Adventure Guide: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

A ghost town in the off season, tropical hotspot in the summer, Sleeping Bear is mostly just home to me in all seasons. I ran down the dunes with my sister as a kid, and swam in the Platte River, and then out into the Lake. I have been there so many times I’ve lost count, and some of my favorite memories and places are in this park, and I hope I can help you find some favorite places too!

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Sunset at Overlook Nine

Weekend at the Dunes

Adventure:

  • Empire Bluffs Trail: Around 2 miles round trip, this trail takes you to the top of Empire Bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Located near the town of Empire, MI. This is my favorite hike in the park. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**
  • Pierce Stocking Scenic DriveIn the summer and early fall you can experience the Lakeshore by car as well as foot!
  • Hit the beach: Sleeping Bear is recognized for some of the world’s best beaches! With white sand and clear water, you couldn’t ask for more. Start at North Bar Lake, where younger kids can stay in the warmer water of North Bar, and move out to the big lake when ready. Empire Beach, Sleeping Bear Point, and the Platte River all offer great alternates. Rip currents area the real deal on the big lakes, so keep an eye out on windy days.
  • Hike the Dune Climb: The Dune Climb is a four mile round trip hike over hot dunes to Lake Michigan, where you can take a dip and hike back. Bring water, and shoes—it gets a little rocky as you get closer to the beach. You’re hiking through sand, up and down over dunes, which is very different than hiking over solid ground. It’s easy to get lost and it’s a harder workout than you might expect.
  • Sunset at Overlook Nine: Hike a short quarter mile from the overlook nine parking lot along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to a bluff 400 feet above Lake Michigan and the Manitou Passage. Learn about the Legend of Sleeping Bear and watch the sunk sink over the horizon line. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**

 Eat:

Stay:

  • Frankfort is a good place to base camp. Near both Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake, there are hotels, inns, and rental options.
  • Daisy Farm Campground is open April through November, near the Dune Climb and scenic drive.
  • Platte River Campground is open year round, with both RV and tent sites. Backpacking site also available.
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Late Fall at North Bar Lake overlook

Three to Four Days on the Lake

 Adventure:

  • Surf Lake Michigan: Visit Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak to take a surf beginner surf lessons, or rent surf boards, paddle boards, or kayaks. A friend and I took a surf lesson there last August and it was a blast. The people are friendly, patient, and great teachers.
  • Hike Alligator Hill: Intermediate. As many as nine miles of trails are available, but I like to head out to the Island and Big Glenn lookouts, about four miles round trip.
  • Hike Pyramid Point: Beginner. About a three-mile loop in total, but the overlook of Lake Michigan is only a little over a half mile from the trailhead. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**
  • Visit Fishtown: North of the Sleeping Bear region is Historic Fishtown, where you can shop in small shanties, get the best smoked fish south of the bridge, and appreciate Northern Michigan’s maritime history. The ferry to North and South Manitou Islands leaves from Leland!
  • Star Gaze at the Dunes: Attend one of the National Lakeshore’s night sky programs to learn about the stars and see the milky way in the summer!

Eat:

Stay:

  • Leelaunau State Park Campground is a bit of a drive from the Sleeping Bear Region, but is less crowded in the peak summer months. Campsites are close to Lake Michigan, and the park is near Northport.
  • Traverse City also a drive from Sleeping Bear, but gives you access to the Grand Traverse Bay and the shopping/food scene of a bigger town.
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Empire Bluffs Trail

Week in the Lakeshore:

 Adventure:

  • Backpack the Manitous: Intermediate. North and South Manitou both offer backpacking loops, lighthouses, ghost towns, and wilderness.
  • Kayak/Tube the Platte River: Beginner. On a sunny day, rent a tube and tube down the crystal clear and sandy Platte into Lake Michigan.
  • Hike Clay Cliffs Natural Area: A lesser known loop with a Lake Michigan overlook and June wildflowers, this 1.5 mile trail is a great way to escape the crowds of the National Park.
  • Bike the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail: Intermediate. While only sections of the trail are complete currently, the Heritage Trail allows bikers to access various attractions in the Sleeping Bear area without a car.
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Snow in the Lakeshore

Winter:

Winter sees a drop off in visitors to the Lakeshore as people either flee South or hibernate. What that really means is more Lakeshore for you!

  • Snowshoe the Scenic Drive: The whole scenic drive is about 12 miles, but it’s about a four-mile snowshoe out to Overlook Nine. Dress warm, and wear wool not cotton. Cotton doesn’t stay warn when wet.
  • Sled the dunes: Permitted at the Dune Climb when snow covered. It’s a long hike up, but a super fun ride down!
  • Snowshoe Empire Bluffs Trail
  • Cross Country Ski Alligator Hill
  • Freeze to Death: The best winter activity in the National Lake shore is probably to get frostbite or hypothermia. #PureMichigan
  • Platte River Campground is open year round, with both RV and tent sites. Backpacking site also available.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions based on my experiences in the area.

**Dune erosion: every time a person decides to walk down the dunes they take sand down to the waterline with them. In the summer, several hundred people do this a day. The result is the dunes get worn down, dune grass can’t grow to stabilize the sand, and wildflowers won’t take hold. It hurts the ecosystem you are there to appreciate.

