If you want to get to either the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean, there’s no denying it: Wisconsin is not conveniently located.
But it has its own conveniently located coasts — one along Lake Michigan, the other along Lake Superior. As the Great Lakes T-shirts say: No salt, no sharks, no worries!
The coast of Wisconsin is gorgeous, ranging from tranquil sand shores to rugged cliffs. Native Americans knew both the beauty and the bounty of these coasts, and in our enjoyment of them today we strive to be good stewards of the land.
It’s not the east coast or the west coast, even though sometimes and in some places it can masquerade as either. We like that just fine.
Three big beaches, not that far away
In the Lake Michigan beach sweepstakes, Michigan got the impressive dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. But Wisconsin’s shoreline has welcoming, albeit smaller, sands of its own. A series of three fine state beaches dot the shore north of Milwaukee and south of Door County. Camping is available at all three; lifeguards at none.
Of the three, the southernmost, Harrington Beach State Park, north of Port Washington, is the smallest, with a mile of beachfront and seven miles of hiking trail. But it’s also the one most friendly to people with accessibility needs. An accessible campsite, cabin, trail and fishing pier are onsite, as well as a beach-accessible wheelchair.
The park also has its own observatory with a 20-inch telescope and a “roll-off roof” design that reveals the night sky. Educational programs take place throughout the summer; check the park schedule.
Kohler-Andrae State Park just south of Sheboygan has created a special way to access its fragile sand dunes — two miles of cordwalk, that is, boardwalk strung together flexibly with rope, lets visitors walk on the dunes without destroying them. Once you do make it to the water’s edge, there’s two miles of sand beach.
Point Beach State Forest, north of Two Rivers, lacks the dune-friendly cordwalk of Kohler Andrae, but has six miles of beach to wander. There’s a dedicated dog-friendly beach area, which is generously sized. And if you don’t like hiking on sand, there are 17 miles of hiking trail among forested sand ridges, with many pretty glimpses of the lake. There’s even Rawley’s Point Lighthouse (picturesque, but no tours).
In the middle of this stretch, Sheboygan (the bratwurst capital of the world) requires a visit to the Charcoal Inn for the local specialties, or pick up some raw brats to take home at Miesfeld’s. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center and the new Art Preserve showcase folk and so-called “outsider” artists; the Preserve recreates the environments of outsider artists whose work encompasses their entire surroundings, not just a canvas in a frame.
Sheboygan is a Great Lakes surfing mecca, but the waves are best in fall and winter. Still, lessons and rentals for surfing, kayaking, kiteboarding and stand-up paddleboarding are available at EOS Surf Shop in Sheboygan.
The best beach in Wisconsin
When I’m thinking about the best beach in Wisconsin, Big Bay Beach is the first place that pops into my mind. I’m not alone. It pops up as number one or two in a Google search for best beach in Wisconsin, too.
Big Bay takes some effort to get to, but it’s worth it. It’s on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, the only one of the Apostle Islands that is permanently inhabited. Head to Bayfield, at the very top of the state — and hop on the ferry to Madeline Island.
The beach’s long arc of sand is a part of two parks, Big Bay State Park and the town of La Pointe’s Big Bay Town Park. The parks have more than four miles of shoreline and about two miles of sand beach.
Rand Moore of Madison has worked as an occasional campground host at the town park off and on for the last seven years. He calls the beach remote and refreshing. “The water is crystal clear, and you’re surrounded by the biggest freshwater lake in the world. It’s an ocean.” The big half circle of the beach faces east, and “it’s shallow, so it’s warmer.”
While the bottom of the beach is mostly sandy, Moore says that the beach has also won “Best Rock Picking Beach” from Lake Superior Magazine, and beachcombers should look for “mostly little outcroppings of certain kinds of rock.”
Helpful to those traveling with a pooch: while dogs are off-limits on the state beach, leashed dogs are allowed on the town beach, “It’s truly dog-friendly. I call it Westminster north,” says Moore.
