Of the three National Lakeshores in the United States, Apostle Islands may be the least known and most underrated.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is popular for hiking and camping. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is great for waterfalls and lakeside cliff formations.
Looking for things to do while visiting the Apostle Islands? Look no further. We have suggestions for those who like adventure as well as those who prefer to relax while exploring.
Although probably the most difficult of the three lakeshores to access, the Apostle Islands have no shortage of things to do and see.
Where Are the Apostle Islands?
The Apostle Islands are located in Lake Superior, just off the coast of the northernmost point of mainland Wisconsin. Bayfield, Wisconsin is where you’ll be navigating with a GPS unit.
Cruises and ferries to and around the islands depart from Bayfield, and here, you’ll find cute shops and restaurants, a visitor’s center, and information about the rest of the lakeshore.
Driving distance from “Nearby” Major Cities
- Duluth, MN: 1 hour, 45 minutes
- Minneapolis, MN: 3 hours, 45 minutes
- Green Bay, WI: 4 hours, 45 minutes
- Madison, WI: 5 hours 30 minutes
- Milwaukee, WI: 6 hours
- Fargo, ND: 6 hours
- Chicago, IL: 7 hours 30 minutes
How to Explore the Apostle Islands
With the majority of the land of the National Lakeshore actually in the waters of Lake Superior, the best way to get the most out of your visit to the Apostle Islands is to get on a boat.
There are a few areas that can be explored on the mainland, but we’d suggest preparing to be on the water, at least for a few hours!
Things To Do in the Apostle Islands
At first glance, it may seem difficult to fully be able to explore the Apostle Islands and the surrounding areas.
With a little effort, though, this northernmost point of Wisconsin is worth all of the extra effort. There are plenty of things to do and places to see here!
As one of the most popular activities in the Apostle Islands, it is tough to forget about kayaking but for good reason.
Longer sea kayaks are best for the ever-changing conditions on Lake Superior, and they can be rented at outfitters in many locations in the area.
Many tours begin from Meyers Beach on the mainland and go out along the shores to explore the sea cave formations.
Alternatively, you can use kayaks as a mode of transportation to reach some of the islands closer to the mainland.
The conditions on Lake Superior can change very quickly, so if kayaking to an island, prepare to be flexible. Your return trip could be derailed by the weather. It is also recommended that you have some kayak experience prior to taking one of these trips.
On the mainland, there is only one campsite within the National Lakeshore, and it isn’t easy to reach.
The campsite is only accessible via two methods: the Lakeshore Trail from Meyers Beach that requires you to hike 6 miles to finally get there, or taking a kayak from Meyers Beach.
18 of the 21 islands in the archipelago, however, have campsites available for reservation. There are options for accessible campsites, as well, on Sand and Stockton Islands. At the campsites, there are typically tent pads, fire rings, picnic tables, bear lockers, and privies.
The final option for camping in the National Lakeshore is to make a reservation in a primitive camping zone on the islands.
Maps of each island with this option are available via the NPS and outline protected areas near buildings, campsites, nesting areas, and sensitive lands, among other things. This option is the most off-grid option and will require you to practice Leave No Trace principles.
All camping in the National Lakeshore does require a reservation and a fee, which currently is around $15 for individual campsites and $30 for groups.
There are no campgrounds for RVs or car campers within the park, but there are options near the surrounding towns such as Bayfield and Cornucopia.
Finally, you could take your RV on the ferry over to Madeline Island and camp on Big Bay. Both the state park and town park have a variety of camping options available for reservation.
Hiking opportunities in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore exist both on the mainland as well as on most of the islands themselves.
The mainland trail, called the Lakeshore Trail, begins at the Meyers Beach parking area, pictured above.
This out and back trail travels along the Lake Superior shoreline and winds through forested terrain until reaching great views of some of the sea caves from the mainland.
You’ll have to hike about 2 miles before reaching those views.
To reach the end of the trail, a nearly 6-mile hike is required, and the only campsite on the mainland is the highlight of the end of the trail. This campsite must be reserved ahead of time.
Hike the whole trail, or turn around whenever you’ve got your fill. The sea cave views are worth the hike here.
Bring insect repellent, though. At times, the mosquitos here are some of the worst we’ve seen.
Take an Apostle Islands Cruise
If you’d just like to travel around the islands and see them from the water, an Apostle Islands Cruise should be high on your list of things to do.
