As the home to one of the country’s best collections of historic lighthouses and unique sandstone formations, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is more about the lake than the shore. Indeed, the park includes 21 islands and only a thin 12 miles along the mainland shore. Without our own boat, one day at Apostle Islands was more than enough to enjoy this rugged Wisconsin park.
On our Great Lakes road trip, Grant and I spent nearly two weeks along the shores of Lake Superior. At both Pictured Rocks and Apostle Islands National Lakeshores, the power of this grand lake is evident. In the Apostle Island NL park brochure, commercial fisherman Julian Nelson answered the question of “Who is the boss?” with this response:
“The lake is the boss. No matter how big you are or what kind of a boat you’ve got, the lake is still the boss. Mother Nature dictates a lot of things.”Julian Nelson
I couldn’t agree more. And, yes, Mother Nature did place her mark on our visit with an afternoon of thunderstorms.
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What to Do at Apostle Islands NL
The main visitor center for Apostle Islands NL is located in Bayfield, WI. In contrast to many National Park visitor centers, there are not a lot of exhibits here but it is still a great stop. You’ll find the standard park film which tells the history of the area and some information about the park today.
Also be sure to check out the Fresnel Lens on display, which revolutionized the lighting in lighthouses in the 1800s. Many lights have since been updated, but you’ll still find the technology of the Fresnel Lens in use today in your vehicle’s headlights.
Once you’ve checked in at the visitor center, it’s time to get started exploring the Apostle Islands.
Hiking in Apostle Islands NL
With just a small stretch of land on the mainland, there is only one easy-to-access trail within the park. There are a few additional hiking trails on some of the islands, though. For the mainland trail, you’ll have to drive about 30 minutes northwest from Bayfield, past the Red Cliff Indian Reservation, for the 6-mile (one way) Lakeshore Trail.
From the trailhead at Meyers Beach, the Lakeshore Trail follows the coastline past “ice caves” to a campground. The first 0.7 miles of the trail is a relatively easy boardwalk through the trees. When the boardwalk ends, the standard dirt trail continues, with a few more ups and downs across several small streams.
At about 1.5 miles, you’ll finally reach the coastline, where you’ll be rewarded with a few views of Lake Superior. Keep going, though, for the really cool stuff!
At 1.8 miles you’ll reach the first ice cave. This first one juts into the mainland quite a bit, almost like a canyon. Follow the fencing around the ice cave and be sure to check out the steep walls and water below. When we were there, we found a few kayakers heading into the cave to explore.
It was at about this point in our hike that the thunder started. Sure enough, when we checked our phones, there was a thunderstorm headed right towards us. Thankfully, we had raincoats in our hiking packs, but we still didn’t like the idea of being caught outside in a storm on the shores of Lake Superior.
We quickly viewed a few more caves on the shoreline before turning around and heading back. If it weren’t for the rain, we probably would have continued another half-mile or so looking for more caves.
Thankfully, the rain somehow held off until we got back to the truck. But before we even got onto the main road we were in a torrential downpour. So much for more exploring. At that point, we just headed back to the campsite for the rest of the afternoon.
In all, we spent about 1.5 hours hiking a total of 3.5 miles.
Touring the Islands
Thankfully, we had scheduled our boat tour of the islands for the next evening. We certainly could have spent only one day at Apostle Islands NL, but since we were visiting over the Fourth of July, we gave ourselves an extra day.
Since we didn’t have our own boat, we turned to Apostle Islands Cruises, the official concessionaire of the park. We chose the sunset Grand Tour cruise. The narrated cruise took us through the islands, stopping for pictures at a few of them.
The highlight of the Apostle Islands is the northern shore of Devil’s Island. Here you’ll see sandstone caves carved by the wind and waves of Lake Superior. The boat spent plenty of time cruising past the shoreline giving passengers on both sides a chance to see these small cliffs and sea caves.
After Devil’s Island, we began the cruise back, passing by Raspberry Island along the way. On Raspberry Island, you’ll find one of the many historic lighthouses in the Apostle Islands. The lighthouses of the Apostle Islands act as a guide not just through the islands, but into the harbor at Ashland (about 20 miles south of Bayfield) and around the islands west to Duluth, MN.
