Wisconsin’s Madeline and Apostle Islands on Lake Superior offer just about everything but palm trees.
Flyover states seem to only be invoked when they’re the butt of a late-night talk show joke or when politicians want to make a point. However, the perks of being ignored and misunderstood include nature at its finest, largely untouched by corporate development in the race to make a buck. So goes Madeline Island, the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands in Lake Superior and the sacred spiritual center of the Chippewa tribe. As the only island where (minimal, “mom and pop”) development has been allowed to occur, Madeline Island is the perfect base to explore the Apostle Island National Lakeshore. Explore, via kayak, ancient sea caves and historic lighthouses (the Apostle Islands boasts the largest collection in the country), test your fearlessness by cliff jumping off the towering outcrops, sample the island’s growing offering of farm-to-table restaurants, or simply commune with nature and the spirits of a people that first pulled their birch bark canoes onto this land so many centuries years ago.
The “Big Island” of Wisconsin
Originally named Moningwunakauning, which loosely translates as “Home of the yellow-breasted woodpecker,” Madeline Island was home to the Ojibwe people for hundreds of years before being settled by French fur traders in the late 1600s. Surrounded by the crystal clear, sparkling waters of Lake Superior, Madeline Island feels worlds away from just about every Midwest stereotype out there. Quaint yet progressive, the island’s sweet, small-town charm is balanced by a creative, free-spirited joie de vivre.
Jump off a Cliff
If your friend jumped off a cliff would you? If you’re on Madeline Island the answer should be a resounding YES! Follow the sound of adrenaline-fueled pounding heartbeats to Big Bay State Park and take the leap.
Grab a Paddle
The best way to explore the sea caves of the Apostle Islands hands (or paddles) down is by kayak. Once on Madeline, ditch the grumbling ferry monster and embrace this silent sport. Lost Creek Adventures will not only rent you a kayak or paddleboard, they’ll also outfit you with wetsuits and camping equipment if needed. Not quite ready to set off on the open water alone? Guided tours, kayak, paddleboard, First Aid, and survival skill classes are offered throughout the summer.
To the Lighthouse
Weave through the 22 Apostle Islands on a scavenger hunt of the largest collections of lighthouses in the country. Mostly built in the 1800s and early 1900s, six of the eight occupy a proud spot of the National Register of Historic Places. Built out of wood, brick, and quarried stone, each displays a unique aesthetic and a compelling history detailing the “keepers of the light” of centuries past. Kayaking not your style? Take a cruise! Apostle Islands Cruises sells snacks and non-alcoholic drinks on board and carry-on alcohol is permitted.
Commune With Spirits
Madeline Island, or Mooningwanekaaning (as it’s known to the Ojibwe people), was the manifestation of a prophecy which told of a homeland where food grows on water. When they found the manoomin, or “wild rice,” abundantly growing on the water, they stayed. In addition to a rich Native American history, fur trading, logging, and boating industries all played a part on the island. Shipwrecks, ghost stories, and oral histories abound. Check out the Madeline Island Museum to learn more.
Befriend the Devil
Named “Evil Spirit Island” by the Ojibwa, Devil’s Island is home to dramatic sea caves that produce rumbles from the spirit world. Formed out of billion-year-old sandstone that deepens from golden to mahogany hues with each layer, the sea caves are best explored by kayak. Once on land, check out the lighthouse, built in 1894, complete with the original keepers’ living quarters, or hike the island’s footpaths to the 1901 sandstone storage house at the southeast end of the island.
Grin and Bear It
Stockton Island has one of the highest bear populations in North America. According to the National Park Service, the population grew from two bears in 1984 to an island-high 31 non-cub bears in 1994. That’s a lot for an island that’s three quarters the size of Manhattan. Since then, the population has self-regulated with some bears swimming to nearby islands and others having fewer cubs. But odds of seeing a bear remain higher than on the other islands, so use caution and, if staying at one of the islands 21 campsites, make sure to keep food in the bear-proof containers provided.
Explore the ruins of the Lullabye Furniture logging camp on Outer Island, the farthest from the mainland of all the Apostle Islands. Purchasing the island in 1936, Lullaby began using a WWII landing craft to haul logs from the island a few years later. When they closed up shop, Lullaby took the boat but left behind plenty else, including logging trucks, dilapidated buildings, an airplane hangar, and remnants of a railroad tram system.
Farm-to-table on the island is exemplified by Farmhouse Madeline Island. A rustic yet elegant space (think sturdy wooden tables and specials scrawled in chalk), Farmhouse serves up welcome oddball dishes such as turkey and kimchi sandwiches and duckfat chocolate chip cookies. For more traditional fare, head to The Pub Restaurant and Wine Bar and grab a table on their lakeside patio when the weather’s cooperating or, on chilly nights, next to the roaring fireplace.
Hit the Beach
Surf, sand, and hold the salt. Aside from coconuts, the Apostle Island’s got about as much as you could want in a beach, and bonus points for no sharks! On Madeline, check out Big Bay Town Park for plenty of sand and shallow, easy swimming. On Basswood Island, if you’re an adept climber you can claim your very own sea stack (a tiny, stacked rock island). And for some of the best sandy beaches around, head over to Julian Bay on Stockton Island; home to the “singing sand,” the ground whistles when wind or footsteps pass over it.
Embrace Your Inner Land Lover
With over 2,600 acres of forest, wetlands, and trails, The Madeline Island Wilderness Preserve has set out to protect and preserve the natural areas on Madeline Island that sometimes get overlooked in favor of the lake. Hiking, berry-picking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and hunting are all open to the public on these lands. They also offer summer educational programs at the Madeline Island Museum on Wednesdays throughout the summer. Guided hikes and birding expeditions are also available.
Enjoy an Open Air Buzz
If it’s not the coolest bar you’ve ever been to, chances are Tom’s Burned Down Café has the best origin story. As the legend goes, shortly before Tom was to open his café, the darn thing burned to the ground. But when the beer delivery showed up, he decided to open anyway and the place is all the better for it. Draped in tents and tarps and covered in hundreds of signs that say things like, “Sorry We’re Open” and “Last One Out Turn Off Tom,” the vibe is a delightful mix of anarchy and open arms. Come for a beer, stay for the show.
There’s nothing quite like riding a horse on an island—it feels incongruous and completely natural at the same time. To embrace your inner cowboy/cowgirl, head to Hippophile Farm. They offer lessons to all ages, jumping clinics and trail rides in an idyllic setting.
Hitch a Ride on a Wind Sled
Half of the fun of going to an island is actually getting to the island. Ferries are great and all, but have you ever hitched a ride on a wind sled? Operational in between seasons when the lake has frozen just enough to shut down the ferries but not enough to open the ice road (yes, that’s right, you can drive to the island a few months out of the year), the Madeline Island Windsled propels supplies and people across via giant fans on the back of an enclosed boat-like vehicle. It’s loud, but then again, if you’re heading to the island this time of year, chances are your ears will be covered.