By Sharon Brodin
One of the best and most popular day canoe trips in the Boundary Waters (BWCAW) is the trip to Stairway Portage and Rose Falls.
I learned about this gorgeous section of the BWACW back in the late 80s. We’ve since done this day trip countless times with our children as they grew up, other family members and many friends.
It’s a perfect route to introduce people of all ages to wilderness canoe tripping. And it’s a perfect route to simply enjoy a few hours of beautiful canoeing and hiking, even for veteran canoeists. While it can be done in half a day without a problem, I recommend allowing plenty of time to enjoy all it has to offer.
(NOTE: We always called this trip Stairway Portage, or “Stairway” for short. I learned later it’s more often referred to in the area as “the Rose Falls trip.”)
Here’s why this trip is so popular:
Most of the Route in is the Boundary Waters
Many of our friends and family members had never been in the Boundary Waters until we took them on this day trip to Stairway. If you begin the trip at Entry Point 60 (which you will if you have your own canoes), you’ll paddle for 15-20 minutes before reaching the one main portage.
Once you start up that portage you’re in the Boundary Waters—there’s a sign along the trail. The rest of the trip is within the BWCAW. All rules apply such as no metal or glass containers, pack out all your trash, parties are limited to a max of nine people and four boats. (See a full list of BWCAW rules here.)
If you haven’t canoed this area before, you’ll get to see the crystal-clear water of these lakes, the towering white pine trees, the white-barked birch and aspen and other typical boreal forest features. If you’re very fortunate you may see some of the area’s iconic wildlife like moose or black bear.
Entry Point 60 on West Bearkskin Lake
Just Two Lakes to Canoe Across
When you begin at Entry Point 60 you’ll have just two lakes to canoe across. The first is the west end of West Bearskin. After the 75-rod portage you’ll reach Duncan Lake. You’ll paddle north about a mile to Stairway Portage and you’re there.
If you need to rent canoes (more info on that below) you’ll start on Hungry Jack Lake, which will involve another 20-30 minutes of paddling plus another short portage.
If you have all day and are feeling especially adventurous, portage your canoes down Stairway into gorgeous Rose Lake for plenty of great paddling there, too. It’s four or five miles long with several campsites on the US side that are fun to explore if they’re empty.
The portage on the north end of Duncan Lake—Stairway portage
We always check the weather before we head out and usually postpone if it’s expected to be windy. As I mentioned, the paddle across Duncan is about a mile of open water, and heads north. Prevailing westerly winds can be tricky, especially heading back in the afternoon.
Duncan isn’t a huge lake, but we’ve been on it in 1-foot waves. While not a problem for experienced canoeists, waves and wind like that will be a definite challenge for young kids and beginners. Be sure everyone wears their PFD!
One Average Portage (Plus Opportunity for a Grueling One!)
Not counting the short portage from the parking lot to put-in at Entry 60, the one between West Bearskin and Duncan is a pretty average BWCAW portage. It’s well-used so there’s no problem finding your way. There’s plenty of room at either end for canoes and packs, even if you meet another party.
The 75 rods (a rod is a canoe length) goes uphill and back down again, but not strenuously, making it a great time to give newbies (or teens) a chance to try portaging a canoe.
If you want a bigger challenge, take your canoes down 80-rod Stairway Portage. That means you’ll have to portage them back up Stairway—which is strenuous!
Some of the 120+ steps on Stairway Portage (These wooden steps were replaced with stone ones during the summer of 2022—I haven’t seen the revamp project yet)
Duncan Lake is a hundred feet higher than Rose Lake, and a lovely stream runs between them with a 30-foot waterfall known as Rose Falls. There are natural rocky seating areas there, tall cedars, moss on the cliff faces—very picturesque!
Lovely Rose Falls
Before you make the turn to head downhill on the portage, there’s a spur trail that leads to a short footbridge over the stream above the falls. That bridge leads you to a perfect picnic spot, as well as to trails to the overlooks.
Hikes to Several Scenic Overlooks
Rose Lake borders Minnesota and Ontario with the Boundary Waters on our side and Quetico Provincial Park on the other. The portage crosses a hiking trail (the trailhead is off the Hungry Jack Road, the same road as Entry Point 60) which leads to super-scenic views of beautiful Rose Lake and the Canadian shore.
The view from one of the overlooks—Rose Lake and the Canadian shore
NOTE: These are wild and unfenced, a little challenging to reach and not for very young children. The drop-offs are immediate and very high.
Refreshing (aka Frigid) Swimming
At the bottom of Stairway Portage is the entrance to Rose Lake. This put-in spot is super for swimming on a hot summer day. The water can be frigid even in mid-summer, but is so refreshing!
This has always been a highlight with our family when our kids were old enough to swim well. A bit of boulder-jumping off to one side adds to the adventure.
Several Picnic Spot Options
We always bring lunch with us to enjoy somewhere along the portage before heading back. There’s plenty of room both at the top of the portage on the Duncan end, along the stream above the falls and down on the Rose Lake put-in at the bottom of the portage.
Just be sure your canoes are well off to the side and out of the way so other canoe parties can get through easily.
Enjoying lunch along the Rose Lake shore
How to Get There
Entry Point 60/Duncan Lake is on the Hungry Jack Road, which is accessed about halfway up the Gunflint Trail out of Grand Marais. You’ll need a map for sure, either Fisher Map F-13 or McKenzie Map 2.
If you have your own canoes you’ll take Hungry Jack Road right to the entry point. You’ll see a small parking area to your left. You’ll need to fill out the free day permit slip at the parking lot for your party. Keep one copy with you and put the other in the box there.
If you need to rent canoes I suggest either Hungry Jack Lodge or Hungry Jack Outfitters (both are on Hungry Jack Road). They’ll set you up with canoes, paddles, permit and a map.
NOTE: There are no latrines along the way except at the Entry Point parking area on Hungry Jack Road. There’s a BWCAW-type latrine up a short trail—think outhouse without the walls! Bring your own toilet paper.
Our crew at the West Bearskin Lake portage that enters the Boundary Waters
The Stairway Portage day canoe trip is a great intro to Boundary Waters canoeing and a wonderful way to spend a few hours in the northwoods of Minnesota!
(All photos courtesy of Sharon Brodin)
Do you have questions about paddles for your canoe trip, too? Contact our friendly customer service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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