Day Canoe Trip to Stairway Portage

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota is one of the world’s top destinations for canoeists. And Stairway Portage is one of the best day trips in the BWCA.

two women in a canoe with their paddles raised over their heads
The entry point on West Bearskin Lake begins the trip to Stairway

The entrance point only about 15 minutes from Okontoe. So it’s not only one of the best day trips along the Trail, it’s the easiest one for our guests to get to.

Why is the Day Trip to Stairway Portage So Great?

It’s Accessible

Head out of Okontoe’s driveway, turn left on the Gunflint Trail and drive down about two miles. Turn right on Hungry Jack Road (Cnty Hwy 65), just before Trail Center Lodge. Drive down this dirt road about three miles, keeping to the left at the forks, and you’ll see a small parking area. That’s the entrance point for West Bearskin Lake to Duncan Lake, #60.

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 from either dock over to the portage to West Bearskin Lake and go from there.

(NOTE: Okontoe doesn’t have an outfitter’s license for our canoes—they’re limited to the three small lakes at Okontoe. So even though you can use our canoes at camp, you can’t bring them to Stairway.)

canoe at the portage
The portage going from Bearskin into Duncan Lakes

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 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 you’re making the trip on a hot day, plan to swim at the bottom of Stairway Portage in Rose Lake. There’s a fairly sheltered bay at the bottom of the portage complete with rocks over to the left for those who love rock jumping.

The water is cold (Rose is large and deep) but beautiful, and feels wonderful.

Falls at Stairway Portage
The waterfall at Stairway Portage—Rose Falls

The Stream and 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. It’s very beautiful, with lots of cedar trees and rocks to sit and enjoy.

There’s a spur trail to a little footbridge above the falls to a perfect little picnic area if you’re bringing lunch.

Great Hiking with Stunning Overlooks

From that picnic area there’s a trail that heads up the side of the ridge to several different overlooks over Rose Lake and Canada (Rose is a border lake).

If you can find it, there’s another spur trail that takes you even higher with views of Duncan Lake, too.

Anything Not So Great?

Because of all of the above, Stairway is very popular. It can even be “crowded.”

That’s in quotes, because on a “crowded” day at Stairway you 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 the State Parks along the North Shore.

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.
woman on an overlook over a large lake
One of several high spots that overlook Rose Lake and Canada

How Long Does it Take?

How long of a day trip depends on a few things:

  • How experienced are your paddlers/portagers? If you have at least one experienced BWCAer in each canoe, your journey will be smoother and faster.
  • 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? You could easily spend 2-3 hours there on a nice day.

From the time you leave camp at Okontoe, plan on a 5-6 hour excursion.

Incidentally, you can also hike to Stairway Portage by following the Caribou Rock Trail (trailhead also off Hungry Jack Road). It’s known to be difficult and quite long—7.5 miles round trip.

steps at stairway portage
Since this photo was taken, the DNR has replaced these old wooden steps with stone steps (summer of 2022)

What to know before you go

Get an official map of that part of the BWCA. Fisher Maps and McKenzie Maps both sell them. If you rent canoes from either of the Hungry Jack folks listed above, they’ll send a map with you.

Don’t set out without a map unless someone in your party knows the route. Yes, you can follow other canoeists, 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. The kiosk is 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. There are 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. There are no facilities at Stairway Portage itself.

three women relax along a lake shore
Having lunch on the shore of beautiful Rose Lake

(Article and photos by Sharon Brodin)