Boundary Waters is the World’s Largest Dark Sky Sanctuary

boundary waters night sky, dustin gottlieb

Timelapse shot over a Boundary Waters lake (photo by Dustin Gottlieb, used by permission; Facebook/Instagram)

In September 2020, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) announced its newest International Dark Sky Sanctuary: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

According to the IDA, the Boundary Waters is the world’s thirteenth location to receive this designation, and also its largest, at 1,098,000 acres. “This designation confirms what people in this area have enjoyed for thousands of years: naturally dark skies, starry nights, and astounding northern lights displays.” (source)

What Is a Dark Sky Sanctuary?

“An IDA Dark Sky Sanctuary is public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.” (source)

The IDA also designates Dark Sky Parks and Dark Sky Reserves, but a Sanctuary is usually very remote. Designation as a Dark Sky Sanctuary helps increase public awareness and longterm conservation efforts for these natural places.

boundary waters dark sky, joshua kerwood

The beauty of a Boundary Waters night (photo by Joshua Kerwood, used by permission)

Other Dark Sky Sanctuaries include places in the US, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and a couple of South Pacific islands. (See the list here.)

People who live in or near cities, as most of the world’s population does, have often never seen a truly dark sky, like that of the Boundary Waters.

About the Boundary Waters

The BWCAW is a million-acre federal wilderness area in northeast Minnesota that’s a canoeist’s Mecca. There are 1,200 miles of canoe routes along with 2,000 designated backcountry campsites.

The area has hundreds of lakes of all sizes, connected to each other by either streams or portages of various length and difficulty. This area is known for its fishing and for its wildlife.

Group size is limited to nine people and four boats, a permit is required and Leave No Trace ethics are in full force. All of this means a true wilderness experience. It’s possible to be out for days without seeing another person, except possibly at your entrance or exit point.

For more, read: World-Class Canoeing in the Boundary Waters

Every campsite is lakeside, which makes it easy to see those beautiful dark skies on a clear night.

northern lights, bruce bergeron
Vivid northern lights display in truly dark skies (photo by Bruce Bergeron, used by permission)

PRO TIP: While the height of summer is a great time to visit the Boundary Waters, late summer and fall is an even better time to plan a canoe trip there if you want to get the full effect of those dark skies. The air loses its humidity and haze for an even clearer view of stars, planets, galaxies and other heavenly bodies.

PRO TIP #2: For your best views of the Milky Way and any northern lights show that may occur, visit when the moon’s light is at its minimum.

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