The water is frigid, gently slapping the side of our slender sea kayak. I keep brushing my fingers against the waves as we paddle towards the Lake Superior sea caves off the northernmost tip of Wisconsin. The air is a balmy 88 degrees Fahrenheit, but Lake Superior is the world’s biggest refrigerator, staying cool all summer.
I’ll share all of the details that you’ll need to craft a perfect day of paddling the Lake Superior sea caves. I worked as a kayak guide in the sea caves for one of my first jobs in high school, and I still know these sandstone caves like the back of my hand. My boyfriend Andrew has only been in a sea kayak once before, so I got to relive my days as a guide. Best of all, despite the dreamy conditions, we got an early start and had the caves almost to ourselves.
What to Expect at the Sea Caves
If you head out to the Lake Superior sea caves, you can expect at least a few hours of paddling – the caves are over a mile from your launch point. Most guiding companies will do the sea caves tour as either a full or half day trip, depending on the company.
The paddle is a straight shot to your right from the Meyer’s Beach launch point, slicing your boat through the waves. The sea caves are on your right as you hug the shore. Keep an eye out for bald eagles – there’s a nest in the area. You can also see Eagle Island, one of the Apostle Islands, to your left. On clear days, you can see the north shore of Minnesota off in the distance.
The water along your paddle is generally very shallow. Enjoy watching the boulders pass by below you, but don’t hold your breath looking for fish. Lake Superior is so cold and clear that it has very few fish to see. Who knows, you might get lucky.
The sea Caves themselves
The first notable cave along your paddle is called The Crack. It’s a thin, deep fissure in the sandstone. From there, you’ll explore a variety of small hooplike caves. Even wide and stable double kayaks thread through many caves. Be sure to duck and pin your paddle to your side, or you’ll hit the sides! If you’re in a narrower boat on a glassy calm day, you can really squeeze through some small caves.
When you get to the huge, echoey caves known as The Amphitheater, be sure to look up. You’ll see a few layers of sandstone that are marked with the ripples of the bottom of the ocean. This is one of my favorite parts of the sea caves. Even on calm days, it’s worth pausing to listen to the glugs and slaps of the waves within the caves.
Most guide companies will stop for lunch at the aptly named Lunch Beach before turning around. That round trip paddle is about eight miles. As you near Lunch Beach, Sand Island comes into view. This is another of the Apostle Islands that makes up the park.
Airplane to Paddle: How to Get to the Sea Caves and Where to Stay
Getting to Bayfield:
The Lake Superior sea caves aren’t exactly close to anything. Bayfield, Wisconsin is a solid one and a half hour drive from Duluth, Minnesota. Madison, Wisconsin is five and a half hours away, and the Twin Cities are just over four hours away. No matter where you’re coming from, you’ll need a car with you. There’s extremely limited public transportation options in northern Wisconsin and it’s best to be entirely self-sufficient. Generally, flights to Minneapolis will be cheapest.
Where to stay:
Bayfield has no shortage of places to stay – the small town swells into a bustling tourism center every summer. You’ll find quiet and quaint bed and breakfasts as well as lakeside homes to rent. Personally, I recommend staying outside of Bayfield in the neighboring town of Washburn, as this gives you a more versatile launching point for your stay.
We stayed at my father’s Airbnb in Moquah, which is quite a drive from the sea caves but is nestled into a 40 acre retired dairy farm. The solitude is worth it in my book!
Why a Guide is Worth It
Once you’re settled in Bayfield, it’s time to find a guide service or boat rental. If you’re not a relatively experienced kayaker, go with a guide. Lake Superior’s weather, waves, and temperature are reliably unreliable and very cold.
The commercial guiding services are quite reasonable ($80-$100 for a full day paddle, including lunch) and the guides provide valuable expertise, safety, and entertainment along the way. Most guides are locals and they will share information on the history of the Lake Superior area, Glacial Lake Duluth, and the formation of the sea caves.
Aside from the safety and knowledge provided, guide companies come with a shuttle service. All you have to do is show up at the shop in the morning.
As a former employee of Trek and Trail, I can’t say enough good things about their senior guides. Two of the guides who taught me to paddle are now the owners after the original founder retired in 2014. The company has been in the area for over 30 years and is conveniently located right next to the Madeline Island Ferry Dock. There’s a painted kayak hanging above the door – you can’t miss it.
Once you book your day at the sea caves, you’ll be told when to show up for a safety briefing and your shuttle service. It’s that easy!
If you decide to rent your own boats instead of going with a guide service, you might have to go through a safety briefing with the company. After that, the guides will generally help you strap the boats to your car.
How to get to the sea caves
Head north out of Bayfield in County Highway 13. Simply follow Highway 13 for 17 miles. You’ll pass through the Ojibwe Tribe Red Cliff Reservation right outside of Bayfield. You’ll also pass some dogsledding operations on your left. Keep an eye out for a right-hand turn onto Meyer’s Road – that’s your turn. You should see some brown signs for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore that give you a bit of a heads up right before your turn.
What You’ll Need to Bring and Wear
If you’re going with a guiding company, you don’t need to bring much to the sea caves. Double check the weather to see if you need to bring rain gear, but always assume that you will get hit by sun rays and waves. Your checklist for the day should include:
- Water: although you’ll be surrounded by clear, cool, fresh water all day, you’ll need to bring a water bottle of your own.
- Sunscreen: with the sun reflecting up at you from the water, make sure that you protect your skin.
- Camera: the sea caves are certainly worth some photography!
- A dry change of clothes: staying in your wet swimsuit isn’t much fun after a long day of paddling, so be sure to bring clothes to change into.
- Sandals or other shoes that can get wet: despite Lake Superior’s sandy beaches, it’s smart to have some foot coverage that can withstand a soaking.
- Swimsuit: wear a swimsuit or wicking athletic clothing under your wetsuit. Make sure your clothing choice is comfortable, as you might want to strip down out of your wetsuit during lunch.
- Hat: sun over water can be quite intense, so don’t forget to protect your head!
- Sunglasses: the rays reflecting off of the water will be bright, and sunglasses help you enjoy the sea caves without squinting.
The guiding company will provide you with all of your kayaking gear, lunch, and wetsuits. Most companies will provide you with a dry bag for your gear for free or a small fee.
If you’re not going with a guiding company, plan on bringing lunch or snacks as well as all of your required kayaking gear. You will also need $5 to park at Meyer’s Beach if you drive on your own.
What the Rest of Your Stay Should Include
After a full day of paddling, you’ll need some grub. Head over to Maggie’s for a funky, flamingo-themed cafe in downtown Bayfield. The fish is fresh and the appletini is a local favorite. Bayfield doesn’t have much of a nightlife, but check the schedule for Bigtop Chautauqua to see if there are any shows in town. Bigtop is a giant circus tent nestled at the base of the local ski hill. Surprisingly big names like Shakey Graves and Trampled by Turtles play overlooking Lake Superior.
If you have another day, be sure to head out to Madeline Island for a day of wandering, or book a cruise through the Apostle Islands park. There are plenty of land- and water-based activities for everyone. Pick and choose from stand up paddleboards, hiking above the sea caves, fishing tours, waterfalls at Houghton Point, or just driving out to the infamous Delta Diner for a Wisconsin twist on Scandinavian brunch.
I grew up just a hop, skip and a jump from the Lake Superior sea caves – don’t hesitate to comment below or reach out if you’ve got questions or comments about the area!
Kayla is a biologist, writer, and web designer. She’s passionate about animal behavior, the science of habits, and anything outdoors.