The Grand Tour is their most popular, taking visitors on a 2.5-3 hour cruise around many beautiful sights on the islands.
They’re a little on the pricey side at nearly $50 per adult, but you’ll learn a ton about the history and the landscape of the area.
While on the Grand Tour, you’ll be able to see views of most, if not all, of the islands from near or far, and you’ll pass by lighthouses, historical points, and the Devils Island formations.
Tours depart from the docks in Bayfield during the late spring, summer, and early fall for morning and evening Grand Tours.
You won’t have to worry about sitting on one side of the boat or the other on these tours. They’ll turn so both sides can see the most important features, and you’ll have plenty of time to snap some photos if you wish.
Also available are tours focused on the sea caves and lighthouses. A tour on a glass-bottom boat is the best option for viewing some of the infamous Lake Superior Shipwrecks in the area.
Explore the Sea Caves
There are multiple ways to explore the sea caves of the Apostle Islands, some of those already mentioned.
By hiking the Lakeshore Trail from Meyers Beach, you’ll reach views of some of the caves from the mainland.
View these same formations from a kayak from Meyers Beach on a tour.
Take an Apostle Islands Cruise out to see the Devils Island formations.
The one option not mentioned previously is to visit during the winter when everything is frozen!
When Lake Superior freezes, the caves turn into a winter wonderland. With the right conditions, the park opens a trail hiking on the ice of the lake to explore the caves.
This is never without risk due to strong winds and constantly changing ice conditions, but the park does monitor the ice thickness periodically and requires that there have been no through ice or severe weather events within a week.
For those planning to make the trek over frozen Lake Superior to the caves, wear sturdy footwear and take along some ski poles for stability. Also, pack plenty of water, a snack, and a warm drink. You’ll be happy to have something before heading back to Meyers Beach.
Check the NPS conditions page or call the ice line at (715) 779-3398 x3 for current conditions.
Relax on the Beach
During the summer, both Meyers Beach and Little Sand Bay Beach have plenty of space for those looking to relax in the sun. Meyers Beach is located on the western side and Little Sand Bay to the north. Meyers Beach does have a fee to visit.
The towns of Cornucopia and Bayfield also have public beaches to enjoy, as well.
Looking to head out to the islands for some secluded beach time? Many of the islands do have small beaches.
For a more typical beach experience, though, head out to Madeline Island and explore the Big Bay parks.
Take the Ferry to Madeline Island
To explore the only one of the Apostle Islands not included in the National Lakeshore, you’ll have to catch a ferry from the public docks in Bayfield.
It’s not a part of the National Lakeshore because Madeline Island is also the only currently year-round inhabited island of the group.
You can either hop on the ferry on foot or take your car with you. Fees per adult are $8 each way, and to get your car on the ferry will cost $27 roundtrip.
Larger vehicles and campers could incur more fees. Reservations are not typically accepted.
Enjoy the trip across the bay, and once arriving in La Pointe, you’ll be able to explore the town, rent a bicycle, hike trails in Big Bay State Park, or take in a music concert.
Check out the Madeline Island Ferry schedule to plan a day trip.
The ferry does stop running when Lake Superior freezes, but if conditions are right and there is a significant freeze, you may be able to drive your vehicle over the ice to Madeline Island during a few weeks of the winter.
Plenty of options for those who enjoy scenic road cycling weave through the Bayfield Peninsula.
A few routes include areas of the Apostle Islands, while even more options surround Bayfield and nearby Ashland County.
Take the Bayfield Orchard or Red Cliff-Sand Bay Loops for shorter mileage, though there are some elevation changes that give these routes a challenge.
The “Around the Horn” loop covers much of the Bayfield Peninsula over nearly 50 miles.
To bike the islands, the only option is to take the ferry out to Madeline Island. Bike from the town of La Pointe out to the parks and around for beautiful landscapes.
Map suggestions for these routes can be found on BayfieldCounty.org.
Mountain Bike Mount Ashwabay and the CAMBA Trails
Over 300 miles of trails and gravel routes are waiting to be explored.
You’ll find many of the trails beginning just over 6 miles south of Bayfield via a 10-minute drive.
The trails are managed and collectively known as the CAMBA trail system. Access them via 13 trailheads.
You’ll be able to find a trail for every ability somewhere in the area.
Be sure to stay on the well-marked trails, as they are expanding and some trails just aren’t ready yet!
Explore the City of Bayfield
Old small-town charm just oozes from every corner of Bayfield.