The bay isn’t the only standout feature of Big Bay. There’s a calm lagoon, protected by the beach, part of Big Bay Sand Spit and Bog State Natural Area. The lagoon is a popular fishing and boating area (canoe and rowboat rentals, for the lagoon only, are available at the town park). Several special vegetations are found here — quaking sphagnum-sedge bog, lichens, bearberry, low juniper, false heather, blueberry and huckleberry, and a floating bog conifer swamp of white cedar, black and white spruces, and tamarack. It’s a special coastal ecology with its own calm beauty.
To get to Big Bay Beach, take your car or a bike on the ferry (fees for passenger-only, bike and cars vary), because Big Bay is about six miles east of the ferry landing at La Pointe.
And if you’re want to stay overnight, plan ahead. “In July and August, campsites are almost unreservable, even during the week,” says Moore.
La Pointe, Madeline’s “town,” is a gathering spot for those coming and going via the ferry. Tom’s Burned Down Cafe, a mostly outdoor bar-restaurant that might seem more at home in hippie outposts along the coasts in Northern California, is the must-visit hangout. Bayfield, the charming, boaty mainland town the ferry leaves from, is also worth spending time in, with two excellent bookstores, Apostle Islands Booksellers and Honest Dog Books, and the venerable Gruenke’s First Street Inn & Dining. The specialty there is whitefish livers, lightly breaded and fried, which I would love to tell you more about — except they are always sold out when I visit. “Those folks just ordered the last plate,” I was told the last time I was in. The Lake Superior whitefish or trout is a great substitute.
Besides Madeline Island there are 21 other Apostle Islands, part of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The National Parks Service runs a boat shuttle for those who are day tripping (a couple hours can be spent sunning, swimming or exploring various islands before being picked up again) or postpone your return for a few days and do some camping. COVID-19 prompted the shutdown of camping on the islands; 2022 is the first season back. Eighteen of the 21 islands have rustic campsites.
Former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is a fan of the Apostles, having volunteered for several years for two-week stints as the lighthouse keeper and tour guide on Sand Island, the isle farthest west. “Everything was cool about it,” says Cieslewicz. “The remoteness of it is the big attraction. Once you’re there, you’re there.”
Cieslewicz also offers a mainland tip — “Ashland is a really cool town, it has a little bit of a Willy Street vibe. There’s the Black Cat Coffeehouse, which really could be on Willy Street, and across the street is the Ashland Baking Company, a really good bakery.” Unlike other small northland towns, he says, Ashland “didn’t mess up their downtown at all, so they have great buildings from the logging or mining booms, wonderfully intact.”
Besides solitude, the Apostles have a handful of historic and working lighthouses, at least four of which offer guided tours from volunteer keepers over the summer. There’s also the historic Manitou Island fish camp, from the early 20th century, and the new visitor’s center on Little Sand Bay, which relates the long history of the Ojibwe people in the Apostles and offers a welcome in Ojibwemowin: “…We have always called this place home. Everything all over the land has created our way of life. Everyone (the fish, the birds, the insects, the spirits in the forest, Lake Superior, and sky) is where our culture comes from.”
What can I say about Door County that has not already been said? People love Peninsula State Park (you have to be on your toes to grab a campsite there) for the miles of off-road bicycling, and the dark sky-designated Newport State Park for star-gazing and hike-in camping right on Lake Michigan.
Door County has somehow managed to maintain much of its original charm over the last 40 years, despite steady development. Although Bailey’s Harbor (on “the quiet side” aka the Lake Michigan side) has gotten to be a hubbub of bars and restaurants, little Jacksonport retains the sleepy quality that quiet side devotees treasure. And it’s a great place to rent a kayak or sign up for a kayak tour to nearby Cave Point, a county park where paddlers can explore sea caves in the craggy dolomite.
On the busier Green Bay side, towns north of the magnets of Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim and Sister Bay also retain a quiet magic. Ellison Bay still boasts a great little town beach. Don’t miss the terrific fried whitefish basket at the Mink River Basin and try out Island Orchard Cider onsite at its tasting room on the way to Door Bluff Headlands County Park, which offers high bluff views of Green Bay and an up-close encounter with the rock of the Niagara Escarpment. The ridge of dolomite runs down the length of Door County and yes, it is the same rock that the mighty Niagara flows over at Niagara Falls. Farther north, at Gill’s Rock, duck into Charlie’s Smokehouse for some postcards and smoked whitefish.
