Kayaking the Apostle Islands mainland sea caves
The mainland sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are a playground for kayakers. Chelsey Lewis
On the northwestern tip of the Bayfield peninsula, a more than 2-mile strip of land is protected as part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The land features the towering red sandstone cliffs that are characteristic of the islands, with Lake Superior carving out watery tunnels, caves and passageways best explored by kayak.
Because the trip to these mainland sea caves does not require an open-water crossing as other trips in the islands do, it’s a good place for beginner kayakers to get a taste of the caves and for experienced paddlers to sneak in a quick trip.
Inexperienced sea kayakers should go with a guide. Lake Superior is no calm inland lake — water temperatures struggle to top 55 degrees in the summer, and squalls can blow in and kick up dangerous waves quickly. Once you reach the caves, where wave conditions can differ from those at the launch, there are almost no safe places to land if you get into trouble.
The National Park Service advises that all kayakers use a seaworthy craft of at least 16 feet, with a PFD, a wet or dry suit and a spray skirt. It’s also advisable to have a bilge pump, compass, charts, extra paddle, paddle float, tow line and throw bag, and be able to perform a self or assisted rescue. If you don’t know what any of those things are, you probably should not be kayaking the caves on your own.
Before heading out, check wave conditions around the caves at wavesatseacaves.cee.wisc.edu, a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison that posts real-time wave data at the caves, which can be different from the conditions at the launch point.
If you're prepared and the conditions are right, kayaking the caves is a magical experience.
Sea kayaking is often the marathon of kayaking — long, open-water paddles across lakes and oceans with nothing but blue above and below. But paddling to the caves is something of a kayaking obstacle course.
Launch from Meyers Beach, where you'll need to carry your kayak down a flight of stairs from the parking lot to the beach (note the beach has pit toilets but no water pump; bring water or something to treat Lake Superior's water). From there, paddle just over a mile along the beach to the start of the caves. The red sandstone cliffs stretch for two more miles, with countless slot canyons, caves, tunnels, archways and other rock formations to paddle in, through and around.
Tour groups often launch in late morning and early afternoon, so if you go earlier or later, you'll avoid big groups that can sometimes clog some of the coolest caverns. Afternoon is ideal, with the sun to the west casting a golden glow on the cliffs.
The paddle there and back can take anywhere from one to three hours, depending on how far and fast you paddle.
Do take your time. In the marathon sport of sea kayaking, think of this is a scenic stroll to see one of Wisconsin's greatest natural treasures.
More information: Living Adventure out of Bayfield offers day trips to visit the caves ($109), as well as kayak rentals ($69). If you rent, you'll be required to go through a 3-hour safety course ($50) before heading out. Call (866) 779-9503 or see livingadventure.com.