Hiking to Johnson Falls in BWCA

The Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota is a pristine wilderness that needs to be preserved for generations to come. I make at least one trip a year to the area, and that is rarely enough, as I constantly feel the desire to go back within my soul. It had been over ten years since I last explored lakes on the Gunflint side of the Boundary Waters, so I thought it was time to revisit the area once again.

There are many waterfalls in the BWCA but Johnson Falls may be the most beautiful. Located near Pine Lake in the far northeastern part of the BWCA, Johnson Falls is only accessible by a hiking trail. In May of 2008, I visited the area on a solo trip and found the falls to be underwhelming — but it was a late spring that year and I actually got snowed on one night so I wasn’t in the best of moods. When I returned in 2019 I really felt its magic.

My friend and I entered the Boundary Waters via entry point #64 at East Bearskin Lake. Although I was really hoping to camp on Canoe Lake, we had to backtrack and found a nice elevated camp spot in the middle of Alder Lake. Alder Lake had a wonderful presence and was a beautiful lake to camp on. After exploring the area for a few days, we hiked to Johnson Falls on our second-to-last day. It was a cloudy and calm morning as we paddled and portaged into Canoe Lake and then parked the canoe in the trees at the long portage to Pine Lake.

Canoe Lake portage to Pine Lake

The portage from Canoe Lake to Pine Lake is a long up and down trek. But since we didn’t have to portage the canoe and gear, it felt amazing to be on a long hike in the BWCA. Thankfully the bugs weren’t bad, and in a lower part we passed a marsh full of yellow wildflowers. We reached Pine Lake in about forty minutes, then followed the wet and boggy spur trail up into the forest towards Johnson Falls. When we arrived, two gentlemen were enjoying the view but they moved on soon, and we had Johnson Falls to ourselves for over an hour.

Fueled by the heavy winter snow melt and recent spring rains, Johnson Falls was roaring. I really took my time to feel its presence and it was healing and magical. Sometimes the sun broke through the clouds and permeated the water and damp trees with a golden glow. A thick mist filled the air and everything was wet including my lens every time I took a photograph. Since it was early afternoon and there was plenty of light available, I used neutral density filters to photograph Johnson Falls. Most of these were taken with my Lee Little Stopper which holds the light back 6 stops. This allowed me to take between one and six second exposures to really slow down the scene and show water movement. I also added my Lee Circular Polarizer when the sun came out to help reduce glare.

After a nice hike back to the canoe, we paddled and portaged into nearby Crystal Lake. Crystal Lake felt tremendously wild and bass were jumping in every direction as we paddled towards the middle of the lake on glassy water with no one else on the lake. When we turned around to go back, a bald eagle kept an eye on us to see if we were fishing and had any easy dinner for it. We tried to be quiet and watched the eagle closely, and it finally flew in front of us to a dead tree near our portage back to Canoe Lake. It was wonderful to see before we moved on towards Alder Lake and our campsite, feeling fulfilled and at peace.

Johnson Falls BWCA
Johnson Falls BWCA
Johnson Falls BWCA
from the trail to Johnson Falls
bald eagle on Crystal Lake
star trails above camp on Alder Lake