Wisconsin is a place you expect to find rolling farmland, forests, and plenty of lakes. But did you know it’s also where you’ll find nearly two dozen islands that are perfect for camping? If you like kayaking, boating, or love the big waves and open skies of the Great Lakes, consider planning an Apostle Islands camping adventure.
The Apostle Islands are a group of 22 Lake Superior islands off Wisconsin’s northernmost shore. Twenty-one of the islands and 12 miles of shoreline on the mainland are designated as Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, an area of natural beauty and significance that’s protected by the federal government. (The largest island, Madeline Island, is not part of the national lakeshore. It can be reached by car ferry and is the only island with a town and permanent residents.)
The jumping off point for most Apostle Islands excursions is Bayfield, Wisconsin, a tourist-friendly town with shops, restaurants, lodging, and a car ferry that regularly makes the 20-minute crossing to Madeline Island. Further north, you’ll find the communities of Red Cliff and Cornucopia, two destinations that also offer camping, lodging, and recreational opportunities.
Whether you’re a backcountry camper or are looking for a spot to set up an RV, the Apostle Islands have a variety of camping options.
Apostle Islands Camping Via RV & Car Camping
RV or car camping is only possible on Madeline Island and on the mainland. That said, plenty of people use these locations as their camping home base and explore other islands during the day using tour boats, kayaks, or their own boats.
Apostle Islands Area Campground
Apostle Islands Area Campground has been in operation for 50 years and since 2017 it’s been owned and operated by the Krivoshein family. There are 63 RV-friendly wooded sites, shower and restroom facilities, camp store, coin-operated laundry, and free wi-fi throughout the campground. It’s located just a mile south of Bayfield and a few minutes from the ferry dock.
This small campground offers prime lakeside campsites but it’s first-come, first-serve so arrive early if you hope to get one on a summer weekend. The campground is managed by the city of Bayfield and there are 28 rustic tent and RV sites. Most sites have electrical hook-ups. There are no water hook-ups but there is potable water available at the campground and vault toilets.
Little Sand Bay Campground
Located 15 minutes north of the city of Bayfield and along Lake Superior is Little Sand Bay Campground. The campground has 32 RV-only sites, 13 tent-only sites, and a group site. There’s also potable water, shower/restroom facilities, and a dump station for RVs. If you’re looking to get close to the water, the campground also has a beach and is adjacent to a marina and boat launch.
There are two campgrounds on Madeline Island and both allow tents and RVs. To reach these campgrounds, you’ll have to take the Madeline Island Ferry.
Big Bay State Park
Big Bay State Park covers more than 2,000 acres of trees and bluffs on the southeastern side of Madeline Island. There’s plenty to explore here from the 1.5-mile beach (where you can brave the chilly Lake Superior waters) to 7 miles of hiking and nature trails. The campground has 60 campsites (21 with electrical hook-ups), shower and restroom facilities, and two group camps. Unlike other state parks, camping reservations are required and can be made the day of or up to 11 months in advance.
Big Bay Town Park
The other campground on Madeline Island is Big Bay Town Park, a private campground that’s managed by the town of La Pointe. It has 61 campsites (22 with electrical hook-ups), showers and restroom facilities, a sandy beach, public access to Big Bay Lagoon, and a reservable picnic shelter.
Camping is allowed on 18 of the Apostle Islands but access and type of camping varies. Two of the islands can be reached via ferry. A local ferry company offers shuttle service for overnight campers to Stockton and Oak islands.
The rest of the islands can only be accessed via private watercraft such as a kayak, sailboat, or motorboat. They have some designated sites and camping “zones” where backcountry camping is allowed. No matter which type of camping you do on the islands, reservations and camping permits are required and must be purchased through the National Park Service.
By Shuttle Service
In normal years, Apostle Islands Cruises offers shuttle service for campers to Stockton and Oak islands. Unfortunately because of the pandemic, these shuttle services will not be offered in 2021. Apostle Islands Cruises hopes to have all cruises up and running again in 2022.
After Madeline Island, Stockton Island is the largest in the Apostles. It has a ranger station, two boat docks, sandy beaches, 14 miles of hiking trails, 21 individual campsites (including an ADA-accessible site), and 2 group camp sites. It’s also worth mentioning that Stockton Island has black bears—one of the highest concentrations in North America. (There are an estimated 20-30 bears on the 15-square-mile island.) Be prepared to follow good bear etiquette and use the provided bear-proof food lockers.
Oak Island is a popular destination for kayakers, but it can also be reached by the Apostle Islands Cruises shuttle service. It has one dock, anchorage areas for private boats, and 11.5 miles of hiking trails. There are 5 individual sites, 2 group sites, and designated camping zones.
Apostle Islands Camping By Kayak or Boat
If you’d like to camp on any of the remaining islands where camping is allowed, you’ll need to use a kayak, sailboat, or motor boat to get there. Kayaking is a popular way to tour these islands. You can sign up with a local outfitter for a guided trip or use your own equipment and plan your own itinerary. Check with the National Park Service for information about each island’s specific campsites and camping zones.
If you plan to kayak, it’s important to know that even though Lake Superior is technically a lake, it behaves more like the ocean. Sea kayaks with spray skirts (and wetsuits!) are a must if you plan to paddle to any of the islands and you should be an experienced paddler. Even in summer, the water temperature is very cold and can quickly lead to hypothermia if you get wet.
If you’ve never kayaked on the Great Lakes, it’s a good idea to go on a guided trip with an experienced outfitter. Here are a few to check out:
And of course, if you’re not quite ready to commit to an island camping trip, you can also rent kayaks (or take a tour) to explore the islands for a day.
How To Explore The Apostle Islands For Only $100