Driving or biking one of the interior roads reveals working farms, picturesque pioneer barns, grazing sheep and hand-built rock walls. It’s no wonder that the Door County Plein Air Festival draws art fans from all over the U.S. From July 24-30, 34 invited painters will paint outdoors, scenes from marinas to farmsteads, and collectors will clamor to buy the results in this painting competition/outdoor art gallery. Invited artists will paint at designated spots at certain times and these sessions are open to the public; other events are restricted to those who buy a special Palette Pass. The full schedule is at peninsulaschoolofart.org.
Very, very, very long sandbar
Wisconsin Point isn’t fancy, but it doesn’t need to be; that’s the, er, point.
Located just north of the city of Superior, Wisconsin Point has no campground, no refreshment stands, and few amenities, just a long asphalt drive and a series of parking lot pull-offs.
Wild waves and the great power of Lake Superior distinguish these three miles of uninterrupted sand beach, punctuated by the Wisconsin Point Lighthouse.
Climb over the grassy dunes and you have reached what Lake Superior Magazine has dubbed the best strolling beach in Wisconsin. Not sure if they give an award for this, but it’s also a great place to comb for driftwood. You can legally bring your leashed dog and you can also legally build a beach bonfire. There’s a marker honoring an original burial ground for the Fond du Lac band of the Chippewa (the burials were moved to the city of Superior in 1919).
Accessible vault toilets are located at parking lots 1 and 5. For those needing accessibility aids, there are boardwalks that go from the parking areas to the top of the dunes for a beach overview, but not down to the water.
Linda Cadotte, director of parks, recreation and forestry for the city of Superior, notes there are no lifeguards at Wisconsin Point and recommends nearby Barker’s Island Beach, in Superior, which has undergone an extensive renovation. It not only has lifeguards and buoys marking a swim area, it has special access mats that go right down to the water’s edge for those who have difficulty walking on sand or who are using a floating chair.
Barker’s Island Beach is also protected from the force of the big lake by Minnesota Point, the sand spit that matches Wisconsin Point but coming from the Duluth side. Together the two sandbars shelter Allouez Bay, the mouth of the St. Louis river. They also form the longest freshwater sandbar in the world — and that’s not the opinion of Lake Superior Magazine; that’s just a fact.
If you’re looking for a quiet little piece of Lake Michigan where you’re unlikely to be disturbed by anyone, the Legacy Preserve at Clay Banks near Sturgeon Bay, part of the Door County Land Trust, offers a vast view of the lake and the distant Door Peninsula from a bluff. Continue your short hike down to the lakefront to find a half-mile of undeveloped shoreline. No picnic tables, no bathrooms, just you and the lake.
Frog Bay Tribal National Park is a special place on the lands of the Miskwaabekong or Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. It is the first tribal national park in the United States, built in part to protect the lower estuary and mouth of Frog Creek. It’s open to the public, but use a map, found at the trailhead, to keep to the public trails. The winding path, through wooded ridges and ravines, is just 1.25 miles down to the beach at Frog Bay, the quietest and clearest bit of Lake Superior I’ve ever seen. This isn’t a big beach meant for a lot of people; it’s a small gem that encourages meditation and reverence for the land. On a clear day at least a couple of the Apostles should be visible. Frog Bay is about seven miles north of Bayfield. Where State Highway 13 heads west just past the casino, turn onto Blueberry Road and then take a final right on Frog Bay Road.
Schoolhouse Beach, on Washington Island off the tip of Door County, is well known for its stretch of perfectly round stones and protected swimming area. But it is on all the tour stops. A more tranquil site nearby is the Little Lake Nature Preserve, which features a 1.25-mile trail leading to a lake just 250 feet from Lake Michigan. Both Little Lake and the quiet 5,000 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline preserved here are secluded surprises.