Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a 69,372-acre property spread across 21 islands off the coast of Wisconsin in Lake Superior. Included in the National Lakeshore is a 12-mile strip of coastline on the mainland. This is a pristine area known for its collection of historic lighthouses (8 lighthouses on 6 islands), natural habitats, old growth remnant forests and sandstone sea caves.

The Apostle Islands are a result of the extensive glaciation in the area from about 110,000 years ago up until the glaciers finally retreated northward about 10,000 years ago. Geologically, the islands were originally part of the mainland but water erosion generated by Ancient Lake Duluth (during the days of heavy glacial meltwater flow) and modern Lake Superior has caused the islands to become separate entities. The subsurface of the islands is basically pre-Cambrian red sandstone exposed by the glaciers after they scraped off all the surface soil in their push southward.

Over the years since the Euro-Americans first arrived in the area, a significant number of people have settled on the islands and tried to make a living there: farming, fishing or mining (quarrying the red sandstone). In hiking around on the larger islands, it's easy to find the remains of old farmhouses, quarries and even a one-room schoolhouse on Sand Island. The underwater landscape of the area is also littered with the remains of many a shipwreck as the islands have always been a hazard to navigation in this area of Lake Superior - the primary reason for the concentration of lighthouses on the islands.

This area straddles the boundary between the northern boreal forest and the hemlock-white-pine-northern hardwood forest with elements of each present on most islands. Today, most of the National Lakeshore is treed in an unbroken, mature second-growth forest, the only old-growth forest being in those areas set aside by the U.S. Lighthouse Service years ago and never logged. Islands that don't have a history of deer presence have a dense undergrowth of Canada yew. Islands with populations of deer have seen that yew browsed almost to extinction. Deer numbers peaked in the early 1950's but those numbers were severely reduced by the 1960's by very liberal hunting quotas.

A trail on Raspberry island

In 2004, Congress passed a law designating about 80% of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness (in honor of the former Wisconsin governor, US Senator and founder of Earth Day). That Wilderness designation covers most of the islands (not Long, Sand or Basswood Islands) but doesn't include the lighthouse and mainland areas and does include a one-quarter-mile perimeter around each included island. Since that designation, most folks get around the islands via kayak, either personally owned or rented in a local shop. The islands also offer scuba divers a great chance to see underwater rock formations and old shipwrecks. Diving within one-quarter mile of any of the islands requires the diver(s) first obtain a free diving pass from the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitor Center in Bayfield. There are developed camping areas on several islands but everything is primitive: no electric, no running water, no flush toilets or showers. Most camping areas offer only a tent pad or two and a fire ring.

The only island in the Apostle Islands Archipelago not included in the National Lakeshore is Madeline Island. Madeline Island is served by a ferry and is the only island in the area where cars can drive. The ferry runs generally from spring break-up through fall freeze-up. Also on Madeline Island is Big Bay State Park. Many people include the town of La Pointe on Madeline Island as part of their visit to the Apostle Islands area. Significant sections of the National Lakeshore property have also been designated as Maritime Forest, Sandscape and Maritime Cliff State Natural Areas by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The Bayfield Visitor Center is located in the former Washington County Courthouse and is generally open from late April through late October. When open, the hours are from 9 am to 5 pm daily. The Visitor Center offers audiovisual programs and exhibits about the area's natural and human history and about the recreational opportunities available in the area.

The Little Sand Bay Visitor Center (about 12 miles north of Bayfield along the shore of the lake) is open from late June through Labor Day, 9 am to 5 pm. From Labor Day to the end of September the Visitor Center is open Friday through Sunday, 9 am to 5 pm.

There are no entry fees involved at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore but there is an extensive list of usage fees covering everything from camping to docking fees to parking fees to hunter access fees. Volunteer-led interpretive tours to various sites in the area are also available for varying fees.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitor Center
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitor Center in Bayfield
Large photos courtesy of Bobak Ha'Eri, CCA-by-SA 3.0 License
Upper left photo is in the public domain