Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: It's Really About the Islands

Though it's officially a "lakeshore," the main attraction at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are its 21 islands. NPS photo.

No one postcard can fully capture Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Indeed, "lakeshore" might just be the wrong descriptor for this jewel of Lake Superior, as the park's essence is an archipelago of 22 islands (one of which falls outside the lakeshore).

While Apostle Islands National Lakeshore does count 12 miles of Terra Firma, those who visit most often come to see the islands, which are well worth the trip, or to play in the water that surrounds them. The islands range in size from 3-acre Gull Island to 10,054-acre Stockton Island, and they stand somewhere between 10 feet (Gull Island) and 479 feet (Oak Island) above the lake level.

The products of glaciation and erosion that have sculpted the sandstone features of the lakeshore, Apostle Islands' islands have not gone unnoticed among the mainstream media, even if they are somewhat isolated in a remote corner of northern Wisconsin.

In 2005 National Geographic Traveler ranked Apostle Islands as the top U.S. national park in terms of sustainable destinations. Outdoor Life, meanwhile, back in June pointed out Apostle Islands as one of the National Park System's "overlooked gems."

Some fairly respectful kudos for one of the lesser known units of the National Park System, no? Of course, the lakeshore hasn't been overlooked by everyone. Lake Superior's shimmering waters and the islands lure sea kayakers, boaters, scuba divers and sailors during the warm weather months. In winter, Apostle Islands is practically deserted, save for some hardy ice fishermen and women, those intrigued by the lakeshore's ice caves, and, if the lake's ice is thick enough, snowmobilers.

The sea kayakers usually are interested in exploring “sea caves” that burrow into Sand and Devils islands. When the lake is calm you can paddle your kayak into these caves, some of which burrow back into the islands 100 feet or more. Beyond the sea caves, kayakers can choose from among 18 forested islands to set up camp for an overnight journey through the lakeshore's islands.

Divers, meanwhile, descend on ship wrecks dating to 1886, when the 195-foot schooner Lucerne went down with a belly full of iron ore. History buffs who prefer dry land admire the lakeshore's six light stations. Those beacons not only reflect the United States’ largest and most diverse collection of light stations, but all are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Now, when Apostle Islands gained entry into the National Park System back on September 26, 1970, its managers were tasked with with a goal not only offering recreational outlets, but also "preserving scientific, historic, geological, and archaeological features contributing to public education, inspiration, and enjoyment..."

It's not been easy for the lakeshore's stewards to fulfill those goals, though. Not only have funding problems so far prevented full restoration of Apostle Islands' light stations, but climate change is impacting the lakeshore's resources and fish diseases and non-native species that already have invaded some of the other Great Lakes are a recognized threat officials hope to keep out of Lake Superior.

More often than not we look at the National Park System as this collection of wonderful places where we can find some of the country's most beautiful scenery, most poignant history, and most incredible recreational opportunities. Unfortunately, we must recognize and tackle the challenges that park units face if we are to save these unique places for future generations.

Apostle Islands Trivia: How the islands collectively became known as the "Apostle" islands is a matter of conjecture. Though Jesus had 12 apostles, not 22, park historians speculate that the islands' name was bestowed by 17th century Jesuit missionaries who wanted to honor the Apostles by naming a beautiful place after them.


I'd second this recommendation as a park to put on a list of great visits. My wife and I had the chance to spend several days at Apostle Islands last summer, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay. The concession-operated boat tour was done well, and provided not only a good overview of the park, but also the chance to spend a couple of hours on Raspberry Island and take an interpretive tour of the restored lighthouse.