The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota is one of the world’s top destinations for canoers. And Stairway Portage is one of the best day trips in the BWCA.
The entrance point happens to be less than 15 minutes from our campground base on the Gunflint Trail. So I’ve been there dozens of times over the years. I never get tired of it! We love to bring friends and family who are new to the Boundary Waters, and it’s always a highlight for them too.
Why is Stairway Portage so great?
IT’S ACCESSIBLE. Head up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais. At about 28 miles, turn right on Hungry Jack Road (Cnty Hwy 65), just before Trail Center Lodge. Drive down this dirt road about 3 miles, staying to the left, and you’ll see a small parking area. That’s the entrance point for West Bearskin Lake.
If you need to rent canoes, you can either go through Hungry Jack Lodge or Hungry Jack Outfitters (both accessed from Hungry Jack Road). You can paddle right from either dock over to the portage to West Bearskin Lake and go from there.
EASY, WELL-USED PORTAGES. As long as you don’t attempt Stairway Portage, that is! We almost always keep our canoes at the “top” of that portage, unless we’re feeling unusually energetic. It’s enough of a workout hiking up the portage without a canoe on your back.
On the other hand, carrying a canoe up those 130-something steps (not to mention the preceding steep, rocky trail) will give you a pretty good idea of what kind of shape you’re in 🙂
(The last time I portaged a canoe up was probably 7 years ago. I was in my 40s carrying our 65-pound Old Town Penobscot. I was pretty proud of myself!)
The portage between Bearskin and Duncan is a nice intro to the BWCA for new paddlers, and then they’ve “officially” been in the Boundary Waters.
GREAT SWIMMING AT ROSE LAKE. If we’re making the trip on a hot day, this is one thing we always look forward to. There’s a fairly sheltered bay at the bottom of Stairway complete with rocks over to the left for those wanting to jump off.
The water’s cold (Rose is large and deep) but beautiful, and feels wonderful.
THE STREAM & WATERFALL. Duncan Lake is a hundred feet or so above Rose, and there’s a stream with a 30ish-foot waterfall about halfway along the portage running between the two lakes. Very beautiful, lots of cedar trees, rocky.
IT’S GORGEOUS! Picturesque lakes with crystal-clear water. The falls. Stunning overlooks. Rose is a border lake, so the north shore across the way is part of Quetico Provincial Park of Ontario, Canada.
Anything not so great?
Because of all of the above, Stairway is very popular. It can even be “crowded.”
I put that in quotes, because on a “crowded” day at Stairway we might run into 30 other people, despite the 9-people-per-party limit.
For some heading into the BWCA, that’s 28 people too many. But for those used to city living, that’s not bad at all. It’s far fewer than State Parks and especially the popular National Parks.
Want to visit this beautiful place with less chance of meeting other people?
- Leave early in the day — just as the sun is coming up, which is one of the best times to be on the water anyway.
- Stay away from summer weekends.
- Stay away from summer period — take the trip in May or September/October. Although then you’d miss out on the swimming.
How long does it take?
- How experienced are your paddlers/portagers? If you have at least one experienced BWCAer in each canoe, your journey will be smoother.
- Is it windy? You’ll be paddling about two miles across Duncan Lake (besides parts of one or two others, depending on your starting point). If it’s windy you’ll have to work harder and it’ll take a little longer.
- How long do you want to spend at the Portage hiking, swimming, eating and enjoying? We can easily spend 2-3 hours there.
From the time we leave our campground mid-Gunflint Trail, it’s usually about a 5-6 hour excursion for us.
Incidentally, you can also hike to Stairway Portage by following the Caribou Rock Trail (trailhead also off Hungry Jack Road). I’ve not done it, but from what I hear it’s difficult and quite long — 7.5 miles round trip. It’s always sounded easier to paddle!
What to know before you go
- Get an official map of that part of the BWCA. Fisher Maps and McKenzie Maps both sell them. Some say you can’t get lost out there. I wouldn’t go out there without a map unless someone in your party knows the route. Yes, you can follow other canoers, but then you’re set for other trips too.
- You have to fill out the (free) day trip permit and keep your copy with you. Located at the parking area at West Bearskin.
- Be prepared for quick weather changes. Bring rain gear just in case. Bug spray, sun screen, the usual.
- Since you’ll be entering the BWCAW, your party is limited to 9 people. Metal food containers (pop cans, canned food, etc.) and glass are banned. All your garbage needs to be packed back out.
- Bring a roll of toilet paper. No public restrooms 🙂 There’s a “throne” off a trail at the West Bearskin parking area (think outhouse with no walls). Each camp site along the way will also have one. If a site isn’t being used you can stop if you need to.
Did I forget anything? Leave a comment if I did. And if you’ve been to Stairway, tell us your favorite things about it!
You’ll like these, too:
Sharon is the founder and publisher of Active Outdoor Women. She loves getting outside in beautiful places to hike, paddle, camp, snowshoe, ski, ride—and encouraging others to come along! Besides maintaining AOW and her other website, Twin Cities Outdoors, Sharon writes and designs websites, newsletters, blogs, emails, books and other marketing tools for clients.