Planning a Boundary Waters Canoe Area canoe trip is complicated, especially if it is your first time. One of the biggest challenges is navigating the permit system and knowing which BWCA permit pick up locations and entry points are best.
In this article, we provide:
- A map of all entry points overlaid with the BWCA permit pickup locations (BWCA Issuing Stations)
- A thorough understanding of the U.S. Forest Service’s Permit Quota System
The latter does not currently exist on the internet and is something that makes the logistics of planning a trip infinitely easier. Enjoy!
What is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area?
The BWCA Wilderness comprises over 1,098,000 acres, or about a third of the Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. It extends almost 150 miles along the International Boundary with Canada, and touches Voyageurs National Park, Grand Portage Monument, and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park and La Verendrye Provincial Parks.
The BWCAW contains over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails, and over 2,000 designated campsites! So pay attention to the following information and get ready for your next BWCA canoe trip!
Is a permit always required when visiting the BWCA?
Yes. A permit is always required when visiting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
There are four types Boundary Waters Permits:
- Day Use Permit
- Overnight Paddle Permit
- Day Use Motor Permit
- Overnight Motor Permit
According to the U.S. Forest Service:
- Visitors taking an overnight paddle, motor or hiking trip, or a motorized day trip into the BWCAW from May 1 – September 30 are required to obtain a quota permit through Recreation.gov.
- Walk-up permits may be obtained at any permit issuing station on the entry date or one day prior when available, however, reservations are recommended since there are a limited number of quota permits for each entry point.
- Self Issued day permits are required for non-motorized day use visitors year-round and for all overnight visitors entering the BWCAW from October 1 – April 30.
- Self Issued permits are also required for Day Use Motor visitors from October 1 – April 30. Self Issued permits are available from kiosks at BWCAW entry points and U.S. Forest Service offices (no reservation required and no recreation fees).
BWCAW permit reservations allow a group of up to 9 people and 4 watercraft to enter the Wilderness. One permit/reservation per group per trip. The group must stay together for the duration of the trip and must enter the wilderness on the specific date on their permit.
Permits can be purchased at recreation.gov with a credit card.
What are BWCA Issuing Stations and Cooperators?
Permits can only be picked up at registered Issuing Stations, also called Cooperators, which may charge an additional $2 service fee for issuing a permit. BWCA Issuing have a contract with the U.S. Forest Service to be able to officially issue BWCA permits to end users.
Your Issuing Station or BWCA permit pick up location is chosen when making your reservation, and like most parts of the reservation process, it cannot be changed. That being said, we’ve had some luck calling the local forest service office closest to our entry point and requesting a change.
How do I choose the best BWCA Permit Pick Up Location?
Choosing the best BWCA permit pick up location is part logistics, part personal preference. If you are using an outfitter, then chances are they are an Issuing Station/Cooperator and will have your permit waiting for you.
If you outfit your own trips, then you will need to think about location and hours of operation when choosing a BWCA permit pick up location.
For example, when we trip in the Tofte or Gunflint area, we pick our permits up at the Duluth Pack Store in Duluth, MN. Why? Because they are open until 9PM. We are usually coming up after work from the Twin Cities and like to be on the water by 6AM the following day. Those late hours help!
BWCA Permit Pick Up Locations and Issue Station Map
Figuring out the logistics of which BWCA Permit Pick Up Location is the best is a challenge. There are currently over 70 Entry Points and 52 Issuing Stations (Cooperators). Yikes!
For that reason, we put together the map below, which overlays the Entry Points with a map of all BWCA permit pick up locations (BWCA Permit Issuing Stations).
Blue flags are Entry Points and Orange flags are Permit Issuing Stations. You can double-click on any flag to pull up additional information.
A full list of cooperators can be found at recreation.gov. I find it helpful to pull up the list in one tab and the BWCA permit pick up locations in another, so I can see the details AND location relative to my chosen entry point.
Team Leads, or the alternate leader, will have to pick up the permit in person, watch the new Forest Service videos, and take a brief test prior to the permit being issued.
BWCA Permits – Details and Requirements
BWCAW Quota Permit Requirements (Per US Forest Service):
- Permits are not transferable (permit holder, alternate group leader, entry date and entry point cannot be changed once the permit reservation is made)
- One permit per day, per permit holder. To ensure everyone has the opportunity to make a reservation, when a visitor makes multiple reservations on the same entry date or has overlapping reservations, all but one permit will automatically be cancelled by the Forest Service. Cancelled permits will be returned to the inventory and permit holders will not be notified prior to cancellation.
- Permit is valid to enter BWCAW only on the entry date and at the entry point specified.
- Permits can only be picked up on the entry date or one day prior. Only permit holder or alternate permit holder specified at time of reservation can pick up permit (photo ID required).
- Reserved permits must be picked up at the issue station specified on the permit. Allow extra time to discuss wilderness principles and current conditions when picking up a permit. Office hours vary, see “Issue Stations” tab for hours of operation.
- Once a permit is placed with a cooperator, the issue station cannot be changed.
- Cooperators may charge a service fee for issuing a permit (up to $2 per overnight permit).
- No refunds.
- BWCAW quota permit requirements are strictly enforced.
BWCA Permits – Fees
Required for all overnight visitors May 1 – September 30. Per person, per trip recreation fee:
Adult $16.00 Child/Youth 0-17 $8.00
A minimum deposit of $32.00 (equal to two adult recreation fees) is required when making an advanced reservation for a quota permit. When recreation fees are less than $32.00, the difference will be refunded when the permit is issued.
The Senior/Access pass discount applies to the recreation fee of the pass holder only. All Interagency Senior and Access Passes must be presented for validation when picking up the permit, or the discount will not be honored.
This is a $6.00 nonrefundable reservation fee.
BWCA Permits – Cancellation & Refunds
Paddlers may cancel online anytime up to two days before the entry date for overnight permits. If you cancel the reservation two or more days prior to entry date, all recreation fees paid will be refunded.
If you cancel the reservation on the entry date or one day prior, you will be charged a penalty of $32.00 (two adult user fees), any additional recreation fees paid will be refunded.
- The $6.00 reservation fee is non-refundable.
- Walk-up permits cannot be cancelled once they are issued.
- BWCAW permits are not transferable.
No refunds are granted for weather events including but not limited to storms, rain, wind, hail, ice, snow, flood, lightening, tornados, excessive heat, cold, bugs, locusts or drought. No refunds for personal, work, or medical emergencies; accidents or casualty. No refunds for operator error, technical issues or network outages. No refunds for force majeure, unforeseen circumstances, or acts of God.
BWCA Permits – No Shows and Official Closures
No Show Policy
All payments are forfeited in the case of a no-show.
Official Closure Policy
In the event a BWCAW entry point closes due to an official Forest order, refunds will only be processed for trips with entry dates falling within the dates of the closure, regardless of when the closure is announced. So if your entry date is June 10, but the closure is announced for June 12, you will not get a refund.
If the entry point is not closed and you choose not to use your reservation because there is a fire, the reservation fee is non-refundable and user fees may be retained if inside the cancellation window.
When a closure order is lifted, remaining and future quota will be available on a first come, first served basis with no preference granted to permit holders affected by a closure, past or present.
Is there a BWCA Permit/Reservation Lottery?
No. Thankfully, the Forest Service no longer runs a permit lottery. It has been replaced with peak season quota system, with a specific number of permits allocated to each entry point on each day.