The captain of our boat has lived in the Apostle Islands area for many years and even spent time as a volunteer with the National Park Service many years ago. His stories about living on the Apostle Islands and piloting tours through them held our attention throughout the cruise.
We enjoyed the tour of the Apostle Islands, but, unfortunately, we had a cloudy evening and didn’t get the great light that you’d typically get at sunset. At least it wasn’t raining, though!
Other Things to Do at Apostle Islands NL
With more time (and better weather), there are plenty of other interesting things to do in the Apostle Islands area. As mentioned previously, there are hiking trails on several of the islands. Of course, you’ll need your own boat or you’ll need to pay for a ride there.
We considered doing a day trip to hike on one island but decided we’d rather spend our money doing the Grand Tour. I have to admit, seeing the north end of Devil’s Island was certainly a highlight! If we ever return, though, we’ll certainly spend more time hiking at least one of the islands. Apostle Islands Cruises does do a “shuttle service” to a couple of islands for both day trips and overnight camping.
The only Apostle Island not contained within the National Lakeshore is Madeline Island. It is the largest island and the only one with commercial development. Madeline Island is also home to Big Bay State Park. Like the other Apostle Islands, Madeline Island is only accessible by boat, but there is a vehicle/passenger ferry. Again, due to the transportation cost, we had to skip Madeline Island.
Just north of Bayfield is Red Cliff Indian Reservation, which is home to Frog Bay Tribal National Park. Frog Bay is actually the first Tribal NP in the country. We planned to visit Frog Bay TNP, but, unfortunately, the rain spoiled that plan.
Where to Eat
While waiting for our sunset cruise, we stopped in at Maggie’s for a late lunch. Despite our 2:30 arrival, the small restaurant was nearly full. The interior is decorated with a Key West vibe, complete with bright colors and pink flamingos.
I enjoyed the chicken salad wrap, which had a nice balance of flavors, though could have used a bit more salad inside the wrap. Grant had the Mexican burger, which was tasty, but also a little messy. While the food was good, the service was only mediocre.
After lunch, we still had about an hour before we needed to line up for our sunset cruise, so we headed over to the rooftop deck at Bayfield Inn. Located just a block from the water, the deck offered a fabulous view over the small city and the harbor. When we arrived, only the bar was still open (the kitchen closed at 3 pm), but drinks were all we needed, so we were happy!
Where to Stay
Somehow I completely overlooked the fact that we’d be visiting the Apostle Islands over the Fourth of July weekend. Thus, by the time I got around to reserving a campground, there was nothing available in the immediate area. There are a few city parks in the area that didn’t accept reservations, but we didn’t want to risk that on a holiday weekend.
Finally, I found a small city park in Drummond, about an hour south of Bayfield that accepted reservations and still had availability! It was a bit of a drive, but we really enjoyed the Drummond Lake Campground. The campground is managed by the public library, which is located right next door.
We stopped in to chat with the librarian after setting up camp and got some great information about the area and various things to do. If you’re into ATVs or snowmobiling, this is a great place to stay!
There isn’t much to the town of Drummond, but we did find a great pizza joint in the next town south. If you happen to stay here, we highly recommend The Rivers Eatery in Cable.
Final Thoughts on Apostle Islands NL
Of the three National Lakeshores (four, if you count Indiana Dunes, which is now a National Park), Apostle Islands NL is the one that you really do need a boat to truly explore. With only a small stretch of land on the mainland, there really isn’t much to see inside the park boundaries without getting out on the water.
Kayaking is a popular way to explore the sea caves. There are a number of outfitters that you can do a kayak tour through, but, honestly, we are still a little scared of kayaking on Lake Superior. With the thunderstorms that rolled through while we were there, I’m very glad we didn’t have a kayak tour planned, as it likely would have gotten canceled or cut short.
Bayfield is a cute little town that is not overly touristy, despite tourism being its number one draw. Still, we’ve seen better seaside (or, I suppose, lakeside) towns elsewhere.
If you’re interested in doing some overnight camping on the islands or have your own boat, you could certainly spend a few days exploring the Apostle Islands. Otherwise, one day at Apostle Islands NL is enough to do a hike on the mainland and a tour of the islands.
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