Kayaking around Bayfield, Wisconsin, can feel like soaring, as Lake Superior's water clarity reaches 100 feet in some places. With the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore just off Bayfield's shores, you can paddle in the lee of 22 islands and see sandstone cliffs pocked with sea caves, shipwrecks, and six, cheery lighthouses. You'll also be paddling where the Ojibwe and French Voyagers once paddled. Beaches abound. Lazing on the soft sand, while the Evian-clear water laps the shore, you might, after a cat nap, awaken sweetly groggy and wonder how you reached the Virgin Islands.
Pleasures also abound inland. Bayfield is on a peninsula that juts in Lake Superior, creating a gentle micro-climate that fosters fruit cultivation. Apples, berries, and cherries thrive, frosting the hillsides with white blooms in the spring and juicy sweetness in the summer and fall. The Bayfield Apple Festival is at the intersection of Peak Fall Color Place and Apple Cider Avenue.
The Brule River is one of many rivers tumbling into Superior and most offer fine paddling through piney forests. Paddle without too much chitchat and you might happen upon drinking deer. If you slide silently by, they might not even bolt. Whereas the Apostle Islands are best explored by kayak, canoeists can also paddle Lake Superior's lagoons.
Kelley Linehan, Marketing & Events Manager for Bayfield Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Bureau, said, "There are inland lagoon and slough areas where canoeing is very popular. One is Bark Bay Slough, which has a couple different access points."
For many paddlers, the Apostle Islands are the stars. Madeline Island is the biggest and is the only one with houses as the other 21 are protected wilderness. Still, Madeline is must see.
Linehan said, "Madeline Island has great historical significance. It's the spiritual homeland of the Ojibwa people and the first European settlement was a mere 40 years after Plymouth Rock, as it was a French fur trading outpost. All that history can be seen at the fine Madeline Island Museum. It also has a great town with galleries, restaurants, and bars. There are two parks with terrific campgrounds and great paddling opportunities. Big Bay Town Park has a lagoon that goes into the island and you can canoe there. You can rent canoes there too. We don't generally recommend canoeing on Lake Superior because it is an inland sea."
If you want to poke into some sea caves, hike, or simply stretch on sand, the other 21 islands await. Rob Riemer, owner, guide, and everything guy at Trek and Trail in Bayfield, has three favorites.
Riemer said, "I love Sand Island because it's easy to reach and you get a little bit of everything the park has to offer on this one island. You get sea caves, large old growth trees, and a lighthouse. I love Devil's Island for the exact opposite reason. It's the hardest to reach and has the best cave in the park and it also has a lighthouse. Then there's Oak Island, which has a beautiful sand spit. It's large and high with an excellent hike to an overlook."
Linehan also has a favorite: "My favorite is accessible Stockton Island. There's an improved dock, a beautiful campground, ranger station, and hiking trails. They have interpretive programs and a hiking shuttle that runs out to that island a couple times a week. You can take that shuttle to hike or camp. You can paddle out there too. It encapsulates a lot of what the Apostle Islands have to offer, such as a beautiful beach and an historic, abandoned quarry."
However, you can't choose badly.
Linehan said, "Set foot on any of our islands and you'll realize what they're all about. Just walking on an island in the middle of clear, blue Lake Superior and it will click for you."
And the best times to go?
Linehan said, "September is a really great time to be in Bayfield because we're still having beautiful summertime weather and after Labor Day, the tourism traffic dies down, so you can get a true Bayfield, small town experience. We're just a tiny town of 487 people. In the summertime, our population swells to 10,000 with people everywhere, but you can see our small town nature after Labor Day. Another really good time to visit is late spring and early summer. We're inundated in the mid-summer, but that's also fun because you get to meet all kinds of people. In the spring, our flowers and orchards are in full bloom. It can be chilly, but it's also a great time to get out to the sea caves because there's so little traffic. You can have them to yourself, which is unimaginable in mid-summer."
Riemer provides the guide's perspective: "July to August is warm with warm, calm water, but serious sea kayakers could come anytime. Going into the fall, the wind picks up, so if you like waves and adventure, that's your time. You can have anything from a calm, shoreline paddle to three- to four-foot surf."
Whatever your skill level, Bayfield will please.
Linehan said, "Paddlers love the different things that they can do here, as Bayfield is a destination that lets people interested in paddling at all levels find their niche. People come on family vacations and mom might be into paddling, so she can explore the sea caves and the Apostle Islands, but dad and the kids have plenty to do ashore, whether exploring Madeline Island, Bayfield, or hiking and biking. Fat bikes are becoming so popular and we have tons and tons of trails. No one will feel left out. No one will feel bored. I get that feedback a lot. So many world-class destinations are isolated and you're locked into doing one thing. Not here. You can have drinks overlooking the lake. You can go golfing. You can go shopping, but with all these options, Bayfield doesn't have that overly developed resort feel."
For lodging, consider the Isaac Wing House, which welcomes dogs and has plush gardens enfolding it. It's popular with kayakers and has free parking. If you want a water view, all the rooms at Legendary Water Resort & Casino offer that, plus it has its own launch spot.
And what would constitute Riemer's perfect paddling day?
Riemer said, "We'd start early on a weekday for fewer people in the summer. We'd go to Meyer's Beach and paddle to the mainland sea caves, a long shoreline caves section. Then we'd have lunch at Meyer's Beach. Then we'd paddle back and drive to Cornucopia for dinner at the Village Inn. I'd either eat the whitefish or steak. They have a Tiki Bar there and we'd enjoy their band before heading back to Bayfield."
Riemer also offers insider info on a hidden gem.
Reimer said, "There is a sea cave on Hermit Island and it has a very small opening at first, but opens to a larger space. If you don't know it's there, you can paddle right past it. Find it and you'll love it!"
If you're a first time paddler, Trek and Trail has your back.
Riemer said, "If you come to Trek and Trail, most of our clients have no experience whatsoever. They're coming to see the sea caves or do an overnight and might never paddle again. Trek and Trail does guided sea kayak tours, rentals, and retail store where we sell used and new boats as well as equipment. Lunches are provided on our full day trips and overnights. Fat Radish provides the food. We're really lucky to have them as our food provider."
If you're paddling sans guides, Riemer dispenses wisdom: "If you're going in the shoulder seasons, you'll want to have a drysuit or wet suit, all the safety gear, VHF radio and a cell phone, and solid rescue skills and don't go out by yourself because the water is cold and the wind can blow."
If you want paddling company attend the Bayfield Paddle Rally, which is being held September 9th, 10th, and 11th.
Riemer said, "We'll have vendors, competitions, a fun little race, food, a fish fry on Friday night, a Fat Radish dinner on Saturday night, and live music. There will be classes during the day. On Sunday, we'll have a race for all the participants and encourage cheating, such as capsizing. It's just for fun, so there will be a goofy trophy."
The Bayfield Paddle Rally is a way to say, "Hey, there's perfect paddling over here!"
And plenty more, from spas to hiking to biking to golfing, all within and within easy reach of this comely town on Superior's south shore.
Linehan said, "Think of Bayfield as a hub for exploration with so many spokes of fun radiating outward. There are so many things to do with Bayfield as your basecamp, depending upon what your interests are and who you're with."
— Check out other great paddling destinations on our TRAVEL page.