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!
This past August, I visited Western Montana with my family. We stayed in Whitefish, Montana, driving into Glacier National Park and stopping at the National Bison Range, as well as playing in Whitefish Lake. From day tours to hikes and paddling, we had a blast in Montana!
Paddle a Mountain Lake
Our very first night in Whitefish, my sister and I grabbed a canoe to watch the sunset. Usually I prefer kayaks, but we had just as good a time exploring the lake in a canoe. It ended up being pretty windy, so we counted it as our workout for the day.
We paddled on Whitefish Lake, but the lakes in Glacier National Park are also great to paddle on, as well as Flathead Lake to the South.
Drive the Going-to-the-Sun-Road
We did Glacier’s Going-To-the-Sun Road twice—first through the Red Bus Tour, and then a portion of it on our own the following day. The Red Bus Tour was awesome—it took nine hours, but we saw a large portion of the park. While a part of the tour was spent sitting, we stopped regularly to explore scenic pullouts and hear about the park’s history and geology.
The Going-To-the-Sun Road takes you from West Glacier’s Pacific-Northwest-like forest, up to the alpine region near Logan Pass, then back down through the St. Mary Region. We followed the road up to the Many Glacier Region as well, where we saw three bears (one black, two grizzly, in the span of a half hour).
Swim in a Lake
It wouldn’t be summer in the mountains if you didn’t jump into a lake so cold that you couldn’t breathe! One of the best days of this trip was taking a moment to relax and swim in Whitefish Lake.
Go for a Hike
Glacier National Park offers some of the best hiking in the world—in Many Glacier the trails to Iceberg Lake and Grinnell Glacier let you hike out to real glaciers, and the Hidden Lake and Highline Trail are almost always listed as some of the best hikes offered in the country.
We opted for the Avalanche Lake Trail, which was about a 6-mile hike through the old growth forest, past Avalanche Gorge, out to Avalanche Lake. (We saw a grizzly here but it’s fine).
Visit the National Bison Range
Often passed over for Glacier, the National Bison Range was actually one of our favorite stops! As a wildlife refuge, it offers a 19 mile a scenic drive. We saw pronghorn antelope, coyote, mule deer, and bison!
5 am wake up calls always seem to hurt—I hate leaving a warm bed, I hate the feeling of my feet hitting a cold floor. But if I have my alarm set for 5, it’s usually for a good reason.
My good reason this particular time was trailhead parking in Glacier National Park—parking you won’t find much later than 10 am. Our goal was to be inside the park by 7.
I made myself a cup of tea, and eased myself into hiking boots before waking up my dad and sister. We made it inside the park around 7:30, with another half hour drive from the West Glacier Park entrance to the Avalanche Lake trailhead.
It was drizzling for the first time in a while, and smoke from the recent wildfires lingered in the Lake McDonald Valley while we tooled along the lowlands of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The entirety of Glacier National Park seems exceptional compared to the surrounding mountains—the creeks are bluer, the flowers bloom longer, the cliffs are more dramatic. Glacier seems a place apart. A little under 6 miles roundtrip, the Avalanche Lake out and back hike is no exception.
We started walking on the Trail of the Cedars, an old growth forest. From here, we split off alongside Avalanche Creek toward the lake.
Walking alongside the creek gives you the first view of Avalanche Gorge—where Avalanche Creek and its electric blue water have cut through red stone. Between the soft drizzle and the bright colors, it didn’t feel like the dry and very yellow Montana we drove through to get here.
After playing near the gorge for a few minutes, we moved up the trail, running into a couple. They told us that an earlier hiker had seen a black bear about a half mile up the trail.
In general, you won’t see bear on the Avalanche Lake trail if you hike in large groups around midday (11am- 3pm), when the trail is heavily trafficked. On the other hand, it’s hard to find parking at this time. Bear sightings and encounters are far more common in the mornings and evenings. Between easy parking and bear risk, we went for easy parking.
We didn’t see the black bear hiking up the trail, but we did meet up with a larger group from Chicago, as well as the hiker who did see the black bear.
By the time we reached Avalanche Lake it had started to rain for real, but it felt good. It was the kind of rain that feels clean, the kind of rain that you would play in as a kid. I snapped a few photos and we watched the clouds move in and out of the mountains across the lake.
It was after the rain let up that we noticed the bear. Only about 100 yards from us across the lake—too close—a large, dark bear was rustling around in the bushes.
At first we thought it was a black bear, and weren’t too worried. Don’t get me wrong—black bear can be dangerous too, but a black bear is a lot more afraid of you and seemingly predictable than a grizzly.
Then we noticed the hump—the difference between a black bear and a grizzly is not coloring. It’s the hump on the back.
And grizzlies are a lot scarier than black bear.
“One way to tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear is to climb a tree,” a tour guide had joked with us earlier that week. “If the bear follows you up and eats you, it’s a black bear. If it tears the tree down, then eats you, it’s a grizzly.”
I thought about that while we talked in low voices and made our way back to the trees.
We walked back a little nervous at first—because if that grizzly got curious it could easily follow us up the trail before we knew what happened. But it didn’t (obviously, we’re all alive and well and un-mauled).
On the way back, we ran into a family of mule deer, probably looking for food from us. As cool as it was to get that close to the deer, it was kind of overshadowed by the fact that the animals were too close to us for their own safety, and that baiting wildlife with food led to these animals being too trusting.
It started to rain for real when we hopped back on the Trail of the Cedars, thick warm drops that rolled off of leaves and made everything look very green. People complain about rainy hikes, about how they are cold and muddy, but I honestly think I prefer the rain.
The cool thing about beautiful places and geology, be it lakes, rivers, mountains, or waterfalls, is if there is one interesting feature, there are probably more nearby. There’s never really just one mountain view, or one beautiful beach, but it’s only the most impressive that makes our bucket list.
The Upper Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula get a lot of love. Don’t get me wrong, they are impressive— but even when Estee and I visited in early March they were crowded, and after seeing them plastered across every Instagram feed and Pure Michigan advertisement, they felt impersonal and overdone.
This isn’t to say that the Upper Falls aren’t worth the visit; the falls feature an impressive 50 foot drop and coffee-colored water. You can stand right at the edge of the falls and let the spray hit your face, which is a cool feeling. In the winter large icicles form at the waterfalls sides.
But the Lower Falls are so much better.
For starters, they aren’t over-photographed. When you walk out to them you don’t really know what to expect. It feels like you are discovering the falls rather than visiting a geotagged location to add a popular photo to your own collection.
Better yet, the falls are a series of five smaller falls, with more area to explore. There is enough of the Tahquamenon River, the Lower Falls, and the surrounding area to get thousands of different angles in a photo, and to actually feel like you know the falls yourself.
The hike out to the Lower Falls is longer. In the summer, it is about a mile round trip to the Falls and back. In winter, the summer lot isn’t open, and it was closer to two miles round trip.
The hike is rewarding. There are small bridges over streams and the path is heavily wooded; by the time we reached the falls we felt like we worked a little for it—more of an adventure than the Upper Falls. There was no one else around for a good portion of our hike, and only one other person on the platform.
Other than the header photo, I didn’t include any photos of the Lower Falls. The first reason for this is it was really too bright when I went to get any good photos. The second is that the Lower Falls are worth discovering for yourself.
Fun Story about the first Upper Falls Photo: Immediately after I took this, a dog came over to visit me and Estee! The Upper Falls might be crowded, but I will brave any crowd to pet a puppy!