Mawikwe Bay sea caves along the coast of Lake Superior. (Photo courtesy of Lost Creek Adventures)
Mawikwe Bay sea caves along the coast of Lake Superior. (Photo courtesy of Lost Creek Adventures)

Look no further for your next trip up north to Wisconsin’s coast along Lake Superior.

In late summer and early fall, Lake Superior country is at its best, with the big lake holding on to the summer’s last warmth. Here’s some ideas for planning a visit.

Bayfield, Like New England in the Midwest

If the charming Victorian homes that climb the hillsides of Bayfield remind you of New England, you’re not alone. When President John F. Kennedy flew over the islands in a helicopter in 1963, he remarked to Sen. Gaylord Nelson that the sailboats on the blue water reminded him of Cape Cod. Three decades later, his son, John F. Kennedy Jr., would also visit Bayfield to sea kayak the caves and cliffs of the Apostle islands. You can see his signature on the wall at Greunke’s Inn from his stay in 1995. Bayfield is full of great restaurants, from breakfast at the Manypenny Bistro to dinner at the Copper Trout. And the Bayfield Apple Festival returns Oct. 1-3.

Go Island Hopping

Kennedy helped realize Nelson’s dream of making the 22 islands and part of the coast a National Lakeshore, which happened in 1970. Most of the islands are wild, with campsites and six historic lighthouses to visit. A good overview can be had from the deck of one of the Apostle Islands Cruise Line boats, which also run shuttles for people who want to camp on the islands, or kayak along the cliffs without crossing the open water. Several outfitters also rent kayaks and sailboats.

Tour the Lighthouses

Sept. 7-18 marks the return of the Apostle Island Lighthouse Celebration, with tickets available from the cruise line. There are tours of the lighthouses on Sand, Raspberry, Devils, Outer, Michigan, and Long islands, as well as interpretive events in Bayfield.

Sand Island lighthouse. (Photo via National Parks Service)

Visit Madeline Island

The only inhabited island can be reached via car ferry from Bayfield and offers much to do, including Big Bay State Park, with camping, a 2-mile sand beach, and a bog great for paddling. Madeline Island hosts art and writing retreats, golf, and restaurants. Most eclectic is Tom’s Burned Down Cafe, which burned down in 1992, and has been serving cold beer and hot music from an actual hole in the ground ever since. 

See the Sea Caves

In the winter, the caves that line the peninsula about 18 miles west of Bayfield become the ice caves, a literal fairyland of icicles that make each chamber unique. But warm winters have meant that  access to the ice caves over frozen Lake Superior doesn’t happen most years. The best time to see them is summer, via sea kayak. Lost Creek Adventures in Cornucopia offers tours and rentals, or you can bring your own kayak and launch from Meyer’s Beach, a National Lakeshore property just east of Cornucopia. Be prepared for a ranger to check over your boat to make sure it’s seaworthy for the 3-mile round trip on ever-changing Lake Superior. No inflatables or sit-on kayaks are allowed and you must have floatation equipment.

Hike the Country’s First Tribal National Park

The Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa have set aside 180 acres to protect Frog Bay and welcome visitors. There is a 1-mile ravine trail or a short trail to a large sand beach. Along the way, cultural signs teach hikers the Ojibwe names for words like frog “omakakli” and Lake Superior “Anishinaabewi Gichigami.”

Visit the South Shore and Beyond

Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Scenic Byway follows Highway 13 from Ashland—be sure to stop at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center there for a great overview of the area—to the Brule State Forest in the west. Along the 70-mile route, you’ll see scenic vistas and stop in quaint villages such as Cornucopia. This town boasts the northernmost post office in Wisconsin, and you can buy postcards across the street at Ehler’s Store, a combination hardware and general store that also sells fine wine, pizza, and upscale trinkets. The popular Fat Radish restaurant moved here from Bayfield and its fans have followed. In the interior of the peninsula, you’ll find the Finnish community of Oulu, home to a glass art gallery, and learn why locals call Highway FF “the Finnish Freeway.”

Halvorson’s Fish Market in Cornucopia. (Photo by Susan Lampert Smith)

Buy Some Fish to Take Home

Fish doesn’t get fresher than at Halvorson’s on the waterfront in Cornucopia. The fishing trawler is moored outside, and behind the glass window, you can see the crew cleaning the day’s catch. The cream cheese and smoked whitefish spread is simply amazing. The Red Cliff Band operates its own fishing boats and its market, at 37525 Dock Road, Red Cliff, is open Saturdays and Sundays. In Bayfield, Bodin’s is the local favorite, while in Port Wing, you’ll find a great selection of Everett’s Smoked Fish, including salmon candy, at Johnson’s Store, which has gas pumps out front.

See the Stars at the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua

The big blue tent atop Mount Ashwabay has been welcoming talents ranging from B.B. King to Johnny Cash to Ani DiFranco for 35 years. The 2021 shows run through September 17, so there’s still time to take in a performance.

Big Top Chautuaqua along Lake Superior in Bayfield County. (Photo by Sunridge Moving Pictures via Big Top Chautuaqua)