***I don’t recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide on the Great Lakes. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Lake Michigan. There are absolutely some days when you can get away with it, especially in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it is safe always. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

No Rating: Assumes no level of physical ability.

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?

 

How to Talk to Your Family About Prejudice this Thanksgiving: A Guide to Difficult Conversations

Family members don’t agree on everything, and it’s easy to get into heated arguments. It’s no secret that arguments, yelling, and excommunication aren’t the best way to have an open dialogue.

I worked for several years as a science ethics teaching assistant and writing tutor, it was part of my job to point out micro aggressions in way that didn’t make people defensive. I know firsthand that this isn’t easy, and I wasn’t always successful. After many of my own heated discussions about politics and human rights issues, and some extensive reading and research*, I’ve compiled a list of more productive ways to have these conversations than blocking Aunt Gurdy on Facebook.

Why Bother?

It’s a lot easier to opt out of conversations about race, gender, and your family’s bigotry than it is to engage. You are one of the only people good old racist (voting) Uncle Earl might listen to. You are family. Maybe you won’t change any minds, but it’s worth a try. Name calling, interrupting, and food throwing won’t work. Being kind and understanding might.

Realistically, you might not make great grandma Helen not racist. But you might make her think a little, and your little sister, or cousin might hear you. You might make your liberal aunt consider the dangers of white feminism, or you might help your brother understand why some mascots are racist (autobiographical).

I’ve been lucky enough to have a very understanding and open-minded family, who make these conversations easy. In my own life, most of the difficult conversations happen with acquaintances, coworkers, and friends and they aren’t always successful (read: rarely). But it’s still important to speak to the best of your ability on the behalf of people who don’t have access to that audience.

On that note, here are a few things to keep in mind when having these conversations:

Respect

It can be tempting to yell, be rude, or sling names, but ultimately that’s an ineffective conversation tool. You might say “but Maddy, I don’t want to dignify racism with conversation and respect!” and that’s totally valid. But you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind by sinking to the level of name calling, and it’s important to remember that we all have held and hold problematic views. In high school, I used to think that Affirmative Action was unnecessary, and that it was possible to be racist against white people, and I would probably still think that today if someone hadn’t taken the time to sit down with me and challenge that without calling me stupid, or a dumb kid, or racist. I needed that person. Be that person.

People are never going to feel comfortable engaging you in conversation if you jump to calling them a racist. For me, someone giving me a chance to ask questions without judgement for my ignorance was huge.

(Quick note: This does not apply to people on issues that affect them personally. If an issue that threatens your own human rights no one expects you to hand hold.)

Patience

You’re not going to change anyone’s mind with one conversation. You probably won’t change it at all, especially if someone doesn’t want to change their mind. What you might do, if you are respectful, and patient, and open, is open a door for a dialogue about difficult questions so good old Aunt Alice feels safe asking you “what is a bisexual” or “is Nancy Pelosi satan” or “will you explain why you’re so mad about this Brett Kavanaugh thing?”. You’re only going to get the opportunity to answer these questions if you’re patient and kind. Is it fair? Maybe not. But it’s effective.

Here is a sample conversation for thought:

Mascots:

Bad:

 Uncle Earl: I just don’t understand why people get so upset about the Redskins Mascot. It’s just football. People shouldn’t take sports so seriously.

 You: Funny cause that’s not what you thought when you CRIED because the Packers lost to the Lions. Also. That’s racist. You’re a racist. [Throws mashed potatoes].

 Better:

 Uncle Earl: I just don’t understand why people get so upset about the Redskins Mascot. It’s just football. People shouldn’t take sports so seriously.

 You: Hmm. I hear what you’re saying, but don’t you find it a little terrible that most other mascots are animals, and this one is a caricature of a group of people?

 Uncle Earl: Doesn’t bother me.

 You: But it bothers an entire group of people. Do you think that they’re making up that they’re affected by that symbol?

 Uncle Earl: I think people are too sensitive these days.

 You: That’s an interesting thought, and I understand why you might feel that way. But remember when Grandma Pam told you look old, and then told you she meant it as a compliment?

 Uncle Earl: Yes.

 You: Didn’t that make you feel bad, even though she didn’t mean it to?

 Uncle Earl: Yes.

 You: It’s sort of the same thing with the mascots. It doesn’t matter if you don’t find it offensive or hurtful—someone else, a whole group of people—is telling you that it is.

Listen

Actually allow Great Aunt Gurdy to speak. Aunt Gurdy isn’t going to want to listen to you if you don’t listen to her. Let her finish her horrible, biased thought, and thenreply calmly. Say things like “I hear you,” and “I see where you’re coming from,” rather than “burn in Hell,” and “I hope the president takes your rights away”.

Colin Kaepernick:

Bad:

Aunt Ethel: That man has no respect for the flag.

You: Oh yeah? I have a thong with the American flag on it, how does that make you feel about respecting the flag?

 Better:

 Aunt Ethel: That man has no respect for the flag.

You: How so? Isn’t it peaceful protest?

Aunt Ethel: [Says something about the troops, probably. Long winded.]

You: I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think Kaepernick has ever disrespected the troops or said that he meant to.

Aunt Ethel: Doesn’t matter. The troops are disrespected.

You: I hear what you’re saying. But the troops fight to protect human rights, like those in the Bill of Rights. Including freedom of speech and right to peaceful protest. I don’t think there is anything more American than protecting freedom of speech, which Kaepernick is exercising.

