RoutesTrip Reports

Day Trip: Top Falls in the BWCA

Boundary Waters Map

Put-In: The east side of Bearskin Lake.


Route: Paddle to the NW corner of Bearskin Lake and portage into Duncan Lake. Paddle to the northern most corner of the lake and hike down Stairway Portage. The falls are a short walk down the portage. Look for a trail on the east, which connects to the portage. This will take you to the top of the falls and an outstanding view of Rose Lake all the way to Canada.

Distance: 8.4 miles round trip.

One of the easiest ways to experience the Boundary Waters is to take a day trip. Day trips offer a couple of advantages over overnight trips.

Kayaker on Duncan Lake in the Boundary Waters
Kayaker on Duncan Lake in the Boundary Waters

First, after you finish paddling, you get to drive back to your hotel, lodge, or house and take a shower and sleep in a comfy bed. Second, no reservations are required to get a permit. All you have to do is show up at the entry point and fill out a day permit and you’re set to go.

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Once you’re in this type of day tripping mind set, the whole Boundary Waters opens up as a playground. One of my favorite day trips is the short 4.2-mile paddle out to Top Falls on the Stairway Portage. This trip is full of classic Boundary Water moments, including a windy Bearskin, islands, tall cliffs next to the trail, a waterfall, and great views of Rose Lake and Canada.

And not only is it classic, but it’s also the perfect trip for a family. The only portage on the route is short and easy, and the navigation is pretty straightforward with the only hard part of navigation on Duncan Lake heading back to Bearskin. You want to head to the second bay, which is after the hill with the cliffs on it. Plus, lunch at the falls is always a hit. The only downside to the whole trip is that in summer, you won’t have the falls to yourself.

Stairway Portage High Falls, BWCA
Stairway Portage Top Falls, BWCA


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  • My family and I did this day trip in mid-August. Our first boundary waters adventure. We all loved it. The falls were beautiful and the vista toward Canada was an unexpected surprise. You are right about not being alone if you go during the summer. We crossed paths with several parties and at the top of the stairway portage at least a dozen canoes were parked. Wish I would have found this site before our latest trip, but will mark it as a favorite for my ongoing planning and dreaming.

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I think it’s probably the most scenic day trip in the BWCA. If you’re looking for something scenic and you want to get away from people, check out the Bower Trout Lake Day Trip. You don’t get a waterfall, but you paddle next to tall hills up scenic lakes. I almost always see a moose on a day trip into there.

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