Northern Wisconsin hosts a hidden gem that’s located on the largest freshwater lake (by surface area) in the world: The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This area didn’t receive much attention until recent years when tours of the beautiful winter ice caves along the shore became available. While these ice caves obviously can’t be reached by boat, come summer, these same sea caves can be explored by kayak. Apostle Islands kayaking also provides the opportunity to hop between 22 wild and beautiful islands, whether on a day trip or multi-day camping excursion.
Read on to learn how you can experience this Northern Wisconsin wonder.
With its growing popularity over the past five years, there are ample tours of the sea caves and islands in the area available. In fact, if you are unaccustomed to sea kayaking and/or the harsh maiden that Lake Superior can be, it is an especially good idea to head out with a knowledgeable guide. Here are a few of the best tours in the Apostle Islands to get you started.
White Cap Kayak
One of the top-rated guide services in the area, White Cap Kayak offers an array of day and overnight trips. You can explore the sea caves near Meyers Beach or visit some of the area’s lighthouses before spending the night on one of the numerous isles. Explore a more secluded area with rocky cliff faces and waterfalls galore on their Canyons, Cliffs, and Waterfalls tour. Prices are $90 per adult.
If you’re looking for a cultural experience on your kayaking trip, you can’t beat the Mawikwe Bay Kayak Tour ($85 per person). This guided tour takes you to the Meyers Beach Sea Caves, an important area to the Chippewa people, where you’ll learn more about the history of the caves and people from a member of the Red Cliff Tribe.
Apostle Islands Cruises
For an all-day excursion exploring some of the more remote islands of the Apostles, head out on the Kayak and Cruise Adventure Tour ($149 per adult, $109 per child). Their 50-foot powered vessel will take you out to the best area for kayaking that day (selected based on weather and lake conditions); then you’ll be afforded two hours of paddling before heading back.
While most guide companies in the area only provide tours, there are a few that do offer kayak rentals and packages (including wet or drysuits, spray skirts, etc.) if you’d prefer to do some self-guided Apostle Islands kayaking.
Trek & Trail
Trek & Trail offers plastic and fiberglass sea kayaks in both single and tandem models for rent. Prices start at $40 for six hours for a plastic single. You can also rent each model for additional days with prices ranging from $40 to $60 per day, depending on the model. It should also be noted that you must first pass their Basic Safety Course ($55) before being allowed to rent a kayak. Trek & Trail operates from Memorial Day to early-October, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Rustic Makwa Den
Whether you want to paddle close to shore to explore the mainland’s sea caves or go on an extended trip through the islands, Rustic Makwa Den has you covered with both sit-on-top kayaks and sit-inside sea kayaks. Single sit-on-top kayaks, single sea kayaks and tandem sea kayaks are priced at $45 per day. Tandem sit-on-top kayaks are priced at $55 per day. You must pass a free safety test to rent a sea kayak. Rentals and sea cave tours are available from June through October.
Lost Creek Adventures
Lost Creek Adventures offers not only single and tandem sea and sit-on-top kayaks, but camping gear as well if you’re planning an overnight trip in the islands. Single sea kayaks start at $40 per day, single sit-on-top kayaks at $15 for the first hour, double sea kayaks at $60 per day, and double sit-on-tops at $20 for the first hour. You will also need to pass an Introductory Safety Class ($50 per person). Lost Creek Adventures has open availability during summer months and by appointment during spring and fall.
How to explore the sea caves
As mentioned above, if you plan on renting a sea kayak from a local outfitter, you will be expected to pass some form of introductory safety course. However, sit-on-top kayaks are perfectly acceptable for paddling close to shore where the mainland sea caves are.
There are two launching points along the coast, one located at Meyers Beach and the other at Little Sand Beach. Both of these areas are popular spots for tours and novice kayakers to explore the sea caves.
Being such a large body of water, Lake Superior tends to make its own weather, making air and water conditions unpredictable oftentimes. A sunny day can turn into a raging thunderstorm in the afternoon, if not sooner. Be sure to check weather reports and water conditions before heading out.
If you do find yourself caught in less-than-desirable water conditions, it is very important that you do not approach the sea caves. As noted across numerous websites, the rebounding waves can make them nearly, if not completely, impossible to navigate.
Check out these maps from the National Park Service for island locations and to plan your route.
Popular routes to take
From beginner-friendly shoreline paddles to strenuous overnight trips, the Apostle Islands offer routes for any kayaker.
As stated above, the Meyers Beach area is quite popular for viewing the mainland sea caves. Take a leisurely five-mile (round-trip) paddle along the shoreline to not only view but pass through some of the arches and sea caves (calm waters permitting, of course). It takes about two miles to get to the sea caves from the launch point and you can always extend your paddle if desired.
Paddling around Madeline Island, the park’s only permanently inhabited island, is also a great option for beginners. Head out from the boat launch at Big Bay Town Park or the beach at Big Bay State Park and spend an afternoon exploring the Big Bay Lagoon and sea caves along the point.
Outer Island Loop
For die-hard yakkers with plenty of sea kayaking experience and a thirst for adventure, the 75-mile Outer Island Loop of the Apostles is a fun choice. This trip will take roughly a week to complete, allowing you to stop and explore 11 of the islands along the way. You’ll be able to view more sea caves and old lighthouses as well as find hiking trails on some of the bigger islands. The trip around Devils Island is notorious for being rough, especially in strong winds, so this trip is definitely recommended for seasoned sea kayakers.
Kayak camping spots
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore consists of 69,372 acres, providing plenty of primitive kayak camping sites among the islands. Over 30 spots are available, though they fill up quickly, so be sure to get your permit and reserve a spot in advance. You can find more specific camping information on the NPS website.
With its close proximity to the mainland, Sand Island is a popular place to camp. There is a campground located on the island and the island itself is a short 3/4-mile paddle from Little Sand Bay. Be sure to check out several sea caves located around the island before setting up camp for the night.
For intermediate and advanced paddlers looking for an extended trip, but not something as lengthy as the Outer Island Loop, plan for a 23-mile trip extending from Little Sand Bay to Sand Island, then heading to York, Raspberry and Oak Island, and then back to shore. All but Raspberry Island host campsites, and water crossings between each island do not surpass 2.5 miles.
Time of year to go
Northern Wisconsin winters can be harsh and it’s not out of the question for them to extend into springtime, so summer is your best bet for Apostle Islands kayaking. Weather-wise, July and August are best but can become quite busy with other visitors. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, try for September and October, during which time you can enjoy the beautiful Wisconsin fall foliage. Be warned, though, that the weather becomes more unpredictable this time of year with the possibility of early winter storms.
Kayaking the Apostle Islands of Wisconsin offers a unique look at one of North America’s coolest geological wonders, whether you’re an experienced sea kayaker or just beginning.