Ask Questions

The more you ask, the more Uncle Earl will feel that you care about his perspective, and maybe he’ll care about yours too. Questions are also the easiest way to get people to see problems in their own thinking. If someone reaches a new conclusion on their own, it’s a lot easier to accept than if you tell them what they should think.

Affirmative Action

Bad:

Aunt Jackie: I just feel like affirmative action is racist against white people.

You: Well that’s racist as all hell.

Aunt Jackie: What? Now I can’t have an opinion?

You: You can’t have that one in front of me you lazy piece of lard. Why don’t you go back to your farm in Hicksville, USA and snuggle up to your MAGA hat and never speak to me again?!

Better:

Aunt Jackie: I just feel like affirmative action is racist against white people.

[Now there’s a lot to unpack there, and you can only fight one battle at a time.]

You: That’s an interesting perspective Aunt Jackie. Help me understand your thinking?

Aunt Jackie: Why should black kids get a free pass into school just because they’re black? Meanwhile, white girls like you are working hard every day and get disadvantaged.

You: Hmm, I hear you, but I don’t feel disadvantaged. I think a lot of black people feel racism every day and it affects every aspect of their lives. I think colleges need to consider that in admissions. Doesn’t it concern you that people with advanced degrees aren’t representative of diversity within the population? Shouldn’t there be a representative number of people of color in colleges? If the population of an area is 40% people of color, shouldn’t the college also be 40% people of color?

[Aunt Jackie probably won’t let you talk that long, but let me dream.]

Aunt Jackie: No, it’s not my problem.

You: I just feel like everyone’s perspective is so unique and important that I want the voices of people who are different than me to have a say in science and politics too.

Maybe this won’t work and won’t be effective. But the less defensive you are, and more you remind Aunt Jackie that this is about people, real actual humans, not just the group she has lumped them into, the more luck you might have.

Remind them that this about human rights

Make it an issue about people. At the heart of all of these conversations is human rights. Remind your family that this is an issue about people’s voices being heard and respected equally. When your friend from high school says something homophobic, remind her that gay and trans people have human rights. They just do. It doesn’t matter that it makes her uncomfortable. Her opinion should not be so important that it threatens lives.


 

It’s okay if you don’t feel educated enough on issues of race to speak about them (I generally don’t), but don’t let the fear of making a mistake keep you from speaking.There are abundant resources on the interweb to educate on these issues.

UPDATE (11/19/18): Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, one of my favorite writers, wrote a similar article linked here that I also recommend you check out with answers and dialogue that is wayyyy more articulate than mine!

*Sources:

A lot of this content is inspired by personal experience, but I wasn’t born with decent opinions, and I probably still have some shitty ones. Here are some pieces and educators I have learned from:

People who are better spoken on these issues than I am:

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, When Feminism is White Supremacy in Heels

Bani Amor, Queering the Environmental Movement

Layla F. Saad, I need to talk to spiritual white women

Bani Amor, Ten Travel Books by People of Color

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, This Photo of Me at the Womens March Went Viral and Changed My Activism Forever

Cali (instagram: @caliwolf), Through Her Native Eyes (blog)

People who helped me write this:

Grandma Pam, who sat down with me to read this and asked me questions about things she didn’t understand (and let me make fun of her and use her name in writing)

Mom, always more patient with me than am with her, and for telling me I should share the techniques I use to talk about these sort of things

YOU**

 

**This is a conversation, and I am still learning. If you have advice, comments, questions, concerns, or would like me to make any changes to this article, please let me know! This isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of conversation, and these ideas are mostly just what has worked for me. There is a comment box on this page, and my Instagram dms are wide open! (If you dm me something really patronizing or a personal attack you will end up on my IG story.)

Adventure Guide to the Chain of Lakes: Michigan’s Best Kept Secret

In general, people head straight for Traverse City and the Sleeping Bear Dunes for those classic Northern Michigan vibes, but less than thirty minutes north lies the Chain of Lakes. This waterway and surrounding area offers varied playground, ranging from secluded rivers and sedge meadows in the north to the tropical-like waters of Torch Lake. From Bellaire to Elk Rapids, the Chain of Lakes is a quieter alternative to the metropolis of Traverse City.

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Sunset over Torch Lake from Alden

Alden

Hidden on the south side of Torch Lake, Alden is your perfect small lake town, with Higgins Store Ice Cream, public access to Torch Lake, and the little Alden light house. My favorite public access sites are down North Lake Street, where you can take a dip in Torch and walk as many as a hundred yards out into the lake. One of the access sites has a spit with a bench at its tip and is a prime stargazing and northern lights hunting spot.

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The Torch Lake sandbar

Torch River

The tiny town of Torch River is the closest public access site to the infamous Torch Lake sandbar. In the heat of summer, hundreds of motors boats collect in the turquoise water of Torch. At the Sandbar, water ranges from three feet deep to three inches.

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A windy day near Torch River

Nearby, the Torch Rivera offers a stellar array of food, including breakfast, and the Torch River itself acts as the connection between Torch Lake and Lake Skegemog.

