Why We Love Canoe-in Sites at Bear Head Lake State Park

Bear Head State Park - Kid standing on the dock at a canoe-in campsite

About Bear Head Lake State Park

Bear Head Lake State Park - Beautiful view of glassy lake and kids playing in waders

We love Bear Head Lake State Park. It is easily in our top two state parks for camping in Minnesota. Why? Two reasons. First of all, it has a number of excellent hike-in and canoe-in sites. We prefer to stay away from crowds and out of the normal camp sites. That little extra work hiking or canoeing to a site, even if it only takes 10 minutes, adds an immense amount of solitude and adventure to a trip. Second, Bear Head is like going to the Boundary Waters without actually having to plan that complex of a trip. We would recommend anyone thinking about going to the BWCA first spend a weekend at one of the canoe in sites at Bear Head. This will provide a chance to test out your gear, skills, and stamina!

Bear Head Lake State Park has a ton to offer. It has a great standard campground, both for tents and RVs, boat launch for motorized boats, swimming beach, great fishing, two trout lakes, miles of hiking trails, wild blueberries and raspberries, and wildlife galore! Even if you are just starting out building your camping skills, it is an awesome place to visit. As always start small and you can work your way up to bigger and more complex trips.

Day 1 – Drive, Eat, and Arrive

The Drive

The drive from our house to Bear Head Lake State Park is long at about four hours. It may seem extreme for a quick two night camping trip, but it is totally worth it! We’d rather make the drive and enjoy two nights in the Northwoods than no nights at all. We let the kids each pack a bag of toys, books, and snacks. Add to that that some Spotify podcasts like Brains On and some Disney soundtracks and audiobooks and they keep busy enough!

Gordy’s Hi-Hat

Bear Head Lake State Park - Enjoying a pre-camping meal at Gordy's Hi-Hat

Northern Minnesota is home to a number of iconic stores and restaurants. You are bound to pass through the old mining towns of Virginia, Cloquet, and Eveleth if you are driving from the Twin Cities to the Ely area. Who can pass up a stop at Gordy’s Hi-Hat, the famous burger joint that was featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. Even before it was made famous by the show, Gordy’s was a local sensation known for quick service and good old fashioned burgers and shakes. It’s a common stop for cabin goers and canoers coming out of the Boundary Waters. We’ve even unknowingly crossed paths with family members as we were going in to the BWCA and they were coming out.

We can never pass up a chance at a great meal and always feel better going into the woods with a full stomach. The burgers are a huge hit and Henrik loves their fish sandwich.

A Cold Paddle to Camp

Bear Head Lake State Park - Kids enjoying apples at camp

On this trip we stayed at campsite W6, which is in the south-west corner of Bear Head Lake (apologies for the poor map quality!). It is about a 15 minute paddle from the boat launch and parking area. Unfortunately for us, 2022 was an unusually cold spring and it was cold and rainy. We were prepared with rain coats, but against everyone’s advice, Dad thought bringing gloves and mittens was unnecessary. He began to regret that decision as they paddled through the wind, rain, and 40 degree temperatures to a campsite they had never been to… in the dark. We can’t remember having hands that cold and the burning sensation as they warmed up was not fun!

Luckily we had already eaten, so we just needed to set up the tent, put our food and belongings in the park-provided bear safe box, and hit the hay. The nights were pretty chilly on this trip, to the point some of us ended up cuddling inside of each other’s bags. We have plenty of cold-weather camping gear, but just didn’t think it would be necessary in May. Some lessons are best learned the hard way!

Day 2 – Fishing and Exploring

Let Kids to be Kids again!

Bear Head Lake State Park - Kids Enjoying a treat by the lake

We left Saturday relatively unstructured. We often receive questions about how we keep the kids busy. Do we bring toys? Are they allowed screen time? Do we plan out each day? The truth is none of the above. When we are in the woods we have a no gadgets rule. That rule applies to both kids and adults.

Our kids stay busy by having the freedom to be kids. They explore the woods, start fires (supervised), build forts, play in the water, fish, catch turtles, etc. This is now second nature for them because they do not know anything different. You may be in a different spot, but the best advice we can give is to give the kids a little space and allow them to experiment on their own. Clearly keep an eye on them, but sometimes it is best for them not to know they are being watched. It is a great way to teach personal responsibility without forcing it.

Largemouth Bass Fishing with Kids

Bear Head Lake State Park - Kids fishing for largemouth bass in their waders

Bear Head Lake has a nice largemouth bass population, which is unique for cold water lakes. This makes fishing with kids fun and eventful. Largemouth are relatively easy to catch and put up a good fight. They also rarely swallow hooks so few are injured in the process. We take a simple approach of either tossing top-water crankbaits like Heddon Tiny Torpedos, floating Rapalas, or my personal favorite, Mepps spinners (#2 and #3, Original Aglia with and without tails).

That all being said, fishing with kids is tough! They lose lures, get tangled, caught in trees, etc. I sometimes lose my patience but in the end we catch fish and have a blast.

OAKI Waders – A Worthwhile Investment

Bear Head Lake State Park - Kids playing in OAKI brand waders in the water

This year we brought the kids OAKI waders. These are by far the best piece of clothing we’ve purchased and gave them the freedom to explore the shoreline while staying warm and dry. They live in them in the pond behind our house. We couldn’t give a better recommendation if you are looking for a product to keep kids outside, rain or shine!

The kids fished from their waders, explored the shoreline, played in puddles, and kept dry all day. For some reason islands fascinate kids, so we dropped them off on one to explore. It had been the site of an old sawmill camp, so had tons to explore, including an old grass-roofed house with a wood burning stove. We took a small hike by the island and then spent the afternoon hanging out around camp and fishing.

Day 3 – Pack up and Head Home

Bear Head Lake State Park - Young girl fishing on a cloudy day from camp

Sunday came too fast. We spent a leisurely morning hanging out in camp and eating breakfast. Their Aunt’s good friend is the park ranger at Bear Head Lake State Park, so we made sure we stopped in to say hi. While chatting we had mentioned how cold it felt the previous night when we were sleeping. She laughed and said that is because it snowed. We must have slept in because we didn’t see any snow on the ground, but we sure felt it!

She reminded us of the unique stocked trout lakes in the park, so we decided to give fishing one more shot. We didn’t have any luck, but made a mental not to come back next year with worms and a hook. Trout can be easy to catch with a simple setup of a bobber, hook, and worm. They are fun to catch and are beautiful fish to look at. We come to Bear Head Lake State Park at least once a year, so I know we’ll have plenty of future opportunities.

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The Quill Family

We are the Quills! An ordinary family sharing our extraordinary travel experiences. 


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