Best Canoe Camping Spots in America’s Upper Midwest

6-minute read

Backcountry canoe camping is a pretty amazing way to spend a few days. You always have a lakeside campsite. You can fish, swim, relax. You can paddle from site to site or stay in one spot.

campers in the early morning at a canoe campsite next to a calm lake

Early morning at a Boundary Waters canoe campsite

In some areas you can even make it a multi-week adventure if you have the time, inclination and budget for it.

The Upper Midwest of the US, especially the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, are absolutely loaded with lakes and rivers that make excellent canoeing. Some of these have canoe campsites, only accessible from the water. We’ll focus on some of these areas here:

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Minnesota)

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or BWCAW, comprises about a million acres of boreal forest and water, and includes 1,500 miles of canoe routes (including portages, some of them brutal!) and 2,200 campsites.

The BWCAW receives about 250,000 visitors a year, closely monitored by group size, number of boats and entry point. Although it’s gotten busier the past few years, it’s still possible to go for days without seeing other people at the right times of year, or once you’re past the most popular areas.

blue tent at a Boundary Waters campsite

Boundary Waters campsite

Canoeists keep going back to the BWCAW because of its beauty, its wildness, its variety and its challenge. Veterans like to mark favorite campsites on their maps to return to again and again. Each campsite has a fire grate in the site and a latrine tucked away nearby, usually a short hike away.

Permits are limited by entry point and date. The BWCAW is governed by the US Department of Agriculture. They offer this helpful trip planning guide.

Mississippi River State Water Trail (Minnesota)

There are dozens and dozens of canoe campsites along the Mississippi River State Water Trail in Minnesota. These campsites start soon after the river leaves its source, Lake Itasca, and continue on until just north of the Twin Cities.

Many stretches of the river are designated Wild & Scenic River areas. Much of the land surrounding the river is either state or national forest. Depending on how far you canoe, you may face large lakes and dams that will need to be portaged around, just FYI.

kayaker on mississippi river by canoe campsite

A Mississippi River canoe campsite just north of the Twin Cities

Camping is only allowed in designated campsites limited to groups of up to six people. As of this writing, the sites are first-come, first-served with no fees charged. The Minnesota DNR provides this page with section maps and more information.

Kayaks with watertight storage compartments and paddle boards could be used as an alternative to canoes.

Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway (Wisconsin/Minnesota)

The Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway starts with the 100 miles of Wisconsin’s Namekagon River. The Namekagon joins the St. Croix, which then flows south for another 125 miles until it joins the Mississippi River.

The best campsites that can be considered backcountry are along the Namekagon and the Upper St. Croix. While you’ll still find canoe campsites along the river on the Lower section, there will be dams to portage around and plenty of motor boat traffic.

kayakers on the st. croix river by a canoe campsite

Canoe campsite on the Wisconsin side of the St. Croix River

These sites are first-come, first-served. You won’t need a permit as long as you’re north of Highway 8 (the Upper St. Croix). Camping is only allowed in the designated sites and there’s a three-night limit per site.

The Saint Croix Riverway is governed by the National Park Service.

Lower Wisconsin Scenic Riverway (Wisconsin)

According to the Wisconsin DNR, “The Lower Wisconsin is the longest free-flowing stretch of river in the Midwest.” This 92-mile stretch is unique in our list as there are no designated campsites. Instead, camping is allowed on the many sand bars and islands. 95,000 acres of land on each side of the river are included in the Riverway.

white tent on a sand bar along the Lower Wisconsin River

Camping on a sandbar along the Lower Wisconsin River (photo courtesy of Wisconsin Canoe Company)

Camping there is absolutely primitive. There are no fire rings or latrines. Because of the nature of the river, the sand bars vary in size and shape from season to season, so where you camped last year may not be an option this year.

Wisconsin Canoe Company has a great article on canoe camping this Riverway. Besides the bugs in summer, that will be a nuisance for all the areas on this list, the author advises bringing a cheap tent, as the sand you’ll camp on will ruin your tent zipper! A word to the wise.

No permit is required for camping on these public lands, but there’s a 3-day limit. Here’s a helpful Paddle Planner page from Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Voyageurs National Park (Minnesota)

Voyageurs National Park, governed by the National Park Service, is located along the Minnesota/Ontario border. It’s very similar in environment to the Boundary Waters—boreal forest and water. One main difference is that all types of boats are allowed on the lakes, so you’ll see motor boats, houseboats and sailboats.

Voyageurs has both front country and backcountry campsites. All of them can only be reached by the water and all of them require a reservation/permit. Of the 270ish campsites, only 15 are in the backcountry, which involves a boat-in trip, then hike or canoe/portage to the inland campsites.

canoe campsite at voyageurs national park

Backcountry campsite in Voyageurs National Park (photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

This park is surrounded by some massive lakes. Be sure when you choose your campsite that you’ll be able to canoe there from your starting point! It takes careful planning and some skill and experience to paddle safely on lakes this size with the changeable weather common to northern Minnesota.

A great option for these huge lakes would be sea kayaks. They’re made for big water and have plenty of storage space. As long as you stay in the front country campsites, there are no portages.

Sylvania Wilderness (Upper Michigan)

Think Boundary Waters experience, but in a much smaller area, more old-growth hardwood forest, easier portages and reservable campsites. This 18,000-acre protected wilderness area governed by the US Department of Agriculture is known for its pristine lakes, great fishing and local wildlife.

Sylvania contains 34 lakes connected by portages and 50 individual campsites. Gas-powered motor boats are off limits, and even electric motors are only allowed on one of the lakes. That means a quiet, backcountry canoeing experience.

orange tent at a canoe campsite in sylvania wilderness
A canoe campsite in Michigan's Sylvania Wilderness (photo courtesy of Bull Moose Patrol)

Campsite reservations are required and can be made up to 6 months in advance, with a select few open for reservations just 2 weeks in advance.

For an idea of what to expect when canoe camping in Sylvania take a look at this article by Bull Moose Patrol.

(Photos courtesy of Sharon Brodin except where noted)

What paddle questions can we help you with today? Get in touch with our Wisconsin-based Customer Service Team: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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