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Lake Bellaire

Bellaire

On the shores of Lake Bellaire at the northern side of the Chain of Lakes is Short’s Brewery, a bucket list stop in Northern Michigan. My Short’s short-list includes the brews Soft Parade, Local Light, and Bellaire Brown. If wine is more your jam, visit Hello Vino across the street for stellar service, a beautiful selection of wine and cheese, and newly introduced cocktails. The local Beewell Meadery is another hot stop on your Bellaire booze cruise, with its inviting and bee-themed interior.

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Northern Michigan sunset over a small inland lake

Not into the alcohol scene? Worry not! Short’s has a phenomenal menu as well as beer selection, and occasionally live music. The nearby Market M-88 offers a nice breakfast venue/ bakery. Your fun doesn’t have to end with the snow—visit Shanty Creek Ski Resort in the winter.

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The Sedge Meadow Loop in the Grass River Natural Area

Grass River Natural Area

The Grass River connects Lake Bellaire to Clam Lake, and the Natural Area offers hiking in the summer and snowshoeing/cross-country skiing in the winter. Cold and clear streams wind through the area, and the preserve is even home to otters!

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The Grass River Natural Area

Glacial Hills Pathway

Just outside of Bellaire are the legendary mountain biking trails at the Glacial Hills Pathways. The trails offer both beginner and advanced routes, and are especially beautiful in the fall. Not into biking? That’s okay! Parts of the trails are open to hikers as well!

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Antrim County backroad

Elk Rapids

Nestled between Elk Lake and the Grand Traverse Bay, Elk Rapids is a spunky little town with both a shopping and outdoors scene. Take a walk to any of the few beaches in the area, or visit Siren Hall, the old fire station turned delicious, for dinner and drinks. Your go-to coffee shop is Java Jones, and just outside of town lies Pearls New Orleans Kitchen.

 

Where to next?

As always, all recommendations and opinions, especially the bad ones, are my own.

 

Adventure Guide: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Munising Area

So you want to take a trip to ‘dah UP eh? If you’re looking for beautiful colored sandstone cliffs, clear water, and waterfalls you’ve come to the right place!

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Munising Falls in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Weekend at the Cliffs

A weekend at the Pictured Rocks is an awesome way to get a feel for the region.

Adventure:

  • Hike to Spray Falls: IntermediateDepending on the route you take, the hike from the Little Beaver Creek trailhead to Spray Falls is between four and six miles round trip. There are plenty of swimming holes along the way if you’re willing to brave Lake Superior’s cold!
  • Take a Ferry Tour: Beginner. Taking a ferry tour lets you get up close and personal with much of the cliff line. If you’re torn between the tour of the traditional Pictured Rocks Cliffs and the Grand Island Cliffs, I have been told by locals that the Grand Island cliffs are much bigger and more dramatic. Since the cliffs face the west, picking an afternoon or evening tour will show the cliffs light up by that late day sun.
  • Hike to Miner’s Falls: Beginner. A one mile well maintained trail will take you out to Miner’s Falls, where you can appreciate a lovely waterfall from a nice viewing platform.

Eat:

  • Visit Pictured Rocks Pizza in Munising for a fun lake front snack
  • Head over to East Channel Brewing to sample the local beer
  • Stop by the Bear Trap Restaurant for that Northwoods diner feel

Stay:

  • Camp: A lot of the National Parks campsites will fill quickly and be crowded, so look instead at the State Forest Campgrounds in the area. My favorite is the North Gemini Lake campground. I’ve camped there multiple times and it’s always been clean and never crowded, with some of the most stunning stars I have seen.
  • Hotel: Munising’s Holiday Inn Express has the best view you’ll find in the area and excellent ratings.
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Pictured Rocks Cliffs from a sea kayak

Three to Four Days on the Lake

The perfect amount of time to really get into some adventuring and see the most of the area!

Adventure:

  • Hike the Chapel Basin Loop: Intermediate/ Advanced. Between 10 and 13 miles round trip, the Chapel Basin Loop is sometimes treated as a beginner’s backpacking loop. But it can also be done as a day trip. Pack up a lunch and head out to see three waterfalls and hike along the cliffs!
  • Visit Munising Falls: Beginner. Near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Visitor’s center and the town of Munising, this quick hike will take you to some beautiful falls.
  • Explore Grand Marias and the Grand Sable Dunes: Beginner. Cruise east toward the sleepy town of Grand Marias and check out sand dunes that tower hundreds of feet above Lake Superior.
  • Day Paddle the Pictured Rocks Cliffs: Intermediate. Paddling the Pictured Rocks cliffs gets you up close and personal with some of the most impressive features in the National Lakeshore. Northern Waters Kayaking  (thanks Ryan!) is the guiding company I would recommend (see comments). NOTE: the ONLY kayaks safe on Lake Superior are sea kayaks. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, you may want to hire a guide or go through a guiding company to ensure your safety. Lake Superior has been known to create 30 foot waves and is a hot bed for hypothermia. For more information, click here.
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View from the tops of the Cliffs into Superior

Week in Munising

A great amount of time to experience everything the region has to offer!

