Northern Wisconsin is full of hidden wonders. From the near tropical island gems that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to the rugged sandstone cliffs, there are countless hikes and paddles worth your time. Due to the Northwood’s unique geology, the area is also littered with some pretty spectacular waterfalls. From east to west, here’s your guide to a Northern Wisconsin Waterfalls Road Trip!
Located on the Montreal River which marks the border between Wisconsin and Michigan, Saxon Falls is a quick and easy hike past the hydroelectric dam to the falls themselves. Directions can be found here.
Potato River Falls
Less than a half hour drive west of Saxon Falls the Potato River Falls feature both an upper and lower falls, both on well maintained trails with stairs and a quick, less than a mile hike. Directions can be found here.
Copper Falls State Park features some of the most impressive falls in the state of Wisconsin, including Brownstone Falls, Copper Falls, and Red Granite Falls. Directions can be found here.
Journey on up into the Bayfield Peninsula past Washburn and you’ll find Houghton Falls Nature Preserve, where the river carved out a sandstone canyon and small cliffs sit on the edge of Lake Superior. (Some lovely iPhone quality photos for you).
Lost Creek Falls
A beautiful less than three-mile round trip hike near Cornucopia, WI, these falls are one of the few Wisconsin falls you can actually walk behind. Go in late Spring to see the falls at their peak. Directions can be found here.
Amnicon Falls State Park is near Superior, WI, and has three falls and more cascades all within easy access of parking lots or main trails. The park also has some beautiful rustic camping and an interesting geologic history involving both sandstone and volcanic rock. Click here for more information.
Looking for more road trip planning tools? Look into Roadtrippers and Alltrails; some awesome apps to get you started!
Minnesota’s North Shore is interesting; it’s draw is not in sandy beaches or warm water— you don’t go there to work on your tan. This shore line is not soft; the North Shore is hard. Miles of rugged cliff lines, conifers, and the rolling remains of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s got icy cold water— so cold that shipwrecks are perfectly preserved. It’s got biting flies and red rocky beaches. The North Shore has character. It is a different kind of beautiful—tougher, with more grit. Difficult and stubborn. More wild, less comfortable, less predictable, more rewarding.
I have never jumped in water so cold and so clean. I never imagined I could be damp, cold, and swarmed by biting flies and still appreciate where I am so entirely. I didn’t expect to have my knees shake ten feet from a cliffs edge while tendrils of fog snaked snaked along the lake below me. I didn’t expect to feel complete overwhelmed and quieted at the foot of a waterfall, mist sticking to me, roar and rush silencing any thoughts of my hurting ankle, my hunger, how I was tired, silencing any thoughts at all.
Foam in the Baptism River
Palisade head and fog
Split Rock Lighthouse, looking pretty great
Loons at Split Rock
Red rocks and water
Minnesota rocks featuring my well-loved Merrels.
The only picturesque seagull to ever exist
Taken while being attacked by biting flies
Up here, they say that the Lake is the boss— she controls the weather, the air pressure, the cliffs, the direction of rivers. She pulls down rocks and ultimately, she can control you a little too.
After living in Bayfield, Wisconsin for almost a full month, I completely see why the small Lake Superior town is a major tourist attraction. Between guiding kayak trips and exploring the area for myself by foot, I’ve come up with a fairly solid list of highlights of the Bayfield Peninsula.
Houghton Falls Nature Preserve
With sandstone cliffs, views of Lake Superior, and seasonal waterfalls, this 1.5-mile trail is an easy hike and a must visit. Be aware that in many areas going off trail is trespassing on private property, and the Bayfield Regional Conservancy asks hikers not to wander into the streamed, as it contributes to erosion.
Catch a Little Sand Bay Sunset
One of the best spots to watch the sun set over Lake Superior might be Little Sand Bay. Here you can watch the sun sink behind Sand Island, and stroll down the pier, and out to a small river/estuary.
Looking for a place to swim and get some of the best smoked fish around? Look no further than the small town of Cornucopia, right on Lake Superior. If you’re looking to add some mileage to your beach day check out nearby Lost Creek Falls for a little over a 2 mile hike.
Kayaking the Sea Caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
The Mainland Sea Caves are often what brings people out to Bayfield, and fairly so. Objectively glamorous, the sea caves are an incredible experience, and kayaking is probably the best way to really experience these caves.
That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first thing to remember is that Lake Superior isn’t really a lake; it is a freshwater sea. Just last fall, a 28.8 foot wave was recorded near Marquette, Michigan, and the weather at the Sea Caves can change very quickly, from glass to dangerous in under an hour. Kayakers should use ONLY sea kayaks, and have spray skirts, wetsuits, PFDs (which you should actually wear!!!), a bilge pump, a paddle float, first aid kit, and extra water, and all of this at the very least.
