Our eastward trek across the southern shore of Lake Superior will involve several relatively short stops, and the first of these was in Bayfield, WI to visit the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The Apostles are a group of 22 islands clustered around the tip of the Bayfield peninsula in northern Wisconsin, and they have been important to the region for millennia. The Ojibwe (Chippewa) nation was centered around Madeline Island when French fur traders first visited the area, and later the Apostles became important sources of shelter for ships navigating Lake Superior. Today they are one of the top tourism destinations in Wisconsin.
Visitor Centers Galore
It is not hard to get information about the area, because there are many visitor centers just waiting to receive guests. First, on our way into Bayfield we stopped at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center near Ashland. The very impressive building has informative and engaging displays about the area, covering geology and glacial action, human communities, ecology of the lakes and forests, and the history of various local industries (principally fishing, mining, and logging). The third floor observation deck and short boardwalk provide another nice way to become familiar with local flora and fauna. Unfortunately the story of the Lake Superior shoreline is similar to so many other places we have visited:
- Step 1: Take land from native inhabitants.
- Step 2: Exploit natural resources until nothing is left and ecosystems are teetering on the brink of collapse.
- Step 3: Pivot to tourism!
The good news is that clear-cutting by the logging industry, collapsed fisheries, and polluted waters are in the past, and the Apostles have a thriving tourism business based on their natural beauty. The Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center is an outstanding resource for everything from guided tours to weather and water conditions to trail maps. The only disappointment for us was that we were one year too late to see our friends from Chasing Dirt, who volunteered here in 2021. Despite that setback we picked up a fistful of maps and brochures that will come in very handy in our next several visits. We also made a brief stop at the headquarters of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield. Here, the displays were much more limited and focused on the many historic lighthouses of the Apostles.
Madeline Island and Bayfield
On a spectacularly sunny Saturday, we visited Madeline Island, the only inhabited Apostle Island. The ferry ride from Bayfield on the mainland to LaPointe on the island is about 20 minutes long and available for pedestrians, cars, bikes, motorcycles, and even RVs. We elected to go the pedestrian route but if we carried our own bikes that would have been a great option. On Madeline, we wandered around the town, which is centered around the ferry dock. We admired the historic buildings, we examined interesting works in several art galleries featuring North Country artists (we thought the pottery was particularly interesting), and we soaked in the maritime vacation-land atmosphere. One thing we found a bit odd is that few things on the island open before 11 am, even on a high-visitation day like Saturday. At least we didn’t have to kick ourselves for getting a slow start that day.
Back in Bayfield later in the day, we checked out the small but comprehensive Bayfield Maritime Museum. The information covered everything from shipbuilding techniques to current environmental challenges like restoration of the trout fishery and eradication of invasive lampreys. My favorite part was the display of historic maps of Lake Superior. The 17th century maps made by fur traders and missionary priests were remarkably accurate, at least to my eye. I also took a ghoulish interest in all the photos of this area in winter. The Lake Superior ice gets so thick that the county opens a road for people to drive the two miles across to Madeline Island. No, thank you! I’m happy to be a summertime visitor, when I can enjoy sailboats on the lake and lovely blooming gardens in front of charming little inns and shops. The coastal environment, the maritime history, and the obvious summer appeal of the the area is reminiscent of places like Cape Cod or coastal Maine.
After getting a glimpse of the sardine-like conditions on the boat operated by the official NPS outfitter (Apostle Island Cruises) we were happy with our decision to just take the short ferry ride over to Madeline Island. Maybe the crowds were particularly extreme because we were in the area over a weekend with very nice weather, but being on a relatively small craft with a few hundred other people vying for decent views of the islands would not have been enjoyable for us.
Sea Cave Hike
One of the notable features of the Lake Superior shore is red sandstone cliffs topped by boreal forests, and the wave action of the lake has carved interesting formations into the relatively soft sandstone. To get a look at some of these “sea caves” without having to take a guided boat tour, we hiked the Lakeshore Trail in the National Lakeshore from Meyers Beach. The trail started off with a mile of impressively solid boardwalks and bridges before transitioning to normal forest trail. At about two miles there is a half-mile stretch with good views of the lake and the carved cliffs. While we didn’t venture far out onto the cliff points — we do heed the signs about danger! — we still enjoyed great scenery.