Adventure:

  • Backpack the North Country Trail: Intermediate/Advanced. The North Country National Scenic Trail winds from New York all the way out to the Dakotas, and an impressive section follows the Pictured Rocks Cliffs—shuttle out to one end and backpack along the cliff line towards Munising in a bucket list worthy trip.
  • Circumnavigate Grand Island: Circumnavigation of Grand Island is a bucket list item for any paddler, with beautiful sandstone cliffs that rival the Pictured Rocks themselves. At 26-28 mile trip, for the most advanced paddlers with the right conditions it can be done as a day trip. If you’re looking for the backcountry paddling experience, take 2-3 days to circumnavigate the island. Click here for guided trip information, or here for trip details.
  • Day Trip to Paradise: Paradise, Michigan is home to the Tahquamenon Falls, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, and Whitefish Point. This region of Superior is known for its record setting waves, and is near the infamous wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
  • Swim at Miner’s Beach: Brave the Lake Superior cold on a white sand beach. Hike less than a mile down the beach to see the small falls and the beginning of the cliff line.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions formed after visiting the area multiple times, personal experience with guiding companies and guides, and research via TripAdvisor and Facebook Reviews.

**I CANNOT recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Superior. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

***There are a few ethical concerns/complications regarding certain outfitters in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore area. I will not call out outfitters by name, but the outfitters linked here seem to be the ones that follow the best safety practices and do not choose profit over environmental impact or safety of participants. I have worked as a kayak guide, and have only recommended companies that are up to industry standard on safety practices, as reflected in their reviews, gear used, and policies.

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?

 

Adventure Guide: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Bayfield Peninsula

 

So you’re planning on visiting the Bayfield Peninsula and Apostle Islands? Awesome, I’m totally stoked for you! After spending the summer working as a kayak guide in the Islands and living in Bayfield, I would love to show you around.

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Cliff detail at the Mainland Sea Caves, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Weekend in Bayfield

A weekend in Bayfield is the perfect way to sample the area. From trails on land and water to restaurants, I’ve got you covered on how to spend your Saturday and Sunday!

Adventure:

  • Hike Houghton Falls Nature Preserve: Beginner. This is an easy two mile hike out to a waterfall, sandstone canyon, and Lake Superior.
  • Paddle Cliffs, Shipwrecks and Caves: Living Adventure offers a lovely half-day tour of the Red Cliff area, including the shipwreck the “Fedora”, stunning cliff line and eagles, and arch, and a view of several of the Apostle Islands. The tour is three hours—perfect if you’ve only got two days in town or are nervous about paddling open water! NOTE: If you’re thinking about taking out your own kayak read this first.
  • Explore: Take a quick trip up to Cornucopia, WI and visit the state’s Northern most post office! Pop in to Elher’s store to get that real Northwoods feel, and then pop into Corny Coffee and Sweets for a coffee. Head over to the beach for a chilly swim or sunbath and walk along the fishing docks. Head over to…
  • Hike Lost Creek Falls: Beginner/Intermediate. About two miles round trip out to the falls and back. Located near Cornucopia, WI.

Eat:

  • Grab some brown sugar cured smoked trout from Bay Fisheries for lunch and have a picnic on the Iron Bridge Trail.
  • Head over to The Copper Crow vodka distillery for THE best mixed drinks and vodka around. Order a Frog Bite, a jalapeño margarita if you’re looking to sweat. The best way to appreciate “the spirit of Superior”.
  • For dinner, try Maggie’s flamingo themed restaurant (order the whitefish livers appetizer, just trust me).
  • If you’re looking for the best fish dinner in town and a more refined dining feel, check out The Copper Trout.
  • For breakfast, visit the Manypenny Bistro. I would recommend “the Crabby Benny”.

Stay:

  • Camp: consider the Little Sand Bay. This spot is right on the Lake and has a beautiful view of the milky way at night. Backup: Buffalo Bay in Red Cliff.
  • Hotel: look at The Bayfield Inn. They’re located right in the heart of Bayfield, walking distance from the Lake and great restaurants.
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Sights and scenes from the half-day tour

Three to Four Days in Bayfield

The perfect amount of time for some hardcore adventuring, four days in Bayfield won’t leave you disappointed!

Adventure:

  • Hike Meyers Beach Sea Caves: At about 1.5 miles out to the first sea cave, this hike has some of the best views and cliff line in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. There are as many as 5 miles of trail to explore, winding up and down over steep ledges and over small streams. The best times to visit are at sunset, when the sandstone cliffs are lit up, after a big rain when the waterfalls are up, or when it’s windy and we have a small craft advisory, so you can watch the big waves roll into the cliffs.
  • Paddle the Mainland Sea Caves: Some of Superior’s most beautiful shoreline is hiding right in Wisconsin! The full day sea caves paddle is not for the faint of heart—you are looking at one of the most unpredictable points on Superior and the weather changes on a dime. Be sure to book a guided tour. NOTE: Don’t take your own boat. You don’t want to be this year’s hypothermic Coast Guard Rescue. Don’t go if you have a shoulder injury. Kayaking and shoulder injuries don’t mix.
  • Explore Madeline Island: Beginner/Intermediate. Whether you want to explore by car, bike, or foot is up to you, but Madeline Island has lots to offer, including cliff jumping and hiking at Big Bay State Park, the sights and sounds at Tom’s Burned Down Café, a museum, and a booming art scene fostered by the Madeline Island Art School. Hop on the ferry and set your watch to island time!
  • Catch a Sunset: Head over to Little Sand Bay and watch the sunset behind Sand Island. Stick around for some of the best stargazing this world has to offer.