As the smallest city in Wisconsin, home to only 487 people year-round, the area thrives from seasonal visitors and vacationers.
Everything from a quirky shop, to an upscale eatery, to a laid-back coffee shop, to a rooftop bar can be found within just a few blocks of the water.
Look for the shops with local art and goods for real hidden gems.
Best of all, you won’t find big chain retailers or hotels here. Most hotels, restaurants, and shops are locally owned.
Even if just for a short stroll around the town, Bayfield is worth paying a visit.
Take an Orchard Tour
Even with the location so far north into Wisconsin, this area of the Bayfield Peninsula is famous for its fruit production.
Known locally as the “Bayfield Fruit Loop”, the surrounding hills and close proximity to Lake Superior have a great influence on the area’s ability to produce such delicious goods.
Apples, berries, and cherries are all grown in the area during the year. When each fruit is in season, there are both pre-picked and pick-your-own options.
In addition to mouthwatering fresh fruit, many of the orchards and farms have bakeries or shops selling jams, jellies, ciders, and honey.
You’ll also stumble across a few wineries along the loop, which have tasting rooms open for sampling.
If fall apple harvest festivals are your thing, visit Bayfield typically during the first weekend in October. The city of 500 swells to accommodate over 50,000 for the Bayfield Apple Festival, and here you can find almost anything you’ve ever dreamed of relating to apple.
Fishing can be done during any season in the Apostle Islands in some way.
During the spring and fall, when the waters near the shores are cooler, there are opportunities to catch various species of trout and Coho Salmon.
During the summer, you’ll likely have to head a little further out to make the trip worthwhile.
While there are many techniques to landing that trophy catch, the most successful method during the summer months is said to be by trolling.
Catch a Lake Superior Whitefish, a popular species for restaurants in the area, or enjoy it prepared a vast number of ways by many of the local restaurants.
Scuba Dive through Shipwrecks and Underwater Caves
Lake Superior is a great spot for diving for a number of reasons.
The cold waters preserve many pieces of history that have dropped below the surface many years ago. The clear waters typically make it easy to view much of what sits on the Lake’s floor.
Four shipwrecks and three historic docks that have sunk are now resting at the bottom of Lake Superior within or near the borders of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. You will need to secure a free permit to dive these sites.
It is also possible to dive in the sea caves and around the underwater ledges near Devils, Sand, and Stockton Islands. Calm waters are a must for diving near the islands, though. Strong winds or waves would make for a very dangerous outing.
Catch an Event at Big Top Chautauqua
Although the name insinuates something more resembling a circus, Big Top Chautauqua is an event venue near Bayfield that can accommodate 900 people.
The canvas tent hosts concerts, shows, and lectures throughout the summer season.
The sides of the tent can be rolled up in good weather so that show-goers can spread out on the hillside.
Experience a show under the stars, or on rare occurrence, while viewing the Northern Lights!
Tickets for these events seem to be typical concert ticket prices.
Learn History at the Bayfield Maritime Museum
The Bayfield Maritime Museum is a spot to visit to learn all about the history of the area of Lake Superior.
Learn about fishing, lighthouses, and all the ships and boats that braved Lake Superior waters.
Check out artifacts from the area, as well, including those recovered from some of the area’s shipwrecks.
The museum is typically open seasonally from June through Labor Day.
Although it is technically free to visit, the museum is run entirely by volunteers and donations from visitors and donors, so donations for visiting are greatly appreciated.
Spend an hour or two wandering through the exhibits. Because it’s only located about 2 blocks from the dock, this would be a great stop after taking one of the morning Apostle Islands cruises.
Explore Lost Creek Falls
Just a short drive from the town of Cornucopia on County Highway C, turn on to Trail Drive and travel about 0.5 miles.
On the left, you’ll see a parking area and a trailhead, where you can make your way to Lost Creek Falls.
The trail covers about 3 miles in total, so you’ll have to hike 1.5 miles to get a view of the Falls. Most of the trail surfaces are well-packed dirt or wooden boardwalk.
The highlight of the area is Lost Creek Falls, which drops about 8 feet over a rock overhang. It is typically possible to walk right up to, or even behind, the falls.
In the surrounding areas, there are numerous small cascades and plenty of spots to stop for a snack or just a break to enjoy the area.
The terrain of this hike should be considered easy to moderate.
