motorboats is limited in the Boundary Waters, the majority of all motor permits are issued in May and June, no doubt a correlation to fishing activities. In most years, by August motorboat use is a third of what it was in May. Many visitors to the Boundary Waters want to avoid lakes where motorized boats are allowed. Fortunately, even motorized lakes are far quieter than most Minnesota lakes because no jet skis and ski boats rule these wilderness waters. If you are one of the many visitors to the BWCAW who wants to completely avoid motorboats, then you should restrict your travels to those lakes that do not allow motors. Whether or not a lake allows motorboats is described throughout this guide.

Memorial Day weekend and June first marks the start of the busiest paddling season in the Boundary Waters, and the activity continues through the Labor Day weekend at the beginning of September. These three months account for over 75 percent of the travelers that enter the Boundary Waters each year. June provides the best chance to see young loons, moose calves, and deer fawns. It is also a time during which many wildflowers are in bloom, including wild iris and the pink lady slipper orchid. If you intend to go swimming the lake water is still quite cold, and you will have to be hardy to brave the depths. Air temperatures rise throughout the month, with average lows in the 40’s and highs in the 60’s.

In early to mid June black flies come out in droves, typically for a two week period that can be a bit earlier or later depending upon whether spring came early or late. These small flies swarm around your head, biting exposed skin and causing an extreme nuisance when they are at their worst. Having a bug net to cover your head along is definitely recommended during black fly season. Most outfitters sell them.

Insect Protection
While on the topic of insects, bring along plenty of insect repellent and dress properly to ensure the best protection. I always bring a repellent with low levels of DEET in it, which is a very effective ingredient for keeping mosquitoes at bay. Most efficacy tests I have seen show that you don't need pure DEET, which should be used somewhat sparingly due to concerns over safety from overexposure. You should also bring a long sleeve shirt and paints to wear when the bugs are biting, especially at dawn and dusk. Light colored clothing is also recommended.

You should also be aware of lyme disease, which is caused by the corkscrew-shaped bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. The bacteria are transmitted through the bite of deer ticks, which are tiny ticks just a couple millimeters wide, making them much smaller than the common woodtick that is closer to the size of a flat match head. Lyme disease can cause serious problems involving the heart, joints, eyes, and nervous system. According to the CDC, common symptoms of lyme disease are a "bull's-eye" rash with a dark red center and lighter exterior, accompanied by nonspecific symptoms such as fever, malaise, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and joint aches. You should consult a healthcare professional if these symptoms develop, although to date the level of lyme disease appears to have been relatively low in the BWCAW.

By July the lakes have usually warmed and the fishing cooled. Summer is in full swing, and you might see loons and mergansers fishing with their newly expanded families. Don’t be surprised to find thick swarms of mosquitoes ready for your arrival. With a bit of planning you will be able to avoid most of their annoying bites. The days are long, and temperatures typically range from the 50’s to 80’s. In both June and July temperatures can drop to the 40's and 50's, as well as hit the 90’s, so be prepared for temperature swings.

By August the days have shortened significantly, but are still plenty long and the lakes reach their warmest temperatures of the year. The first two weeks of August are historically the most heavily traveled in the Boundary Waters. Air temperatures are just a tad cooler than July, still in the range of the 50’s to 80’s. If you are lucky, you will happen upon a blueberry patch (and won't have to share it with a bear). The mosquito population drops throughout August, and is usually very manageable without repellant by Labor Day (but bring some to be safe). August and September are prime seasons for amateur mycologists seeking edible mushrooms, as long as there has been adequate rainfall (but don't eat anything you're not absolutely certain is safe).

In September the number of human visitors drops, and many of the animals that head south for the winter start their journeys. Loons flock together to fly to their winter homes on the Gulf Coast. Moose begin a loud and active dating game, and you might hear their bellowing from up to a mile away. The forests begin a subtle, yet magnificent, color change: aspen and tamarack turn golden yellow, while the occasional maple lights up the shoreline in brilliant red. The time for maximum foliage color can vary across the Boundary Waters from west to east, but generally the peak color is observed around the last 10 days of September through the first week of October.

From October until November's arrival of complete ice-in deciduous trees lose their leaves, abandoning the pines, spruce, and firs to reign over the woods. During this time the greatest solitude is found by canoeists, as well as the shortest days and coldest winds. This is absolutely not a time for the unprepared or inexperienced to venture into canoe country, but is a wonderful change of pace for the experienced Boundary Waters traveler who can handle potentially winter-like conditions.

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