Lake Superior Adventures: The Apostle Islands

September 19th, 2022

At the tip of Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula you’ll encounter a gateway to the majesty of Lake Superior’s wild island archipelago…The Apostle Islands.

Most likely named in honor of the Apostles of the Bible by early missionaries in the area, the twenty-two islands of The Apostle Islands are some of the most unique in The Great Lakes.

Formed by Ice, Wind, Waves and years of geologic change, these islands are wild and beautiful – and considered a gathering place for wonder for centuries. The Native Chippewa (Ojibwe) – the original people to roam these waters tell stories of the islands being formed by a ‘beaver’ hunt…Natural History is a story of glaciation and the most powerful forces of nature.

I have wanted to visit The Apostle Islands since seeing the NPS post photos of the National Lakeshore on their facebook page. I was astounded that this beautiful spot was not some exotic island in the Pacific, but an archipelago right here of the coast of Wisconsin…

Prior to visiting Wisconsin’s Door County on Lake Michigan last year, I always suspected Wisconsin to be a pleasant place with dairy farms and ambling hills, but nothing could prepare me for the extreme beauty of Wisconsin’s lake country.

Lake Michigan blew me away with its crystal clear waters and high sand dunes. I knew I needed to return to explore Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shoreline.

Both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior are phenomenally beautiful – but having now visited both Lakes I’ve realized each is very unique.

The areas of Lake Michigan I visited were defined by dunes and bluffs with ample swimming areas. The water was fairly warm in August and swimmers lined beaches. There were some cavern areas, like Cave Point in Door County, but sand dunes really defined the shoreline from Indiana Dunes to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Driving the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, I felt like I was in Oregon or Maine – with a rocky coast that was lined with waterfalls and craggy cliffs – a dramatic beauty with a mountain and lake feel.

While as I traveled to Bayfield and The Apostles you find reddish sandy beaches and a shoreline of sandstone cliffs and sea caves that feel almost tropical. The waters of Superior are clear and deep from deep blues to rich emerald greens.

My point in this analysis is that each section of every Great Lake has a uniqueness and charm that is not replicated. You need to take time to enjoy different parts of each coast and take in the local culture and scenery. Lake time demands you relax and really focus on the beauty around you.

The Great Lakes are once in a lifetime trips, but the sort of ‘once in a lifetime trips’ you can take again and again with different views and itineraries. To me The Great Lakes have become a refuge from the helter-skelter in the world – even if for a moment. Nothing puts things into perspective more than a grueling, but rewarding hike by the shoreline or simply enjoying the view as the waves crash on the shore.

Planning a trip to The Apostle Islands:

While remote, The Apostle Islands are easily accessible within a few hours by Minneapolis, Madison or Milwaukee. The closest airport is Duluth, but for me Minneapolis was the easiest (as I did the MN North Shore).

Where to stay: It took a bit of research to figure out the best place to stay for my Apostle Islands adventure. The Bayfield Peninsula has several ‘coastal’ towns with lodging – but no major chain hotels (except in Ashland).

Bayfield has a wonderful collection of bed and breakfasts and locally owned historic hotels that exude the charm of a coastal town. Bayfield only has 500 year round residents – but that doesn’t stop this coastal village welcoming thousands of guests to harbor every year. Bayfield is the official ‘gateway to the Apostle Islands.’

Bayfield is home to the world renown music and arts center Big Top – which has featured performers like Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson.

Bayfield is also the ‘berry capital of Wisconsin’ and is known for their delicious apples. Area farms are open for you to visit on the ‘Fruit Loop’ driving tour. Every October, Bayfield’s population explodes to over 60,000 people during The Apple Festival.

I stayed in Washburn – at The Washburn Inn on The Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior. I highly recommend the hotel – it has the standard rooms of bigger chains like Best Western, but with local hospitality and quick access to the water. Washburn is a little more industrial than Bayfield, but still a great place to stay. It has a lot of history, great restaurants and bayside views.

Ashland is a bit further south and used to be one of the largest ports in Wisconsin. Ashland has a population of around 7,000 souls and a few larger grocery and national chains, plus local stores and restaurants. Ashland is known as the mural capital of Wisconsin for it’s colorful murals around town.

My Adventure:

Yesterday, I hiked the Apostle Island’s National Lakeshore mainland hikes to sea caves from Meyers Beach. This is a MUST DO during your visit to The Apostles. You’ll hike through a lush forest on the edge of Lake Superior to amazing sea caves on the mainland. This is a popular area in the winter, when the caves freeze and form unique ice formations.

Meyers Beach is on the western side of the Bayfield Peninsula, just south of The Red Cliff Reservation.

