All About the Apostle Islands


map of the apostle islands wisconsin
Apostle Islands Map


Comprising 21 ruggedly alluring islands and 12 miles of mainland coastline in northern Wisconsin near the Bayfield peninsula, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior represents one of the few remaining truly wild places in the entire Midwest. From wave etched sandstone sea caves, miles of pristine sandy beaches, historic lighthouses, and the endless blue of Lake Superior all against a backdrop of the darkest night skies you'll ever see, this is a wilderness that begs to be explored.

Visitors to the Apostles can expect to find diverse flora and fauna, with old growth forests on several islands, an abundance of wildlife, and over 240 species of birds. Imagine paddling the labyrinth of sea caves on crystal clear water while gazing in awe at the underwater formations or hiking a trail across a deserted island to discover what lies at the other end. Abandoned brownstone quarries, old logging camps, cliff-top overlooks, and more all await the adventurous explorer.

sunrise from inside a sea cave on oak island in the apostle islands

Sunrise from inside a sandstone sea cave on Oak Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, thousands of years in the making.


While the Apostles didn't get their official National Lakeshore designation until 1970, they were recognized as a recreational mecca long before then. Of course, no discussion of the history of these islands is complete without mentioning the fact the Ojibwe lived on and around the islands for hundreds and hundreds of years prior to the arrival of early French traders in the 1600s.

With a primary settlement on Madeline Island, which many Ojibwe still consider their ancestral home, Lake Superior and the Apostles provided a life of sustenance. Fish, abundant wild game, and wild rice were staples.

The arrival of the French in the 1600s brought the fur trade front and center as demand for beaver pelts surged in Europe. Natives and voyageurs alike traveled the historical canoe routes aptly named "the voyageurs highway". As the fur trade eventually began to decline, logging, brownstone quarrying and commercial fishing filled the void.

The sounds of saws and quarry have long since faded into distant memory, but commercial fishing continues today. Albeit, on a much smaller scale and under tightly regulated rules and harvest quotas. In a brilliant move, the NPS has preserved the historic Fish Camp on Manitou Island, which provides a glimpse back in time. Shacks, outbuildings, net reels, and other implements of the day remain much as they were in the early 1900's. During the summer months, an interpreter is present at the Fish Camp to give tours and answer questions.

A surge in commercial shipping traffic on Lake Superior eventually led to the construction of lighthouses on several of the Apostle Islands. Built to guide ships safely around and through the islands, the first began operation on Michigan Island in 1857. Lighthouses on Outer, Devil's, Sand, Raspberry and Long Island soon followed. In the early years, lighthouse keepers were required at each station to keep the lights and fog signals operating. By 1978, the lighthouses in the Apostles had all been automated.

Today, tourism and recreation are the major drivers of the economy in the Apostle Islands region. Boating, recreational fishing, and camping are but a few of the popular activities.

devil's island lighthouse with ice in the apostle islands national lakeshore on lake superior wisconsin.

The Devil's Island lighthouse, braced for another brutal winter season in the Apostles as the first ice begins to take hold. Lake Superior brings a fury and wrath to these islands in the winter season that must be seen to be appreciated.


Located at the far northern tip of Wisconsin along the Bayfield Peninsula, the Apostle Islands are about a four hour drive from Minneapolis, and nearly six hours from Milwaukee. Many visitors stay in Bayfield, a quaint and picturesque little town that is often referred to as the gateway to the Apostles. From Bayfield you'll have easy access to the Madeline Island ferry, and several other points of interest nearby.


  • Take your own boat or kayak - If you are an experienced big water boater / paddler and have the requisite experience and safety gear, taking your own vessel gives you the freedom to explore places a tour boat or an organized paddling expedition won't get you to. It is imperative you check weather conditions before heading out - Lake Superior is notorious for violent, rapidly changing weather.
  • Charter a water taxi - Safer, less stressful, but no less fun - charter a water taxi or private tour with one of the many commercial services offering transport and tours in the Apostles. You can arrange a day trip full of sightseeing and adventuring, or get dropped off on an island to camp overnight.
  • Book a kayak trip - There are several outfitters that offer trips to the mainland sea caves, as well as overnight and day trips to islands within the inner ring. Generally, everything you need will be provided by the outfitter, including safety training.
  • Take the tour boat - Departing several times daily from the Bayfield dock, the tour boat will take you on a narrated tour through the Apostles, stopping at various points of interest.

Don't forget to stop at the NPS Bayfield Visitor Center, built from brownstone quarried in the Apostles, for orientation and other educational information.


For concise and detailed planning info for your next Apostle Islands vacation, see this article.

a lone tree hanging over the water at sunset on hermit island in the apostle islands