Camp at Alton Lake in the BWCA

Minnesota Sawbill Canoe Outfitters

Added by Dan Mirocha

  • Easy to access from nearby Sawbill Lake
  • 15 campsites, many near the Sawbill portage
  • Unspoiled Northern Minnesota wilderness
  • Provides access to Beth Lake, where you can cliff jump
  • Great walleye fishing on southern shoreline

A trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area requires some planning ahead. First, you'll need to book a permit/reservation via Specify how many people are in your group, the number of watercraft you plan to use and how many days you'll be in the BWCA. You'll also need to select a group leader and alternate leader. Each entry point in the BWCA has a limit on the amount of people that can enter each day (Sawbill Lake, where we entered, allows 14 permits per day, according to, so reserving your spot well in advance is a good way to go. For our trip, we had four guys and two canoes for two nights. Our total price was $70. Once your reservation is secured, you'll receive an email confirmation. Print and bring it with you to check in at the entry point ranger station the day of your reservation.

For this trip, we entered the BWCA via the town of Tofte, which is near the North Shore of Lake Superior, four-and-a-half hours northeast of Minneapolis. The ranger station is located at 7355 West Hwy 61., Tofte, MN 55615. At the ranger station, you'll confirm your reservation and watch a 20-minute video that details the guidelines ('pack it in, pack it out,' 'leave no trace,' etc.) for your time in the wilderness.

After leaving the ranger station, follow Hwy 61 northeast to County Road 2/Sawbill Trail next to the Tofte General Store. Go north for about 20 miles. The drive will take close to 45 minutes. As the paved road becomes gravel a quarter of the way in, the road turns into a one-lane amusement park ride through the dense Northwoods. At the end of the road, you'll encounter Sawbill Outfitters, widely considered one of the best BWCA outfitters in the area, and an expansive parking lot. The Sawbill entry point is busy and populated, as there is an adjoining campground. Unload your gear at the canoe landing and park your car in the lot.

The paddle northwest to the Alton Lake portage takes about an hour. The 30-rod hike is so flat and wide that you can see from one end to the other. It can also be quite busy, but if you're efficient, you can get in, out and on your way quickly.

Upon entering Alton Lake, paddle southwest toward the southern coast. This will take about 2 hours. Keep an eye out for bald eagles. We saw a few on our paddle.

According to, Alton Lake has 15 campsites. We chose one on the southern coast -- on a peninsula -- which provided a tremendous amount of shade and was, surprisingly, not buzzing with too many mosquitoes. There was also a nice variety of places to pitch a tent.

Bring your fishing gear. During our two-day stay, we caught eight walleye, two northern pike and a bass, most of which were snagged no more than a stone's throw from the campsite landing. We figured that there was a rock shelf that dropped to around 12 feet near this location. Although the all the walleye weighed in under 2 pounds, they made fantastic dinner entrees.

Alton Lake is a great option for BWCA campers looking for a short, simple weekend adventure.

  • Read about cliff jumping at nearby Beth Lake
  • If you're staying overnight in Tofte before heading in to the BWCA, two restaurant recommendations: Papa Charlie's at Lutsen Resort. Sit on the deck for dinner and drink a local IPA. Coho Cafe has fantastic breakfast options before you head into the woods.

Pack List

  • Tent, sleeping bag and roll pad
  • Pump water filter and Nalgene bottle
  • GoPro Hero3+ Black
  • Canoe, paddles, life jacket
  • Warm and cool-weather clothes
  • Bug spray
  • Dry food
  • Headlamp
  • Fishing gear
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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More



Camping, Chillin, Fishing, Hiking, Photography, Swimming

Skill Level:






Family Friendly
Picnic Area

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3 months ago

Heading there this week

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3 months ago

Added by Dan Mirocha

Always up for an adventure, both urban and off-the-grid. Instagram: @danmirocha

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