The Apostle Islands in northern Wisconsin are a cluster of islands in Lake Superior, most of which are part of the protected Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Though 22 islands comprise the chain, there are many more than 22 reasons to visit thanks to hiking, kayaking, camping, exploring Native culture, enjoying a local fish fry, and more.
Located about between Milwaukee (6 hours by car) and Minneapolis (4 hours by car), the islands are a popular warm-weather destination for area families, and in winter for those hardy enough to enjoy ice fishing. Here is how to best enjoy the region.
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The largest island of the bunch—more than 13 miles long and six miles wide—is larger than Manhattan. Serviced several times hourly by a car and passenger ferry from the mainland town Bayfield, Madeline Island in only a 15-minute trip each way.
Madeline is the only one of the Apostle Islands not part of the NPS (because there were too many homeowners to buy out) and offers an ideal introduction to the area’s rich history and leisure opportunities,
The Madeline Museum features both intricately beaded clothing and woodland dolls played with by children of the island’s original Native people, known as Anishinaabe, plus modern artwork by their descendants. The attached 1800s log cabin is full of tools, clothing, and other artifacts from the Europeans who settled in the region, and the original Fresnel crystal lens of the important 1852 lighthouse on nearby Raspberry Island is also displayed here.
Big Bay State Park offers a popular beachfront destination, with a picturesque lagoon. The long sandy beach is dotted with old-growth pine trees and easy hiking trails suitable for young children that include wooden walkways, kayak rentals, and campsites.
Another Madeline Island feature is that most signs include the original Native language. You’ll see “Ikewag” and “Ininiwag” included in the signs for women and men at bathroom facilities, and the Native names alongside English on hiking trails, including to identify trees and plants.
Devil’s Island is the most dramatic of the group, with a network of shoreline sea caves created by millions of years of erosion to the sandstone. Legend is that the original settlers, the Ojibwe (Chippewa), thought the wind whistling through the caves sounded like devilish human howling, hence the name. It’s a dream destination for kayakers, hikers, birders, lighthouse fans and, of course, photographers.
The most historic is Manitou Island, the only one still with its original Native name. The restored 1800s “fish camp”, with log cabins where fishermen stayed for weeks at a time to process their catches, including smoking them, can be toured in season. Ditto the 1852 lighthouse on Raspberry Island.
The easiest way to sample the islands is via the popular three-hour sightseeing cruise from Bayfield, the area’s largest town and base for exploration, including kayak and bike rentals. Or, charter a sailboat which will allow you to dock and explore.
The small Maritime Museum explores the area’s history, including some of the 350 shipwrecks in the area. Downtown is a typical small resort town, with boutiques and art galleries in between restaurants, ice cream shops, and a waterside park and cupola. Be sure to stop by Bodin Fisheries for fresh smoked local fish or fish pate, perhaps for a picnic at Myer’s Beach, the miles-long mainland beach that’s also part of the National Lakeshore designation.
No, we’re not talking about breakfast cereal, but rather Bayfield’s bountiful orchards and fruit farms, which grow apples, pears, cranberries, cherries, blackberries, and strawberries. One of the oldest farms is Erickson Orchards, now in its third generation and training the fourth. In season, Erickson presses as much as 250 gallons of cider a day, selling most of it to nearby boutique wineries and distilleries, including the only one in the US owned by Native Americans, on tribal land.
Founders Curt and wife Linda Basina are members of the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Ojibwe/Chippewa. They use Erickson cider to produce a potent apple brandy, a main ingredient in what many consider Wisconsin’s official cocktail—a brandy old-fashioned. Copper Crow Distillery also uses the whey from local cheese production to produce vodka. It’s light with a touch of sweetness and very unique.
Located on tribal land is the 300-acre Frog Bay Tribal National Park, the first tribal national park in the USA. Trails here are in a more natural state than in NPS national parks, which means they are more rugged and less trafficked, which only adds to their appeal.
In Bayfield, Pier Plaza is steps from the piers it is named for, and features wood-fired pizzas, burgers, and local fish. The Fat Radish is one of the few year-round choices, offering an inventive menu focusing on seafood. It’s in Cornucopia, about 15 minutes from Bayfield down a country road.
Friday Fish Fry dinners are a tradition in much of Wisconsin. Depending on the season, it’s trout, whitefish or herring caught from either Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, then lightly battered and pan-fried or grilled. Of course, Wisconsin is famous for its cheese, and cheese curds offer a popular appetizer or snack. They are cubed and fried, and absolutely addictive; it’s hard to have a meal without them, washed down by a Wisconsin microbrew such as Spotted Cow, which is not shipped beyond state lines.
The Red Cliff Band operates the Legendary Waters Lakeshore Resort and Casino, open year-round. Every room has a picture-postcard view of the lake and nearby Apostle Islands.
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