The Ultimate Apostle Islands Camping Guide

UPDATED - July 10th, 2023  |  Apostle Islands National Lakeshore | Lake Superior Wisconsin



LOOKING TO CAMP IN THE APOSTLE ISLANDS THIS SUMMER?

Good call! Now is the perfect time to begin planning your trip and making reservations before the sites fill up for the season. You'd be hard pressed to choose a more beautiful location for a camping trip that's certain to be filled with lasting memories. With campsites available on 18 of the 21 islands included in the National Lakeshore, plus a single site on the mainland, there are plenty of options for all levels of adventurers and would-be adventurers.

Follow along for insider camping tips and all the best locations from someone who spends basically all their free time exploring and camping in the Apostles.


tent camping on sandy beach under a moonlit sky on michigan island in the apostles

Stars twinkle against a perfectly dark canvas on the Michigan Island sand spit


*** SUMMER 2023 UPDATE ***

As of July 10th, I've made 7 camping trips to the Apostles this season.

Recent observations: during the week of July 4th, the mosquitoes reached their peak, i.e. nearly unbearable. You'll want to remember your bug dope and head net. Early morning and after sundown are the worst, as expected. Another 7-10 days will see their numbers begin to wane. Just in time for the biting black flies - which to this point have been present but manageable.

A quick note about repellent: for the skeeters, anything with deet will be effective. The biting files, however, are impervious to deet based products. I've found picaridin based repellents to work best against the files, but you'll need to re-apply often.

Good luck, and enjoy!


FIRST THINGS FIRST

There are essentially three categories of campsites in the Apostles: Group, Individual, and Zone. As you might have guessed, Group sites are for 8-21 people, Individual sites are for 1-7 people, and Zone is considered primitive camping, with no amenities available. Personally, I like Zone camping as I've never encountered a single other person while doing so.

If you're still reading, you probably already know there are no car or RV camping sites in the Apostles. Aside from the mainland site, which can be reached via a six mile hike (or by kayak), you'll need water transportation to get to any of the campsites.

Before we get ahead of ourselves: reservations are REQUIRED for all sites, so you'll need to plan ahead to ensure you get your preferred spot. Fee schedules and other info related to making your reservation are available here. The close, easy-to-reach sites fill up quickly, so don't wait too long to make your plans and reservations.

Pro tip: Use the recreation.gov mobile app for everything!

One last thing - Please consider following Leave No Trace principles while vising the Apostles. Let's all do our part to keep the Apostles wild and beautiful.


tent camping at the manitou island campsite in the apostle islands of wisconsin

Gorgeous views from the Manitou Island campsite


NEXT UP: WHERE TO GO AND HOW TO GET THERE

Ok, so you're sold on the idea of camping in the Apostles, and you're ready to make your reservations - there are a couple of important considerations, depending on where you'd like to camp - Transportation: and what I mean by that is kayak, or power boat.

I'll touch on power boat camping a bit later, mostly as it pertains to camping in the outer ring of islands. For the close and easy to reach islands in the inner ring, most people will opt to paddle.

If you want to kayak camp, I encourage you to book a trip with one of the local outfitters who can provide everything needed to ensure a safe, comfortable experience. I'll emphasize SAFE again here, as it's worth repeating - if you don't have big water paddling experience, and lots of it, Lake Superior isn't the place to learn on your own. Things can go sideways in a hurry out there.

Now that we have the safety briefing out of the way, let's get to it. Most of the guided kayak camping trips will be to one of the islands in the inner ring. Sand, York, Oak, and Basswood all have multiple sites within easy striking distance for even novice paddlers.

On the other hand, if you are an experienced paddler with all the necessary gear, everything else here still pertains to you.

*** UPDATE ***

NEW Myers Beach sites - New for the summer of 2023 are two additional hike-in campsites located along the trail to the mainland sea caves overlook at Myers Beach. Both sites are roughly a mile in from the trailhead - far enough removed from the main trail that you won't be bothered by other hikers. These sites hold promise for amazing views of the lake from atop the cliffs.

If nothing else, it's another option for those who may not want to deal with water transportation to island campsites.

Sand Island - Very popular, as it's a short paddle from Little Sand Bay but has campsites strategically located along several sandy beaches (personal favs are #4,5 in Lighthouse Bay due to the fact they are very private), a historic lighthouse, hiking trails, and great sea caves at Swallow Point that beg to be explored via kayak. You won't lack for things to do while camping on Sand Island.

There's a staffed NPS Ranger cabin near the dock at East Bay, and a boardwalk stretches from East Bay up to the lighthouse. It's a hike worth making. Please note there are several privately held parcels (cabins and docks) located at the south end of the island. Those are off limits, unfortunately.