Eat:

  • After a long day of adventuring cruise over to Morty’s Pub for a burger, beer, and a round of pool.
  • Check out The Fat Radish for a locally- sourced, organic, delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner!
  • After, head up to the rooftop bar of The Bayfield Inn and have a drink while watching the sun set. Order a Bent Paddle Golden IPA in my honor.
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Keyhole Arch on the full day sea caves tour, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Week in Bayfield

The best way to get a sense of the full area, and a great way to kick off some immersive adventures!

Adventure:

  • Hike Stockton Island: Take a shuttle out to Stockton Island and appreciate the countless hiking trails and pristine beaches in the heart of the Apostles. Backpacking routes are available if you’re up to the challenge!
  • Overnight Paddling: Without a doubt, spending a night or two in the islands is the best way to experience Lake Superior. Start off with a two-day, one-night or a three-day, two-night tour. Tours generally start on Sand Island, and feature sea caves, lighthouses, beaches, a blanket of stars, and great campfire storytelling. Dip your feet into the world of sea kayak touring and learn a few tricks of the trade! If you can only do one thing on this whole list, do this.
  • Apostle Islands Grand Tour: Sit back, relax, and cruise through the islands, enjoying lighthouses and stories, all the way out to Devil’s Island.

Eat:

  • At this point I have almost completely exhausted all food options in Bayfield, but wait! Order a pizza (meat lover’s) from Manypenny Bistro for a night in! Or order your pizza to be delivered to the previously mentioned rooftop bar at the Bayfield Inn or Copper Crow Distillery.
  • Grab a morning coffee and a blueberry Danish from Kickapoo Coffee.
  • Head into Washburn, WI and visit Coco’s Bakery for some state of the art breakfast foods!
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Last light from Oak Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The Bayfield Peninsula and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are some of the most underrated adventure hotspots, and are near and dear to my heart. If you’re planning an adventure, I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below or shoot me an email.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions formed after living and working in the area for three months.

**I CANNOT recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Superior. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

***The kayaking company linked here is the one I worked for. I can personally vouch that not only do they treat their employees excellently, but they go out of their way to make sure that they are following ethical practices and limiting their environmental impact. Leftover food is rarely thrown away—it is fed to local pigs on a farm. Leave no trace is both followed and taught. Aside from this, they put participants’ safety and comfort FIRST. You will not be put in any unsafe positions, and you will not leave terrified. That is more than a lot of companies can say, and Living Adventure is the best choice you can make when it comes to sea kayaking.

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?

 

 

 

 

I Spent the Summer on Lake Superior and All I Got Was This Stupid Sunburn

The first thing I want to tell you about Lake Superior is that she is not a lake; Superior is a sea. She creates her own weather patterns and kicks up squalls out of nowhere. On the Bayfield Peninsula, surrounded by her on three sides, it feels a little like she completely engulfs us.

My first glimpse of her was near Whitefish Point in Michigan in the Winter. The bay was completely frozen. The first time I swam in Superior was in August, a year or two ago, in the coves of the Pictured Rocks. The water was cold and ridiculously clear. I had hiked out with my brother. We had a strange, beautiful beach completely to ourselves. That’s one way Superior is apart from other lakes and rivers—she is big enough, and cold enough, and far enough north that she can make you feel like you’re the only person left in the whole of the world.

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Lake Superior from Oak Island

I’ve spent three and a half months this year up on her South Shore and I will be very sorry to leave. I believe we can learn a lot from nature. I believe that the experiences we have are more important than the things we memorize in a classroom.

I also believe I am incredibly lucky to have lived in a world where I can see six bald eagles in any one day, where the cliffs are red and the water is green and stories of the First Peoples not only survive but are told and woven into the culture of the area.

One of my first weeks here I laid back on the dock of Oak Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and let splinters of wood poke into my back, let my hair hang off the dock and reach toward the water. The dock was the only real refuge from the mosquitos, so about a dozen coworkers-turning-friends and myself gathered on it. The sun sank lower in the horizon and warmed the skin on my face with that distinct sweet orange glow. A breeze tugged lightly on the sun-bleached ends of my hair. I thought about life, and my time in college, and all of the good things that had happened and all of the bad, and how I wouldn’t erase any of it and risk this moment.

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Some losers I don’t know on the Oak Island dock

Someone asked me how I could stand to be so far North, so far away from the city, any city. Am I not bored?

On a calm, sunny day, it’s easy to forget that Superior is dangerous. Spend enough time with her and you’ll get only just a concept of how changeable she is.

On June 30th, I woke up bleary-eyed and stumbled into work. I joked around with some coworkers in the boathouse, and then fitted the participants who would be joining on us on a lovely guided kayak tour with wetsuits.

The wind had already changed direction several times.

At Meyers Beach, the launch point for the mainland sea caves, you can sometimes see 30 miles across Superior to Minnesota’s North Shore. That day Minnesota was obscured completely by a dark cloud, contoured at the top and moving rapidly North.

The water was the stillest thing I had ever seen—gray and not even a ripple. A fog bank rolled towards us. Five miles offshore, the bank swallowed Eagle Island.

“We’re going to wait to launch,” the lead guide told me quietly. The fog bank continued to roll toward us, and now it looked like the darker storm cloud was headed toward us too.

