Kayak Camping in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin

kayakers in apostle islands national lakeshore

by Sharon Brodin

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a world-class sea kayaking destination on the world’s largest freshwater lake—Lake Superior. Kayak camping here is spectacular.

I’ve lived three-and-a-half hours away from the Apostles since 1978, and visited for the first time just two years ago. Ever since seeing it, I’ve wanted to kayak it! A group of women friends and I made it happen last month.

We hired an outfitter for a 4 day/3 night trip that took us to five of the 21 islands, camping on two of them. It was amazing to be on the water on my favorite lake in the world…finally!

What is Apostle Islands National Lakeshore?

The Apostle Islands made worldwide news in 2015 when Lake Superior froze over for a few weeks and people could visit the ice caves on foot. they came from all over the world to experience it. Since then, more and more folks have come during the non-freezing months, too, to see the sea caves and kayak this gorgeous lake. (source: our guide, LeaAnn)

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a 12-mile section of shoreline on the mainland of Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula and includes 21 of the 22 islands offshore. It was designated a national lakeshore in 1970:

apostle islands nat'l lakeshore map

It’s known for the sea caves along the mainland and on parts of the shorelines of two of the islands. While some of the caves can be viewed while hiking, the very best views are, of course, from the water.

The colors are brilliant—red sandstone cliff walls and caves next to the green waters of the lake make it a visual feast!

The Apostles have a rich historical heritage from Native American to agricultural to fishing to shipping. Several of the islands have historic lighthouses.

Should You Go Through an Outfitter or Not?

Lake Superior is BIG and COLD. The average water temp is just 40º F (4.4º C). Even when it can “warm” into the 60s during the hottest summer months, it provides prime hypothermia conditions for the unprepared.

In addition, this lake can throw up large waves and the weather can change rapidly. What can start as calm and sunny can quickly turn into whitecaps and strong winds. We have friends with a cabin near the Apostles. They’ve seen it go from dead calm to 3-foot waves in a matter of 20 minutes.

calm lake superiorA calm Lake Superior (photo courtesy of Emilie O’Connor)

So, should you go with an outfitter?

If you’re an experienced sea kayaker, have paddled big water and have all your own gear (including a wetsuit and sea kayak, not a recreational kayak) you can definitely kayak camp the Apostles, with a map, on your own. You already know to respect the lake and the conditions, and what your capabilities are.

If not, go with one of the local outfitters. There are three of them on the Peninsula that offer multi-day trips (see The Great Lakes: Where to Sea Kayak on Lake Superior and scroll down to Wisconsin Outfitters)

Here’s why an outfitter is wonderful, though, even if you have your own gear and are an experienced sea kayaker:

  • You’ll get a guide or two with Lake Superior sea kayaking experience
  • They know the Islands well, including all the coolest places and sites to see
  • They know the campsites and take care of reservations
  • They take care of the food and cooking/kitchen gear

We chose to go with Whitecap Kayak, based in Washburn, Wisconsin, and were extremely happy with our choice. Co-owner LeaAnn was our main guide, and she was a delight to be with. Her junior guide (their business mentors local young people in leadership through kayak guiding) was also a delight. The food was superb, our route was fantastic, and we all had a lot of fun together.

kayakers apostle islands nat'l lakeshore oak islandOur kayak group, ready to leave Oak Island (photo courtesy of LeaAnn Schroeter)

Camping in the Apostle Islands

There are several camping options in the Apostles. None of them can be accessed by car, even the one on the mainland, and they all require prior reservation.

There are single campsites for groups of up to 7 people, and group campsites for groups of 8 to 21. There are also some zones that allow backcountry camping rather than on specific sites.

You can find all the details about camping in the Apostles on this page.

All of the islands are forested, some still with old-growth forest. That means there’s plenty of shade at the campsites, and plenty of places to hang your hammock, if that’s your thing.

Wildlife is quite abundant, including black bears. In fact, our guide told us (as we were paddling back to the mainland at the end of our trip) that Oak Island, where we spent two nights, has the highest concentration of black bears in the country!