York Island - With one of the absolute BEST beaches in the entire archipelago, York is an easy favorite. When sailboats anchor up in the cove for the night, it adds some next level ambiance to an already incredible scene. There are no established hiking trails on York, but it's worth bushwhacking or paddling around to the sand spit on the very southern tip for another beach you won't regret visiting.

If you are fortunate enough to visit the sand spit, hidden back in the forest not far from the waters edge is a memorial plot for a local man named Merlin Allen who perished in Vietnam while serving in the Marine Corps. His parents owned York Island at that time, and when his remains were returned some 40 years later, he was buried next to them on York Island.

Oak Island - Oak has campsites scattered along the west and north coast, all with gorgeous views. There's a staffed ranger station at the NPS dock in West Channel as well. My personal fav is site #1 on the sand spit at the SW corner of the island. It's a great spot for both sunrise and sunset. And while we are talking about campsites - use those NPS provided bear boxes to store your food. I've seen more bears on Oak Island than any other by a wide margin.

Oh, and did I mention the hiking trails? Take the trail to the north end overlook. You can thank me later.

Basswood Island - Another super easy and accessible destination. Basswood has a dock and a handful of scenic campsites, all with stunning views of West Channel looking back toward the mainland. There's a hiking trail (5.4 miles) that loops around to the remnants of an old brownstone quarry and through an overgrown field that hides the old McCloud farmstead. If you can, paddle to the north end of the island and explore Honeymoon Rock, a sea stack carved out over the eons.

And don't miss that sunset from the dock.


tent and boat camping in the apostle islands national lakeshore

A quiet, peaceful evening in the Apostle Islands

INTO THE OUTER RING

If kayaking isn't your forte, your other option is a power boat. You can either take your own boat or rent a water taxi for drop off / pickup at your campsite. Once again, if you don't have experience boating on Lake Superior, the safe bet is to leave the stress of wind, waves, and all things nautical to a charter service. Even with modern marine forecasts and all the safety and navigation gear we have these days, things can go very, very wrong even when you've done everything "right" and not made any mistakes.

Case in point, if you are so inclined to read a personal account of a near-miss on Outer Island in the Apostles.

Back on task here - what a power boat gives you is access to the far reaches of the Apostles. Outer, Stockton, Michigan... South Twin, Rocky, Otter and Manitou islands are all in play.

Outer Island - The island I've personally spent more overnights on than any other, and it isn't even close. It's as far away from everything as you can possibly get. If you want a true remote wilderness camping experience with some of the darkest night skies you'll ever see, Outer is where you want to go. The single campsite is located right at the sand spit, which is completely AMAZING. If you're up for a hike, take the trail from the campsite 7.5 miles up to the lighthouse. Be prepared for wet conditions, as the trail goes near / through a beaver pond and other low lying areas. You should be comfortable hiking off-trail and following a path that can be difficult to find at times.

If that isn't your jam, simply relax at the campsite and make a point to take a sunset walk on the pristine sand spit for unforgettable views.

Stockton Island - Home to the singing sands of Julian Bay and endless beaches, Stockton should get strong consideration as your first choice if arriving via power boat. Boasting a multitude of campsites stretching between Quarry Bay and Presque Isle Bay, and one remote outlier on Trout Point accessible only via a 6.3 mile hike or kayak, there's something for everyone on Stockton. With a sheltered harbor, NPS dock, and a staffed Ranger Station providing guided interpretative walks / talks, it's a true gem!

And don't forget to explore the tombolo on Presque Isle Point or the bog behind Julian Bay.

** Please note ** The dock at Quarry Bay is undergoing construction this season (2023) and as a result is closed. This may impact the group sites located near the dock.


summer clouds reflecting in the stockton island bog at the apostle islands wisconsin

Evening light on the Julian Bay Bog - Stockton Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore


South Twin Island - With an NPS dock and a handful of campsites sprinkled around an amazing sandy point, South Twin deserves all the attention and love it gets. There's a fascinating old fishing cabin near the dock (preserved by the Park Service) and plenty to explore and see if you are willing to get off the beaten path a bit. It isn't the best choice if you want to do your hiking on established trails, as there simply isn't much on South Twin that's maintained.

It makes a fine jumping off point to do some exploring in the outer ring of islands, if you have interest in that.

Manitou Island - Another personal favorite, this one with the campsite right at waters edge and a stunning sandy beach stretching off in both directions. This site gets some afternoon shade, which can be a welcome respite from the summer heat. Hike the ~2 mile trail back across to the historic Manitou Island Fish Camp and find yourself transported back to a time when commercial fishing helped shape these islands. Speaking of that hiking trail... there's a stand of old growth Hemlock hidden away along the path that feels as timeless as any dark timber I've ever been in.

