What to Do in the Apostle Islands

By Melanie Radzicki McManus | Photo courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

Twenty-two islands clustered atop the Bayfield peninsula comprise the Apostle Islands archipelago, one of Wisconsin’s most popular destinations. It’s easy to see the appeal. The islands dot the southern shore of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, and arguably the most impressive. Even more noteworthy: 21 of the 22 islands — along with a 12-mile stretch of pristine shoreline — form the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, one of just four National Lakeshores in the U.S.

Both the shoreline and islands are famed for their colorful, sandstone cliffs, plus the sea caves carved into their bases. Add to that the area’s unspoiled sandscapes, wealth of wildlife, historic lighthouses and outdoor recreational opportunities galore, and it’s no wonder some 200,000 people flock here every year.

While most visitors make the trek during the warmer months, the off season brings fewer crowds, a slower pace and some unique experiences that can only be had when the temperatures plunge. Though it is a bit of a drive from Madison (about 300-plus miles), it’s so worth it.

Fall Fun

The peninsula bursts into a blaze of fiery colors come autumn, and the crowds thin, making it easier to explore popular spots like the rugged Apostle Islands sea caves. Sign up for a guided tour via kayak with a local outfitter such as Trek & Trail, and soon you’ll be gliding through cavernous openings and narrow tunnels alike. Trips run from half-day to multi-day, and may incorporate stops at historic lighthouses, past shipwrecks and more.

If paddling’s not your thing, book a tour with Apostle Islands Cruises. The company offers a variety of trips. Their newest boat, the Archipelago, lets you view the gorgeous sea caves throughout the park, allowing for stellar photo opportunities.

In nonpandemic years, the cruise line also shuttles visitors to some of the Apostle Islands’ historic lighthouses, where you can dock and take a ranger-led tour. Although the lighthouses remain closed for the 2021 season, you can still get your lighthouse fix by visiting during the Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration (Sept. 7-18, 2021), which spotlights the National Lakeshore’s wealth of lighthouses, considered the nation’s  largest and most complete collection. During the fête, a nonstop cruise will take you past five of the eight lighthouses.

Landlubbers may prefer the Gil Larsen Nature Trail/Iron Bridge Nature Trail in Bayfield. Less than a mile long, the flat path follows a stream flowing under an old iron bridge, ending at a scenic overlook.

Also not to be missed: A trip to Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostles. Ferry over to the island — the sole island in the archipelago that’s not part of the National Lakeshore — and explore its boutiques; art galleries; and the Madeline Island Museum, which explores the area’s native Ojibwe history and European settlement. Bonus: The island is open year-round! Outdoors enthusiasts should check out Big Bay State Park, featuring more than seven miles of hiking trails, while duffers should head for the Madeline Island Golf Club, which boasts one of the few Midwestern courses designed by legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

Before you leave, have a drink at Tom’s Burned Down Café. The bar/ café, which features live music and an art gallery, partially burned in the 1990s. Today, its remains have been reimagined into a multi-tiered, mostly al fresco joint whose walls and spaces are filled with philosophical and humorous quotes and sayings.

Winding down the fall tourist season is the Bayfield Apple Festival, taking place Oct. 1-3 this year. The blowout fall fest celebrates the area’s agricultural heritage, including the peninsula’s microclimate that makes it perfect for growing fruits and berries throughout the year.

Winter Wonders

One of the Apostle Islands’ biggest claims to fame are the glittering ice caves (the same ones you kayak through in the fall) that transform every winter, namely those in the mainland sea caves near Meyers Beach. Hiking out onto the frozen water and into the sparkling caves is a bucket-list experience for many. The ice caves aren’t always accessible, though, as Lake Superior’s strong winds and wave action often result in thin ice or open water on the pathway to the caves. If that’s the case when you visit, all is not lost.

Instead of heading to Meyers Beach, book a guided trip to the Houghton Point ice caves with Bayfield Kayak. Starting around late January, the ice caves at Houghton Point in Chequamegon Bay are almost always safely accessible, as the bay is more protected from the elements. Another option: Exploring the ice caves that form along the shore in Red Cliff, home of the tribal Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa. Local company Rustic Makwa Den offers tours twice daily.

Don’t overlook peering at the caves from on high, says David Eades, the former executive director of the Bayfield Chamber & Visitor Bureau, as you can snowshoe or hike atop the Meyers Beach ice caves via the 4.5-mile Lakeshore Trail. “We send everyone there in winter,” says Eades.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the Apostle Islands in winter than the ice caves. Nearby Mount Ashwabay features roughly 25 miles of cross-country ski trails, an alpine skiing and snowboarding hill with a 1,500-foot run, snowshoeing and skijoring trails, tubing and fat-tire biking. You can also snowshoe or hike in any number of scenic local spots such as Frog Bay, the nation’s first tribal national park. This impressive parcel of land includes rare boreal forest, coastal wetlands and an undeveloped sand beach, from which you can spot five Apostle Islands at once — a rarity.

No winter trip to the Apostles is complete without a stop at Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing, one of Wisconsin’s few dog-sled- ding businesses. The experience starts by meeting the dogs and loving them up, says owner Jen Dale, then learning to harness them and drive a sled — because it’s the customers who do the mushing.

“Everyone has a blast once they learn to drive a sled,” she says. And when your ride is over, dog kisses are a must — and a great way to conclude your visit.

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