A sheet of 25 knot wind hit us like a slap in the face. The whole lake shivered. We had to shout to be heard. In the time it took us to carry one boat up the 47 stairs at Meyers Beach, the Lake had picked up from glass to 2-4 foot waves. Just to reiterate here—the Lake in less than 10 minutes went from still to potentially dangerous.

Lake Superior is a siren; she lulls you in with her song of sea caves, crystal water and untouched cliff line, and then she reminds you who you are. You are a human, and you are infinitely small on a sea that you don’t understand and that is not yours.

So no, I wouldn’t say I am “bored”.

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Waves building as that storm blew in #thosewitecapsder’aye

It’s funny though, because I expected Lake Superior in all her storied fury to make me feel weak, but it didn’t work out that way at all. Insignificant, sure, but almost never did I feel weak.

Time on Lake Superior has made me feel strong and smart and more capable, not less. I respect the Lake and my size in comparison, but being on the Lake, feeling the waves and the water push, and pull, and stretch far below you, feeling my boat respond to the turn of my hips and covering distances by the power of my own body—that has made me feel very strong. We live in a world that judges us each by a different set of standards, where some people get head starts and have an easier time than others. That dissolves on the Lake. On the Lake the test is the same for each person, and you either sink or swim.

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Live footage of yours truly on an island that was totally named after me (sorry to everyone who is sick and tired of that joke)

In late July, voices buzzed around me, but I wasn’t really listening or trying to. I was watching the lighthouse on the southern tip of Madeline Island blink patient and steady against the dark. The water was warm for Superior. I dove in deep and the world went silent, the shouts and laughter of friends quieted by the Lake. The Milky Way reached across the sky. Night air ran down my back in a shiver. The people around me had been drinking, but I was intensely happy to be sober, because I felt everything so sharply and completely.

I am sure that no one has ever left Superior’s waters not feeling clean and whole.

The primary place we lead kayak tours is the Mainland Sea Caves. Sometimes it feels a little hollow—we take people to what was once Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) land so that they can take a selfie and check it off their bucket list. Other times it doesn’t feel so hollow. Other times it feels like you are facilitating a genuine connection to nature and respect for the Lake, as well as it’s people and stories.

The first cave is called “the crack”. I have heard that it is the remains of an ancient fault line. You can paddle on a thin vein of Superior deep into the Earth, where turquoise water meets layered red cliffs, laced with streaks of purple and gold. You can ease far back in to where the air smells like Earth and has it’s chill. Tendrils of fog linger at the water’s surface. If you paddle far enough back it feels like the rock might not give you up. I think this one is my favorite cave.

I was told that we’re all looking for some specific feeling; something that makes us really feel alive and inspired, but we all find this feeling in different ways. A few people snickered during this telling, but I was on the edge of my seat. It makes some sort of simple sense. Different things and different paths can bring us to the same feelings. It’s much easier to understand other people’s choices and differences when you understand the feeling, even if you don’t recognize the path.

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A sunrise I only caught cause I had been up puking up brie cheese in a pit toilet, an objectively low place to be.

Sometimes, when the wind is just right, the lake turns a blue green and churns, speckled with whitecaps. She’ll look like a sea monster might come up, or like a Viking ship might have sailed her. Sea spray, bright green, and the Lake feels alive.

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Water, probably. I’m not sure.

In late July I received the best compliment of my life.

I had been talking to a woman about my various plans for life now that I was out of school and she grinned at me.

“You’re a bit of a wild thing aren’t you?’

I laughed. “I’m not sure anyone has called me that before.”

Still, I hoped I was.

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A sea of plastic kayaks, otherwise known as “divorce boats”, cause there’s no way you and your SO can agree which way you want that thing to go.

The best place to feel the full power of the Lake might be that thin trail above the Sea Caves. People travel miles to see the caves but they should really travel to hear them. There’s a deep heaving, the sound of water slamming deep into the caves, regular and cathartic. Mist on your skin, the sea is a beautiful green gray, all the leaves rain brightened. The wind howls around you. The forest dances, the sea beats, powerful and regular below you.

I want to shout into it, and celebrate the raw, real beauty of a storm on the sea, and me, just a speck on the cliff side.

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This is some live footage of the beach that has collected at the bottom of my car.

Paddling itself is both intensely physical and intimate.

You are in a boat that may as well be a bit of driftwood in the sea. You move forward by the creak of your own arms and the turn of your own hips. You feel the water stretching below you and feel every turn and twist of the current. The water can be so cold that it hurts. Light mist, low clouds. The Lake beats steady on the beach; you move steady forward. In at the toe, twist, out at the hip. Repeat. Deeply physical. The lake will rock you to sleep long after you have left.

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Look ma, it floats!

Every year, people die in this Lake that I love. That is a fact. This year, three small kids and their father died in an ill-fated crossing, probably due to hypothermia. So how do we reconcile loving this lake with the damage that it can do? It’s easy to want to blame people for the mistakes that they made and the safety gear that they didn’t have, but experience informs decision making. So can you really blame people for not having the experience to make a safe decision? It hardly seems like loosing your family is a fair price to pay for ignorance. But I suppose no one ever said life, or the Lake was fair.

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Basswood Island, around 5pm, the same day that family capsized between Michigan and Stockton.

It’s a popular opinion that nature is indifferent, and maybe it is, maybe that’s true. After hearing stories about people swept off piers and shipwrecks, who am I to say any different?