If you arrive on Manitou via kayak, there's some interesting sandstone cliffs and small sea caves to explore around the ne corner of the island. It's a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.

Otter Island - Tucked away on the south tip of the island near a sandspit and NPS dock, this is a quiet and secluded little site. Hike the 2 mile trail across the island to the north side for a scenic overlook near sandstone cliffs, and gaze out across the blue waters of Lake Superior.

Fair warning - there are often power boats docked overnight here, so if you are looking for a site with no company, this may not be it.


sand, sunlight, and sandstone on cat island apostle islands national lakeshore, lake superior wisconsin


Dappled sunlight gently sprinkles through the forest canopy above and onto the sandy bottom below, lighting it as if from a beacon - Cat Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

PURCHASE THIS PRINT


Cat Island - I'm conflicted about the campsite on Cat Island, because while Cat is one of my all-time favorite islands, the campsite itself is located well back in the forest; far enough to be removed from all the things that make Cat Island amazing - namely, the sand spit, beach, and water. For those reasons, I've never stayed IN the campsite - I've boat camped while anchored up on the lee side of the sandspit many times, and boat camped along the beach on the NE coastline (Zone Camping) and can't say enough good things about both places.

The north end of the island has an amazing series of rugged sea caves that are worth exploring if you have the chance. It probably goes without saying, but I strongly recommend paddling those caves for the best experience.

Ironwood Island - Everything that Cat Island gets wrong, Ironwood right next door does right. The campsite here is breathtaking. Located right at the edge of the sand, you'll wake to views of water, islands, and perhaps a fishing tug out plying their nets in the early morning light. The sand spit itself is perfection defined.

There are a few small sea caves and sandstone coves up around the north end of the island that may be worth the effort to explore via kayak. If you are lucky and time it right, there's a small waterfall up there that spills into the Lake during periods of heavy rain or spring melt.

If you hadn't guessed, I highly recommend Ironwood.

Rocky Island - I'll be honest - Rocky is just not my scene. The beach and campsites are incredible, don't get me wrong - and the hiking trail is top-notch, but part of the island has private cabins that are grandfathered in and not included in the National Lakeshore, and the NPS dock there is notorious for attracting the "party crowd" of boaters. Noise and people are the two things I'm trying to get away from when I'm in the Apostles, so..

If none of that bothers you, then by all means have at it. It's just not for me.


sunrise and fog on the michigan island bog in the apostle islands national lakeshore on lake superior wisconsin


Wisps of fog twirl and spin across the morning waters of the Michigan Island bog

PURCHASE THIS PRINT


Michigan Island - You won't fight crowds on Michigan Island, with only a single campsite that's located far enough away from the NPS dock that overnighting boaters won't disturb your peace and quiet. Wander the endless sandspit and check out the bog around the corner on the north coast, where I've seen nesting loons, nesting eagles, and a crazy variety of wildlife.

And with not one, but two historic lighthouses (NPS tours available) and the light keepers quarters to explore, there's plenty to do.

Devil's Island - Overnighting at the Devil's Island campsite is worthy of bucket-list status, but the unfortunate reality today (June, 2023) is the campsite is closed and has been for several years in the wake of severe storms that damaged the NPS dock, bunks, and historic boathouse. The campsite itself has trees down in and around it.

Hopefully, funding will soon be secured for the Park Service to repair and reopen the campsite and dock on Devil's.

Bear Island - With only primitive (Zone) camping allowed on Bear Island, it's an afterthought for many people, but that is a mistake in my view. There's one gorgeously perfect little beach on the NE side, facing Devil's Island. If you can manage to get there on a day when the wind is right (i.e. not NE), it's a one-of-a-kind experience with solitude in abundance.

The sandspit on the south tip of the island has private cabins, and no primitive camping is allowed there.

If it all falls into place and you get to camp on Bear, make the effort to paddle around to the north end of the island for sunset, where you'll find a better than average collection of sea caves to explore. In fact, one of my favorite sea caves in the entire archipelago is found there - a unique structure that was created when the roof of the cave fell in, turning it into an open ceiling amphitheater. Super!

North Twin - If memory serves me, North Twin is the only island I've never overnighted on. There's absolutely positively no safe place to anchor or tie up a boat there. With only primitive camping available and realistically one spot on the NW side to pitch a tent, I've left North Twin off my list and simply accepted I'll probably never camp there.

Of course, if you paddle to North Twin or take a water taxi, it's fair game.


AND THAT'S A WRAP

Hopefully if you've read this far you've picked out something useful.

Enjoy your trip to the Apostles!


Questions about any and all things Apostle Islands? DM me on Instagram.


TAKE A PIECE OF THE APOSTLES HOME WITH YOU

Posted in How-To, Scenic.