This was one of my favorite hikes of our 2022 trip so far. It had enough change in elevation and environment to keep things interesting without punishing the knees, while the payoff of seeing the crevasses and caves in the cliffs was satisfying.
Where We Stayed
Our site at the Apostle Islands Area Campground got mixed reviews in the household. I loved the absence of close neighbors and the lack of campfire smoke, which has been plaguing us for a month. Why does everyone feel the need to burn things while camping?? Ken hated the big elevation changes throughout the campground and especially the poor layout of access routes — getting into our site would have been utterly impossible if the one across from us was occupied when we arrived. But the location was perfect for seeing the Apostles region and the price was fairly reasonable for a private facility.
Next: We head to a new-to-us state and begin our exploration of Michigan in the remote outpost of Copper Harbor.
11 thoughts on “Apostle Islands and Wisconsin’s North Shore”
We’ve always enjoyed visiting Bayfield. It’s especially beautiful in the fall. Lucky us, we were able to visit with ‘Chasing Dirt’ last summer while they were in the area.
I’ll bet Bayfield is lovely in the fall but given the latitude I have a feeling that fall comes much earlier than I would expect. We were fortunate to have Joodie and TBG’s good advice about the area even though we missed seeing them.
You had me at “few things on the island are open before 11 a.m.”
These are my people.
That hike looks great – It’s nice that you could actually see the cliffs from the trail. We were on a couple where you really couldn’t see them because you were standing on top of them.
I agree with you wholeheartedly about this whole place: gorgeous place to visit in the Summer, would want no part of it during Winter. Driving across a lake? Crazytown.
I’m sure the Madeline Island people understand their visitors better than I do, but I really don’t understand the business case for having a restaurant in a location full of day visitors that only opens for dinner, for example. Or a “brunch” cafe that opens at 11. People might want coffee earlier than that!
In any event, the whole area is cute and scenic. We never felt that things were overpromised — which is exactly how we would feel about a “sea cave” hike that featured zero views of sea caves. There were plenty of other visitors who went out on precarious little points, and I’m sure they got even better pictures. But we were perfectly satisfied with what we could see from the regular trail.
You had such perfect weather while you were in Bayfield! I hope we’re as lucky next week. Your comment about the sardine-like conditions on the NPS boat has me rethinking our plan to do that trip. But we’re definitely taking the ferry to Madeline Island, and we’re taking our bikes. And thanks for the heads-up on the Maritime Museum. It looks great! And, of course, the beautiful hike.
As always, I am so appreciative of the detail that you include along with your beautiful photos. It’s especially helpful that we’re following pretty much in your footsteps. 🙂 Honestly, I didn’t plan it that way, and it isn’t fair at all that we’re not able to be helpful to you. But you’re doing an outstanding job as trip guides, so please keep up the great work!
Since the Madeline Island ferry and the NPS tour boat leave from adjacent docks, I recommend doing Madeline first and taking a look at the other one boarding. Or just call and ask the tour operator how many tickets they’ve sold. You might see a difference if you can take the tour on a weekday. In any case, you will really enjoy biking on Madeline and I think the views are just as nice as from the other islands.
We are happy to serve as scouts! It’s actually nice to know that someone is getting immediate value out of the blog posts beyond just keeping updated on what we are doing. But I should let you know that we don’t take requests. 🙂
Hooray, you finally made it there! I’m glad you enjoyed Madeline Island; it would be hard not to. It’s a bummer that you couldn’t be at the NGLVC while we were there, but then again, it was shut down most of the time we were there, and you wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it (unless we sneaked you in after hours, but we would, ahem, never have done that! 😉 ) I agree the most fun way to see the cliffs is on that hike. Though the tour boats are running again, the crowds sound awful. So, you don’t think you’ll ever go back in the winter to make the trek out to the ice caves, eh? I can’t imagine why not!
We are so grateful for all your good advice about the area! We have done well by just copying a lot of the things you did and enjoyed. I really did love that Meyers Beach hike, and upon seeing the guided group kayak trips I concurred with your assessment about those as well. We are most definitely not planning to visit the ice caves. I can’t imagine how the 400 full-time residents of Madeline stay sane in the winter, even after the ice-road is open.