But when someone who had been guiding for years on Lake Superior told me stories of close calls, he paused to laugh and shake his head.

“The sea goddess must be a good one,” he said. “You can mess up a lot of little things and still get by, or one big thing, and still make it work. You have to really mess it all up, that’s when you’re in big trouble.”

So I suppose it’s possible that the Lake isn’t indifferent at all. I suppose it’s quite possible that she feels things deeply—approximately 1,333 feet deeply.

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Trail Guide: Sea Kayaking the Great Lakes

Kayaking is super fun, and places like the Pictured Rocks and the Sea Caves are super gorgeous. I totally get it. But after spending a summer up guiding on Superior I’ve got a few notes for you all, just to re-enforce the whole safety thing.

This summer I saw a whole lot of people out at the Mainland Sea Caves without spray skirts, or in inflatable boats, or worst case scenario, in sundolphins. (You want to know what I hate most in the world? It’s the sundolphin. That boat is tiny, and slow, and there’s no spray skirt or bulkheads. What are you gonna do when that thing capsizes? It’s gonna sink! Are you gonna swim the mile back to the beach in 57 degree water? You’re not wearing a wetsuit! You’re gonna get hypothermia.)

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This is the sundolphin. Take this piece of crap back to Lake Minnetonka where it belongs.

So you might be thinking, “but all the pictures I’ve seen of the Lake look beautiful and calm, and I’m a good paddler, I take my sundolphin out on Lake Minnesota-dota-tonka-bago all the time.” (I don’t know the lake names here. Everything in WI sounds funny.)

I’m here to remind you that the Great Lakes are a different ball game. 

You are no longer dealing with lakes when you start paddling here. You are on an inland sea. Lake Superior’s largest recorded average wave height was 28.8 feet. These lakes can create their own weather. They have taken down real ships. Do you really feel safe in that 10 foot sundolphin?

The Great Lakes are seas. Bring a Sea Kayak.

A sea kayak is defined by a few things. First, sea kayaks are longer than 15 feet. Most are around that 16-18 foot range. Tandem sea kayaks should be pushing 18 feet. Anything shorter than this might not be sea worthy.

Second, sea kayaks have sealed bulkheads. That means there are pockets of air both in front of and behind the cockpit. If your boat capsizes, it will not sink, and you can get back into it.

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Sea kayak. Almost 16 feet.

Sea kayaks are the only type of manpowered boat that is smart to bring on a Great Lake. Don’t have a sea kayak? Consider a guided tour.

Know how to get back in your boat

In the event of a capsize, you want to be able to get back in your boat. Do you have a scramble rescue? Do you have a paddle float rescue? Do you know what those words mean?

If you’re paddling with other people, do you have a T-rescue? No? Consider hiring a guide or taking a safety course.

Gear Things

There is a set list of safety gear you should have before hitting the Great Lakes. Here is that list:

  • Spray Skirt– keeps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
  • PFD- Aka life jacket. And actually wear it. It’s not a lot of good floating away from you.
  • Bilge Pump– pumps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
  • Paddle Float– can use to create outrigger with paddle for self-rescue. Also makes a good back rest.
  • Spare Paddle– in case something bad happens to first paddle.
  • First Aid Kit– for band-aids.
  • Repair Kit– so you can duct tape that hole in your boat.
  • Whistle- carry three signaling devices. This is an easy one.
  • Mirror– effective way to get someone’s attention using sunlight.
  • Marine Radio- you might not have cell service. Now you can still call for help/ check the weather.
  • Wetsuit– What’s the water temperature? Is it below 70? Hypothermia might be a risk. Lake Superior has more hypothermia incidents than drownings. Food for thought.
  • Extra Layers– Weather changes quickly out there. Rain jacket never hurt anyone.
  • Sponge– clean boat = happy boat.
  • Map- know where you’re going.

Most importantly, have a plan. Maybe this seems silly and obvious, but know a little bit about the hazards in the area you plan on paddling. Know the marine forecast, and check the radar before you head out. Tell people where you are paddling, and when you expect to be back. Most of the gear above you won’t even use on a typical paddling trip. But it’s good to have a plan B, and C, and D and E. And if you don’t have all the backup plans, go with someone who does.

Just the other day when my group was heading in before a storm we saw a family of four setting up for a picnic near the cliff wall on sit-on-top kayaks. The weather had probably looked nice when they left, but weather changes. (We, of course, gave them a heads up.)

The day before that, a mother was the sole survivor of a tragedy in the Apostle Islands. This incident is my primary prompting for posting this. I post a lot of pictures of kayaking on Lake Superior, and I don’t want people to see these pictures and assume that means this Lake is always beautiful and safe and calm. I don’t have my camera out when it’s not. I’m not on the water, and if I am, I’m busy trying to get myself and others off of it. There is a safe way to kayak the Great Lakes. I would hate for people to see photos that I take as a message that this place is always a safe and fun vacation spot.

This isn’t meant to be irreverent, or to shame anyone, or to assign blame. Experience informs the choices we make, and we cannot fault people for experiences they haven’t had. I don’t think death or loosing your family is a fair price to pay for simply not knowing, but the Lake isn’t fair.

If you’re reading this, awesome. I’m not concerned about you. But make sure your friends, and neighbors all know that these lakes are not safe all the time. Friends don’t let friends paddle sundolphins.