Virgin Islands National Park: Beaches, Snorkeling, Hiking and Wildlife

The Virgin Islands National Park has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, incredible snorkeling, hiking, varied wildlife, and an important history. In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria hit St. John island and took a toll on the infrastructure and economy. The island and park are still rebuilding, but St. John and the Virgin Islands National Park are still beautiful and absolutely worth visiting.

(Full photo slideshow at bottom of post)

Map of the Virgin Islands National Park here

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Cinnamon Bay, Virgin Islands National Park

Cinnamon Beach

One of the most stunning beaches in the Virgin Islands National Park is Cinnamon Beach, with white sand, bright water, and slopes of islands in the distance.

Follow the North Shore Road past Trunk Bay and arrive at Cinnamon Bay and Beach. The Cinnamon Bay Factory Ruins can be reached by a wheelchair accessible boardwalk. Cinnamon Bay itself has clear blue waters and great snorkeling.

St. John History Note: Cinnamon Bay was once the site of a Tiano settlement*, as shown by archeological excavations. The Tiano people are indigenous to the Caribbean and St. John Island. When the Danes colonized the island, they reported it to be uninhabited. The Tiano people were established on St. John for a long period of time, but seem to have either left the island, been driven off, or wiped out. You can read more about the Tiano people and their history here.

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Maho Bay

Snorkeling at Maho Bay

Maho Bay, just a little farther up the North Shore Road than Cinnamon Beach, offers protected and beginner snorkeling. It’s also a great spot to swim with sea turtles and sting rays. Just remember not to touch or chase turtles or rays!

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Annaberg

Annaberg Sugar Plantation

When the Danes colonized the US Virgin Islands, they established sugar plantations and brought hundreds of people over from Africa to work as slaves. The Annaberg Sugar Plantation serves as a reminder of uglier history of the island. The plantation overlooks the Sir Fancis Drake Channel, dividing the US Virgin Islands from the British Virgin Islands. The British Virgin Islands abolished slavery before the then Danish Virgin Islands, so slaves would often flee to Tortola across the channel. Some would use a canoe, some brave souls would swim, and sometimes people in Tortola would coordinate and organize a boat to take people away from St. John and to the British Virgin Islands. *

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Salt Pond Bay

Snorkeling Salt Pond Bay

The Southeast point of St. John Island is more arid and desert-like than the jungle that lines the North Shore, but is every bit as interesting. Salt Pond Bay is a beautiful sheltered beach and a good snorkel spot, about a quarter mile from the parking lot. Follow any one of the small trails from the beach and you’ll reach the Salt Pond, a salt pond with thousands of tiny crabs. In dryer months, the salt crystalizes at the ponds edge.

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Salt Pond Bay side of Ram’s Head

Ram’s Head Hike

The hike out to Ram’s Head, or the southernmost point on the island, is about three miles, moderate to strenuous, and gorgeous. If you walk to the end of Salt Pond Bay Beach, you’ll find a trail that begins to lead South. Follow that trial until you get to a rocky beach, where the trail will seem to disappear. The trail resumes at the end of the beach.

The hike ends at Rams Head, where to the East you can feel the full force of the Atlantic and the Easterly Trade Winds. To the West a protected bay and calm turquoise water. It’s a strange juxtaposition, and really can help you understand the power and variety of the ocean, and how remarkable it is that an island can hold so much life in the middle of the ocean, a blue desert.

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Atlantic side of Ram’s Head, and what I mean when I say “blue desert”

Waterlemon Cay

Waterlemon Cay has beautiful hiking, great snorkeling, and is the best place to see some Virgin Islands National Park wildlife. The trailhead begins at the Annaberg Sugar Plantation parking lot, and it is about a mile to the first bay. Here, we saw nurse sharks swimming in the shallows, and sea urchins. The Johnny Horn Trail begins on this beach, so if you’d rather hike than swim you can go check out the two different ruins at the top. Farther down this beach, it will look like the beach ends and turns to large rocks. If you scramble over these rocks, you will reach a smaller, rocky beach which makes a good launch spot for Waterlemon Cay. (Yes, that’s Waterlemon, not Watermelon). It isn’t a far snorkel out to the Cay, but it’s important to note that there can be a really strong current between mainland and the Cay, so it’s definitely not a good trip for everyone. I preferred to hike rather than think about being dragged out to sea and becoming fish food.

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Hunk of rock on right is Waterlemon Cay

Trunk Bay Snorkel Trail

Trunk Bay is the most popular beach in the park, and most of the cruise ship passengers stop here. Still, popular things are popular for a reason, so I would recommend a trip out in the early morning or late afternoon, before or after the crowds. At Trunk Bay you can rent snorkel equipment if you don’t have your own, and hit the Virgin Islands National Park’s underwater snorkel trail to learn more about reef systems!

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Trunk Bay

*Historical Information from St. John Off the Beaten Track: A Photographically Illustrated Guide to St. John, US Virgin Islands, Gerald Singer (Purchase here)

Where to Next?

Sea Kayak the caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Explore Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

Visit Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes

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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 Sleeping Bear 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: The Sleeping Bear Dunes are 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 Dunes 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 Dunes 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 the Sleeping Bear Dunes, 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 Dunes area without a car.
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Snow in the Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes in the Winter:

Winter sees a drop off in visitors to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National 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?

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 Hiking, Kayaking, and Camping

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! Here I’ll lay out the best spots in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for Kayaking, Hiking, and Camping.

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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Pictured Rocks Cliffs from the water

Weekend at the Cliffs

A weekend in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore 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! This trail offers some of the best Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore hiking.
  • 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, a great place to camp near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. 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

Three to four days is the perfect amount of time to really get into some adventuring and hit the hiking and kayaking highlights of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore!

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, and offers some of the most varied scenery in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This hike 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. This might be the best trail in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for people of all ages.
  • 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 Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, one of the best kayaking venues in North America if not the world. Northern Waters Kayaking  (thanks Ryan!) is the guiding company I would recommend (see comments: one of the outfitters is not known for good safety practices).

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. You should absolutely have a spray skirt on. If your outfitter doesn’t recommend a spray skirt, don’t go with them. For more information, click here.

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View from the tops of the Cliffs into Superior

Week in Pictured Rocks

A full week great amount of time to experience everything the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore 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, marking some of the best hiking in Michigan. Take shuttle out to one end, and backpack along the cliff line towards Munising in a bucket list worthy trip.
  • Circumnavigate Grand Island by Kayak: 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. Miner’s Beach is one of the best beaches in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, access to great hiking included!

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: Northwoods Waterfall Road Trip

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!

Saxon Falls

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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

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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.

Houghton Falls

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

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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

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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!