The Best Way to See the Apostle Islands

In the southwestern portion of Lake Superior, off the coast of Wisconsin, is a collection of 21 islands known as Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. These islands draw visitors due to the unique rock formations that line their shores. Options for viewing the attractions vary from kayaking, hiking (after boating to the islands), and even scuba diving. I chose to take an organized boat tour to explore the area and was fully satisfied with my decision.

Typically, I prefer a more independent approach to visiting natural areas. I like to be able to linger at the areas I like best and move at a faster pace when I choose to. However, this is one place that I was truly glad I chose the organized tour. To begin with, the islands were much larger and more spread out that I anticipated. They occupy such a small portion of Lake Superior that I didn’t consider how large this area still is. After seeing the scope of the islands and the water between them, I am relieved that I didn’t attempt to kayak out into the vast lake. I know that if I had tried that, I would only have seen the closest few islands, and would have missed some of the highlights I saw on the tour.

Furthermore, the water was rough when I visited, and that isn’t uncommon on Lake Superior. While it would have been especially exciting to kayak around the sea caves of Devil’s Island, this island is one of the farthest from shore. While the closer islands are more sheltered from the wind and waves that cause the formations, Devil’s Island is more exposed to the elements.  The captain of our tour boat was uncertain about taking us to see Devil’s Island due to the rough conditions that day. I certainly would not have wanted to be on a kayak in that water!

Beyond the logistical issues with kayaking to the islands, the tour boat option enhanced the experience by providing context for the views I saw. Our captain was filled with stories of former residents of the islands, shipwrecks in the lake, and more.  The stories filled the lulls between islands. In areas where there was less to see, the ride was pleasant moving along the water hearing these stories, rather than just waiting to arrive at the next point of interest.

When to Go

I was really fortunate that my visit to the area happened to fall right as tours were beginning for the season. In fact, the day I took the tour was only the second day this year that the tour ran. Not only was I glad that I arrived late enough in the year to take the tour, but I was also glad I didn’t arrive in the peak of the season. The tour boat was only about half full, allowing visitors to move around. This was especially nice because it was a bit too cold and windy to enjoy the full three hours on the open upper deck. However, I appreciated having the flexibility to move there for photo opportunities and fresh air when I chose.

Returning to Bayfield at the end of the boat tour

Bayfield, WI

Though the town of Bayfield is small, walking around its shops is still a pleasant way to spend some time

After departing the boat, I spent about two hours walking around the town of Bayfield, WI. Shops and restaurants fill about two streets in this area, and those streets could easily be covered in less time. However, I spent a fair amount of time in the shops, especially one art gallery where I contemplated the purchase of a painting done by a local artist. Walking through the town, I noticed that the stores seemed to be filled with more locals than tourists, another benefit of arriving before the busier season. On the down side, the time of year also meant that a few of the stores were not yet open.    

As much as I enjoyed my time touring the islands and walking around Bayfield, this isn’t an area I’d choose to spend more than a day. At less than two hours from Duluth, there was just the right amount to see and do for a day trip. If you’re looking for other day trips in the area, try spending a day along Minnesota’s North Shore, especially at Temperance River State Park.




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