Just off the Bayfield peninsula, where Wisconsin’s deep northwestern forests give way to the icy blue stretches of Lake Superior, an archipelago of 22 islands lies scattered across roughly 720 square miles of the world’s largest freshwater lake. This archipelago comprises Madeline Island, the largest and only inhabited island in the group; and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore’s pristine 21 islands and 12-mile stretch of mainland coast.
The Anishinaabe, also known as the Ojibwe or Chippewa, say that Gitche Manitou led their community to 12-mile-long Madeline Island and to Chequamegon Bay’s wild rice beds. The island remains a sacred place, and despite the fact that this is a seasonal hotspot for tourists, 200 acres on the island’s eastern end still belongs to the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
The Bad River Band has a 125,000-acre reservation on Lake Superior’s south shore, in Ashland and Iron counties; roughly 1,500 tribal members make their homes here. The 200-acre “exclave” on Madeline Island was set aside for what was once known as the Lapointe Band in 1854.
Madeline Island lies just a short ferry ride from Bayfield, and accommodations include local inns, rental cottages and camping in Big Bay State Park or Big Bay Town Park.
Once you’re settled, rent bikes or mopeds in La Pointe to explore the island’s quiet lanes, rent a canoe or kayak to paddle alongside its cliffs and caves, or simply hike through the countryside.
While you’re on the island, make sure to visit the Madeline Island Museum, take a stroll through time at
the Madeline Island Heritage Center, learn to weave at Woods Hall, and maybe even sign up for a class at the Madeline Island School of the Arts. You can even play a round of golf on the Robert Trent Jones-designed course at the Madeline Island Golf Club.
Just two blocks from the ferry landing, Joni’s Beach has a sheltered picnic area and a playground designed for young children. Big Bay Town Park has a boardwalk, canoe and kayak rentals, and great spots to fish the lake or lagoon if you have a permit.
Big Bay State Park has 7 miles of trails with views of the island’s unusual sandstone cliffs and rock formations, picnic sites, environmental programs (plus junior ranger kits for the little ones), and a stunning crescent-shaped sand beach. This really is a don’t-miss feature; in 2011, Budget Travel Magazine named Big Bay Beach one of America’s “top secret beaches.”
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
To experience the region’s primeval side, head for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which is north of Bayfield and adjacent to the 1-by-14-mile Red Cliff Indian Reservation. This is home to the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, with a population of approximately 920 people.
Temperate and boreal forests, sandy beaches, sea caves, rocky cliffs and the unspoiled waters of Lake Superior come together in the national lakeshore, the majority of which is true wilderness. In fact, 80 percent of its territory was added to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 2004 under the name Gaylord Nelson Wilderness, Wisconsin’s largest.
There’s much to explore here: Julian Bay’s pink “singing sands,” Stockton Island’s memorable hikes and informative visitor’s center (complete with a stuffed black bear named Skar), the ruins of Rocky Island’s erstwhile fishing camp, six historic lighthouses, and miles upon miles of pristine hardwood and pine forests, savannas, bogs, sand dunes, tombolos, lagoons, cliffs and caves.
The National Park Service makes the national lakeshore easily accessible for visitors. Ferries from Apostle Islands Cruises carry day-hikers and backpackers to public docks throughout the islands, where more than 50 miles of trails link backcountry camps with countless scenic, historic and educational sites.
The cruise operator also offers glass-bottom boat tours to area shipwrecks and a “grand tour” that incorporates Basswood, Hermit, Oak, Otter, Devils, Bear and Raspberry islands. If the glass-bottom boat tour isn’t enough, head for Superior Adventures in Bayfield. It offers guided snorkel and scuba trips throughout the islands.
The Apostles’ sea caves are legendary in paddling circles, and this is readily apparent along Devils Island’s north shore. Here, Lake Superior has sculpted billion-year-old red sandstone into massive, interconnected sea caves. This labyrinth of holes, and the danger here when the wind shifts, prompted the Anishinaabe to christen it “Evil Spirit Island.”
Although summer is peak season in the Apostle Islands, there is no true offseason. In fall, leaf-peepers come to frame the perfect photograph, visit the farmers’ markets and enjoy the annual Apple Festival. Each year, roughly 60,000 people take part in what Wisconsin Trails Magazine called “The Best Festival in Wisconsin” and the Society of American Travel Writers proclaimed one of the “Top 10 Autumn Festivals in North America.”
Later, after the annual tree-lighting ceremonies and holiday celebrations, the winter fun gears up with the annual Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race in February, which fans call a shorter and livelier version of the Iditarod. Then there’s the Bayfield Winter Festival, 100 miles of snowshoeing trails, 130 miles of groomed cross-country skiing trails, 13 runs and a chairlift for downhill skiers and snowboarders at Mt. Ashwabay, dog-sledding expeditions through Wolfsong Adventures, and countless spots to set up an ice-fishing camp.
Then there’s the “ice road” to Madeline Island, allowing you to drive, ski or hike across the frozen lake; the cathedral-like ice caves, which can be explored in the right conditions; and a whopping 600 miles of snowmobile trails.
Visit the Red Cliff and Bad River Indian Reservations
If you’re planning a trip to the area, make sure to stop and visit the Red Cliff and Bad River bands of Lake Superior Chippewa. Red Cliff features the Legendary Waters Resort & Casino, a campground and marina, a fish hatchery open for public tours, miles of hiking trails, fishing opportunities, and cultural opportunities through the annual powwow and cultural days.
Bad River also offers gaming. Visit its Bad River Lodge & Casino, and if you’re interested in spending time outdoors, the tribe keeps more than 90 percent of its land in its natural state. The forests here are riddled with trails for hiking in summer and snowmobiling in winter.