We were glad to know that after we had camped there. It wouldn’t stop me from camping there again, though. There are bear boxes at every site (big iron bear-proof boxes to keep all your food and cooking gear), and we didn’t see any sign of them in our two days there.

tents overlooking lake superior on oak islandYou can’t beat the Lake Superior view on this Oak Island campsite

We had groups sites all three nights. They were very comfortable, not just because of the bear boxes, but because they had two picnic tables and a fire ring. They were both right above the shore with amazing lake views. It’s not often you get to camp right on Lake Superior without a hundred or two other people around you!

Our Apostle Islands Route and Why We Loved It

In our four days, LeaAnn and Blessing (our lovely junior guide) took us to several very cool places:

DAY 1: SAND ISLAND—By the time we met at Little Sand Bay, got the intro to our kayaks, packed out gear and picked our paddle partners (we were in tandem kayaks), we were on the water about 11:30. LeaAnn gave us a couple lessons in kayak strokes, which she did every day, and we were off across the 3.5-mile channel to Sand Island.

(Every morning we were blessed with a calm, glassy lake. Then the winds would pick up in the afternoon for a little variety. We never faced waves bigger than two feet, which was a relief for me—I’m a little wimpy that way!)

We reached our campsite on Sand, set up camp and had lunch. In the afternoon we kayaked along the east shore along and among the sea caves. This was definitely a highlight of the trip for us. There’s nothing quite like it!

kayaking sea caves on sand island, apostle islandsKayaking through the sea caves on Sand Island was amazing!

At the north tip of the island is a brownstone lighthouse and a wonderful spot to jump in the lake if you don’t mind the cold water! We didn’t because we had wetsuits on, so we enjoyed a refreshing dip. Then the two miles back to our campsite for the night.

swimming in lake superior, sand island, apostle islandsA quick jump in the lake was refreshing

DAY 2: JOURNEY TO OAK ISLAND—We broke camp, breakfasted and hit the water by 9:00ish. Again, we had a glassy lake to kayak across to our first stop, York Island. There’s a small hidden war memorial there if you can find the trail off the beach.

From York we headed to Raspberry Island, our lunch stop. We grabbed our cooler and hiked the 3/4-mile trail through the woods to Raspberry Lighthouse and its picnic area. We got the guided tour through the lighthouse, another highlight. (This man obviously loves what he does!)

Then we hit the water again for our campsite on Oak Island, where we would stay for two nights. We covered about nine miles on the water that day.

The group campsite LeaAnn got for us on Oak was one of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever stayed on. It was a bit of a hike up to it from where we pulled up our kayaks, but well worth the effort.

sand island, apostle islandsA stopover on the north tip of Sand Island

DAY 3: WE CIRCUMNAVIGATE HERMIT ISLAND—We weren’t in a hurry on our third morning other than to be on the water and back at camp again before the winds picked up too much. We decided to head over to nearby Hermit Island (a couple miles across a channel) to see what we could see.

There are no campsites on Hermit, but a fun backstory and some dramatic shoreline. We enjoyed a leisurely trip around the island, stopping for a snack at one point. A couple of our group members wanted to learn how to climb back into a kayak from the water, so that was entertaining!

kayak rescue skills, apostle islandsPracticing rescue skills: climbing back in the kayak

We were back to our campsite on Oak by mid-afternoon and relaxed in various ways. There are several hiking trails on Oak, but the trailhead on our end was closed due to downed trees from a late-season storm last year.

DAY 4: BACK TO LITTLE SAND BAY—We had light rain on our paddle back to Little Sand Bay, the only rain of our trip. It was calm, though, and it was nice to have the variety after a couple days of hot, direct sun.

We crossed the channel to the mainland and kayaked along the shoreline, which is almost all forested in that section. While there are no sea caves in that stretch, it’s still very beautiful with dramatic cliffs and that beautiful green, deep water right along the shore.  

We reached the marina by mid-day, helped clean up and load all the gear, had one more delicious lunch together (supplied by the Whitecap Kayak folks) and that was the end of our trip.

kayaking hermit island, apostle islandsExploring the shoreline of Hermit Island

I’m pretty sure we’d all be ready to go back at the drop of a hat!

(All photos courtesy of Sharon Brodin except where indicated otherwise)

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