Hike Frog Bay Tribal National Park
The first Tribal National Park in the United States, Frog Bay has beautiful trails and views of Lake Superior and a few of the Apostle Islands.
Two miles of hiking trails weave through the Red Cliff land.
Reacquired by the tribe in 2012 and expanded in 2017, there are now 300 acres of land protected at Frog Bay.
For peaceful exploration on undeveloped lands, head to this park. Take just a quick 15-minute drive north on State Highway 13 to Blueberry Road and you’ll find this protected gem.
Cost to Visit the Apostle Islands
Although there is no blanket entry fee to get into the Apostle Islands, you’ll have to pay something to see any of the main points of interest.
To visit Meyers Beach, there is a $5 fee to be paid at the parking area for cars. The fee is higher for campers and large RVs.
Camping and docking both require fees of $15-$30 to be paid.
Some interpretive programs also have a fee, capped at $10 per family.
Visiting the visitor’s centers on the mainland in Bayfield and Sand Bay does not require a fee to be paid.
Where to Eat while Visiting
There are many great options for those looking to enjoy local flavor and avoid large chains.
Whitefish in some form can be found on most menus, and whitefish livers, in particular, are considered a local delicacy.
For great bites, no matter what you’re looking for, consider some of the following spots:
- Gale Force Coffee, Bayfield: Coffee and breakfast options, vegan options
- Wonderstate Coffee, Bayfield: sustainable, great-tasting coffee and bakery
- Cornucopia Coffee & Sweet Shoppe, Cornucopia: Coffee and bakery on the other side of the peninsula
- Sgt. Pepperoni’s, Bayfield: Take out pizza
- The Copper Trout, Bayfield: Italian pasta and entrees
- Siskowit Farmhouse, Cornucopia: Grassfed beef raised on the property, serving mostly burgers
- The Creamery Bar, Bayfield: Late night hangout
- The Fat Radish, Cornucopia: Farm-to-table, locally sourced, and sustainable plates
This is not an all inclusive list of restaurants and places to eat. However, these are places where we’ve personally tried the food, or we’ve walked by and really wanted to try!
Where to Stay
Camping options on the mainland are somewhat limited. As noted before, there is only one campsite technically within the Lakeshore, which requires a 5-mile hike to reach.
Camping options are available on most of the islands but can be difficult to reach at times.
If you’re looking for a nice bed and a warm shower, Bayfield has a few hotel options for you to consider.
We stayed at the Harbor’s Edge Motel, and found it to be very comfortable, clean, and conveniently located right across the street from the dock to board the Madeline Island ferry. It did seem like they were doing some renovations and updates to parts of the property during our visit, but this did not affect our stay at all.
Other options are situated around Bayfield, but you won’t find any large chain hotels here. There are also lots of cabin options if you’re looking to get out of town and enjoy some peace and quiet nearby.
Other “Nearby” Spots to Consider Visiting
While you’re visiting northern Wisconsin, be sure to stop at Pattinson State Park to see the tallest waterfall in the state, as well as other beautiful natural areas. The drive over 1.5 hours covers about 85 miles and would be a great stop if you’re heading back towards Minneapolis/St. Paul or other Minnesota cities.
Continue on through Duluth and along Minnesota’s North Shore for more beautiful waterfalls, state park areas, and views of Lake Superior.
Looking to visit all of the three National Lakeshores in one trip? Head just about 250 miles south and then east to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the UP of Michigan. Then head down to the mitten about the same distance to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan.
Looking for the closest National Parks to visit? Well, that won’t be an easy feat. You’ll have to cross Lake Superior to visit and backpack Isle Royale National Park, the least visited in the lower 48. You could continue north in Minnesota to Voyageurs National Park for more water adventures. These parks are by no means easy or convenient to access, but they’re absolutely worth the effort!
Wrapping Up: A Visit to the Apostle Islands
The Apostle Islands are 22 islands situated in a beautiful stretch of Lake Superior. The lakeshore is full of things to do, with everything from laid-back tours, to adrenaline-pumping adventures.
For those who love to head out to the backcountry for camping, you’ll find beautiful spots on many of the islands.
Although Bayfield isn’t convenient to reach from most areas, it’s worth the effort.
Visit in the fall for beautiful colors and delicious apples, or check out the area in late spring or very early summer for minimal crowds. Just don’t gloss over visiting the Apostle Islands!
Are the Apostle Islands and the Bayfield Peninsula on your list of places to visit? What activity are you most looking forward to doing there?