If you are going to paddle the sea caves and you have access to all of this equipment, great! Make sure you can either self-rescue or you are with someone who can T-rescue—preferably both. I would also recommend checking the marine forecast, and understanding what that forecast means. At the Mainland Caves, strong wind from the Northeast generates pretty large waves that can rebound off the cliff walls.
All this to say, if you don’t have sea kayaking experience and access to equipment, going with an outfitter is an excellent and much safer way to experience the sea caves! Check out Living Adventure and their various tour options here!
Kayaking the Islands
While the Mainland Sea Caves are awesome, the whole of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore features more, less accessed sea caves. By touring the islands on a multi-day sea kayaking trip, you can experience more remote caves and garner some more experience sea kayaking. Check out Living Adventure’s different multi-day trips!
(For staff training this year we did a three day overnight that looked something like Beaches, Waves and Caves, but with a lot more capsizing and rescue practice! The sea caves on Sand Island are incredible, (even when you’re upside down in a kayak and freezing in them) and having lunch on the Raspberry Island Sandspit might be one of my favorite experiences to date, sunburn included. The photo above was taken from the Oak Island dock during an overnight trip. If you’re at all up for some island camping and interested in paddling, this is really the sort of experience you want to have in this lakeshore.)
Hike Meyers Beach Sea Caves
If you don’t get out in a kayak to the Sea Caves don’t stress too much—you can experience the caves from above the cliff line at the Meyers Beach. This trail is usually considered to be moderate, and is as long as you make it. Keep your eyes peeled for black bear, which are known to frequent the area.
Apostle Islands Grand Tour
Hop on one of the cruises starting in Bayfield to get a three hour tour of the Apostle Islands from a ferry! Try for the top deck of the boat for the best view, but be sure to dress warm—the air up there is cold and it only gets colder the farther out you go!
Questions, comments, concerns? Feel free to leave me a message below!
There are 21 islands that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in the far North of Wisconsin, full of sandstone cliffs, sea caves and shipwrecks, and clear, frigid water, all off of the Bayfield Peninsula. I am living here for the summer to become a better sea kayaker and guide.
Most of what I knew of Wisconsin was cheese and farms, most of what I knew of Lake Superior was that the Lake is big and cold. I’ve been here a week now, and here’s what I didn’t know:
The Bayfield Peninsula is speckled with waterfalls:
A few days ago, I paddled under a waterfall. The next day we climbed behind Lost Creek Falls, and there are still more falls to explore in the area.
Lake Superior is cold:
So maybe I knew the lake was cold. I didn’t know that the lake could have such an influence on the weather here. As a peninsula, Bayfield is surrounded on all sides by the lake, and the weather changes quickly. One night, it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit, sunny and beautiful. The next day it was in the low 40’s and pouring. It’s June, and this place is cold.
People think Wisconsin looks like a mitten:
As someone from the Mitten State I find this ridiculous. What kind of deformed mitten looks like Wisconsin?
Lake Superior is powerful:
This lake, through freezing and thawing, has carved out caves in sandstone. The Lake has wrecked ship after ship, and just this past year, taken out the dock shown above. Lake Superior is beautiful, but you have to be aware that this Lake isn’t just a Lake. It is an inland sea, capable of some real damage.
Northern Wisconsin is stunning:
I honestly love the 40 degree drizzle and the late night storms, and the icy clear water. This place has rich moss and wild flowers, waterfalls, beaches and islands.
Questions about the Northern Midwest or Apostles area or starting sea kayaking? Leave me a message!
One of the questions I get asked the most—next to “what is it you do exactly?”—is “how do I get a good sunset picture?” Luckily, I have a few tips for catching a good sunset, and most of them are pretty easy! Here are a few things to keep in mind:
The Sun Sets in the West
Okay, so this one seems obvious, but there have been times when I have completely envisioned watching the sunset over a lake only to realize the lake/beach in question does not at all face west. Moreover, the sun sets more to the North or more to the South depending on the time of year, so be sure to keep in mind exactly where the sun is setting.
Sun Set Time
Sunset time is usually available online, but keep in mind that the 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after can also have some pretty dramatic clouds.
Watch the Weather
Speaking of clouds, partly cloudy days tend to yield the coolest sunsets—storms can also lead to a pretty dramatic show, but can be a little more unpredictable. In general, clear cloudless days won’t lead to a crazy sky, and on completely cloudy days you might not catch the sunset at all.
Clearings and Elevation
If you can get up high or somewhere clear, you get less of the sky blocked by trees and more foreground. This is good especially for photography, because a strong foreground makes an image a lot more interesting.
Reflections of sunsets are often almost as good as the sunsets themselves, and lakes, rivers and ponds are the ideal spots for this. Different water holds light differently, so there is something new to appreciate every time.
There’s nothing like a sunset from the water, particularly when there’s no one but otter and eagles for miles around. This sunset picture was taken at the Big Island Lakes Wilderness Area in the Upper Peninsula, but watching the sunset from a boat anywhere can be phenomenal.