The Red Cliff Reservation is the local band of Chippewa – named for the red cliffs that can be found along this section of coastline. The Chippewa, in association with the NPS are in charge of preserving the Frog Bay Tribal Park – worth a stop if you have time.

Why mainland exploration gives you view of the shoreline and islands in the distance, no trip to The Apostles is complete without a boat cruise on Lake Superior around the islands.

In researching my options, I learned that you can take a ferry to Madeline Island, which is the largest of The Apostles. The ferry to Madeline allows you to take your car and do a scenic drive on the island. Madeline Island is the largest of The Apostle Islands and the only one of the twenty-two islands that is not part of the park service.

It has a population of around 1000 people, so it was easier to keep Madeline as a non NPS site when the Apostles Islands National Lakeshore was created in the 1970s.

A day trip to Madeline is a great option, but I wanted to truly experience a bigger perspective of the various islands. I booked a morning cruise with The Apostle Islands Cruises – the official NPS concessionaire for boat tours.

Hands down you must book a tour with Apostle Islands Cruises – their grand tour is AMAZING – providing an in-depth tour of the nature, history and all the major vistas.

On the Lake…

I arrived at the dock just before ten a.m. for a two hour tour. I recommend getting to Bayfield early as there is limited longterm parking. Most of the public parking is only two hours. I had to circle around a few times to find a good spot.

After boarding the boat, I headed up to the top deck (outdoor) (indoor deck below) and found a seat with a great vantage spot for the trip.

The Captain also served as narrator – over the course of two hours he did a wonderful job of highlighting twenty-one of the twenty-two islands and the history and scenery of each island.

He told us the story of ‘Hermit Island’ and the old man Wilson who became a hermit on the island after a bar fight on Madeline Island…

We learned about the bear populations on the islands and how they can swim across the bays to different islands!

We were able to see amazing sea caves on Devil’s Island…It was actually a heavenly place with amazing scenery. We learned the name comes from the Chippewa who thought evil spirits lived on the island due to huge booming noises in the winter – which actually is caused by natural elements. But the name stuck. Devil’s Island has a pretty lighthouse, and sea caves that rival even the more popular ones on the mainland near Meyer’s Beach.

We saw the lighthouse at Raspberry Island and learned about how the NPS restored the lighthouse to it’s former glory.

There are nine lighthouses in the Apostle Islands – more than any other national park in the US.

Fun fact: Wisconsin’s Door County (off Lake Michigan) has more lighthouses than any other county in the US…

Wisconsin could be called the ‘lighthouse capital of the Midwest’

There are over 200 bird species on the islands…we saw several cormorants and eagles today. Hundreds of herring gulls net on tiny Gull Island (only island we did not see on the tour)

Many of the islands were used for quarrying and logging after the 1871 Great Chicago and Peshtigo fires demanded stone for more fire resistant homes. Unfortunately many of the islands trees were cut bare bone dry – but with the NPS and conservation the forests have returned to their former glory.

Raspberry Lighthouse on Raspberry Island

If you are interested in learning more about each of the twenty-two Apostle Islands I recommend this article. I also recommend the NPS website.

~

After disembarking the boat, I was a bit hungry. Bayfield has a plethora of great restaurants, but I opted for lunch at The Bayfield Inn because it has an upstairs open air deck that offers amazing lakefront views.

After being seated, I filled out a ‘made to order’ menu and paid at the main cash register. I’m not a big drinker, but I couldn’t resist their daiquiri of the day. After all this is a ‘beach’ day.

For lunch I ordered the delicious blackened whitefish on a Cobb Salad.

Whitefish is a popular lake fish that reminds me of cod or flounder. It is light and delicious.

The tour guide mentioned that Bayfield is known for whitefish livers – the fish livers of whitefish. I’ll hold off on that this trip.

Following lunch I meandered the quaint streets of Bayfield. The community by the inland sea is akin to a New England town with Victorian homes, cozy cottages and eclectic shops. The downtown is very walkable.

In the heart of Bayfield you can stop by the Apostle Islands Visitor Center. Run by the NPS it gives a great overview of the history and geology of the region. The ranger gave me lots of tips on area activities and hikes. She recommended I try to fit in a trip to Madeline Island and Big Bay State Park (located on Madeline)

Unfortunately, at two o’clock in the afternoon I realized I’d be rushed on time and possibly miss a return boat if I went to Madeline.

I looked at my map and decided to venture a bit off the grid. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula area is around forty minutes from Washburn/Ashland. While the main UP highlights at Copper Harbor (the other way to get to Isle Royale other than Grand Portage, MN) is several hours away…I could explore the fall colors in the Porcupine Mountains before nightfall.

I’ll detail my WI-MI Upper Peninsula adventures in my next post

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