Hidden in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, this area off the North Country Trail has some of the best swimming in Michigan as well as the best sunsets if you are willing to brave the Lake Superior cold.
People who ask me for hiking advice, usually about a place I have never been or hiked at– this one is for you!
Step One: Create a Pinterest dream board
Open up your Pinterest tab. Type in some key terms like “wildflowers”, “sunset”, or “Peru”. Scroll for a while. Delete the Peru thing, because you live in Michigan. Get inspired.
Step Two: Open up the AllTrails App
AllTrails will help you find trails in your area and give you a difficulty profile. Scroll through the app and favorite hikes with reckless abandon.
Step Three: Decide how far you’re willing to drive
For me, the limiting factor on a hike usually isn’t difficulty—not because I’m in great shape, but because I will turn around when I am good and ready. No, the limiting factor is how far I want to drive to get a fun new hike. Once I decide that, choosing is usually pretty easy.
Step Four: Get in the car. Battle with the GPS.
Read: Make several wrong turns. Begin to question why you didn’t just go for a quick run and call it a day.
Step Five: Abandon hike entirely. Get pizza.
Ahh yes. Truly the greatest part of a hike comes when you turn off the GPS entirely, abandon all plans for light to moderate workout, and pull into the nearest Little Caesar’s for a Hot and Ready.
Well, there you have it. The perfect hike. Use this information wisely.
So after four years of hard (eh) work on a Bachelor’s of Science in Neuroscience, additional major in Professional Writing, I am graduating! As I have been M.I.A. from this blog, and somehow actually have a few readers to explain myself to, here is a nice wrap up post summarizing the finer points of my undergraduate education and the parts of my life that usually don’t make an appearance on this primarily hiking/travel-oriented blog. Namely, what I “learned” as an undergraduate student.
My first instinct is to say that I’ve learned literally nothing in my four years at a university. I don’t know jack about chemical reactions, and I still can’t write, and I’ve spent four years here and completely achieved my goal of not learning a single thing. In fact, my knee jerk reaction is tongue-in-cheek to say that I am actually much less intelligent than I was four years ago.
But I realized that’s not at all true. I did learn a lot in the classroom. I know about brains, and I actually can write a little bit, and in four semesters of Latin, despite my best efforts to stay completely ignorant to the language, I did pick up a phrase or two.
Still, the most important lessons I learned in my four years working on my Bachelor’s Degree I did not learn in the classroom.
The best lessons I learned in the real life part of college, the part where you slowly start to become an adult. Or rather, you realize “adult” is just an arbitrary word.
The best lessons I learned over the last four years came hard and slow, in lows and highs. They did not involve scantrons, or textbooks, and they weren’t always crystal clear, and honestly still aren’t.
My freshman year I volunteered in a nursing home, writing the stories of people with alzheimer’s and dementia so that they could read their own memories even if they couldn’t remember. That taught me what loneliness looked like, and the importance of small gestures. Loneliness is not knowing your family, your friends, your own stories, and only really knowing you’re dying. That’s what loneliness looks like.
Shortly after, I went to work in the Emergency Room. I learned a lot of lessons in my three months there, but the most important thing I learned is death is indiscriminate. It applies to older people with heart conditions who have taken bad falls, yes, but also the six year old you made a rubber glove balloon for the hour before. Indiscriminate. Almost simultaneously to this lesson I realized that the medical field wasn’t one I wanted to work in.
Working several jobs while taking classes taught me about balance, and working as a writing tutor for freshman I learned that a lot of times writing isn’t really the thing first year students need the most help with.
I learned that sometimes you need to skip class to help people, and sometimes you lie without a second thought to protect them.
On a study abroad, I learned how to work the train system in the UK and that sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. I also learned that the same tense situations that lead to bad blood for some people can make best friends of others. We also learned unequivocally that in a heist of 11 girls, I am one of the two who breaks off to shit talk the others.
I learned that you can absolutely change who you are and that you aren’t the words anyone choses to describe you— you pick your own words.
I learned that you can do a bad thing but not be a bad person.
I got some of the best advice I’ve ever received—
“you deserve to be loved the way you want to be loved.”
I learned that not only is being kind more important than being pretty, but being kind is more important than being smart or right.
I learned to shake things off, and how to really, actually take criticism.
I learned how to take a fall, and failure, and how to turn the other cheek.
I learned that better or worse are usually an opinion; there is only different.
I learned that there are no good people or bad people, and that we are all only a sum of our actions. I learned how to apologize and be really wrong.
I learned that other people will surprise you, and never to underrate or underestimate the importance of good friends.
I learned the power of images, and words, and actions.
I learned how to write; I learned I am still learning.
I learned I know nothing at all.
And all of this is a lot more important than conjugating latin verbs and memorizing chemicals.
I’ll leave you with this photo, and a promise to never take myself too seriously: