The Lake Superior Water Trail spans the “North Coast” of Wisconsin, changing complexion many times along the way from the industrial-heavy ports of Superior, through the Apostle Island National Lakeshore, and finally to the Montreal river. From urban ports to quiet bays, estuaries, wetlands, sandy beaches and red clay cliffs, to breathtaking sandstone formations, outcrops, and sea caves, everything is a bit more dramatic on Lake Superior.
Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes but Wisconsin’s coastline is a fraction of what Lake Michigan’s is. The Lake Superior Water Trail covers 200 miles of shoreline as well as that of Madeline Island, which is considered one of the Apostle Islands but not technically part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Much like the Lake Michigan State Water Trail, the Wisconsin section of the Lake Superior trail is a work in progress which will ultimately connect Minnesota, Michigan and Ontario’s shorelines to promote exploration and tourism. It’s one ambitious endeavor as Superior one of the most unforgiving of Great Lakes, especially for paddlers.
Lake Superior and all of the Great Lakes are not for casual paddlers. Only those with the proper skill, experience, training, equipment and preparation should ever attempt to paddle Lake Superior no matter how calm it looks. Wind, waves and storms can strike at a moments notice and the temperature of the water is not something to take lightly, especially when planning open water crossings. For those skilled and equipped however, the trail is a uniquely rewarding adventure for multi-night trips. It’s every bit as beautiful, as it is historic and cultural along this shoreline.
Paddling Style: Great Lakes Paddling
Best Suited For: Sea Kayaks
Camping Location: Lakeside + Near Lakeside + Island
Availability: First Come, First Served + Reservable Designated Campground Sites
Type: Primitive + Rustic + Modern
Paddle-in: Yes | Walk-in: Yes
Camping Fee: Yes (Varies) | Camping Permit: Yes + No
While there are numerous access points, there are currently only eleven public campgrounds along the trail – one being the Apostle Island National Shoreline which has its own rules, regulations and requires a permit. However, these are shorter distances between campsites than you’ll find on the Lake Michigan State Water Trail, and there are private campgrounds along the way as well (we do not note these on our maps). Madeline Island, a destination in its own right, also has two campgrounds.
Camping styles range greatly from primitive to modern, and fees and regulations vary along the shore, as do the variety of amenities and sites on the water. Some of the more remote campsites will require proper practice of Leave No Trace ethics. Also, do note that not all of the shore is public. There’s plenty of private property, so only use designated or public access points and campsites.
Paddling the Lake Superior Water Trail:
The detailed Lake Superior Water Trail Guide provided by the Northwest Regional Planning Commission is the go-to resource for considering an endeavor like the Lake Superior Water Trail (before or after you’ve already checked out guidebooks, topo maps, navigational charts, and of course, weather information). The guide provides incredibly detailed information about each section, along with maps to help plan your trip. Broken into twelve segments, it outlines the characteristics and challenges you’ll encounter. It’s a fantastic resource and should help in planning your route with realistic spacing between campsites – in addition to all other considerations that come with paddling or camping on Lake Superior.
The environment naturally ebbs and flows with Wisconsin’s geography and industrial makeup. There’s much commercial and recreational activity in certain sections to consider, so caution is required. Local outfitters are also available in certain locales as well.
St. Louis River to Superior Bay
Miles: ≈10.75-11.75 | Map + Guide
Starting in the far western part of the trail, there’s many access points to begin your journey up the St. Louis River through the quiet coastal wetlands, bay, and eventually into the industrial-heavy Superior Bay. This is not for the feint of heart as commercial traffic is intimidating. There are no public camping opportunties on this section.
Superior Urban Waterfront
Miles: ≈5-5.5 | Map + Guide
The Superior Urban Waterfront is accurately named. It’s as beautifully urban as it is industrial with working ports and heavy ships making it less-natural but still incredibly unique. It’s also one that paddlers need to be cautious of as it’s a busy gateway for ships traveling to and from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Camping at Nemadji River Campground is an ideal place to start or end this urban tour.
Nemadji River Campground
Wisconsin Point to Brule River
Miles: ≈21.5 | Map + Guide
Nemadji River Campground makes a great start to this section which heads east up the coast towards the outlet to the (Bois) Brule River (a great canoe-camping option on its own accord, but more of a traditional campground camping option). Red clay bluffs dot the shoreline as other rivers and streams drain into the lake, and there are many sandbars and remote beaches along this stretch.
Nemadji River Campground
Brule River to Herbster
Miles: ≈18.75-19.5 | Map + Guide
Brule River to Herbster gently winds its way northeast where you’ll encounter small, rocky beaches and many high bluffs. Near Port Wing, most of the land is private, so a casual exit would be difficult. Near the end of this trip lies the Herbster campground which makes for an easy camping option.
Town of Clover/Herbster Campground
Herbster to Siskiwit Bay
Miles: ≈9.5-13.75 | Map + Guide
From Herbster Campground, this trip travels up and around Bark Point into Bark Bay where you’ll find sandy and rocky beaches with moderate bluffs along sometimes choppy water. Bark River and Bark Bay Slough are a reknown estuary for pristine water quality. Once you near Cornicopia, there are many access points to take-out.
Town of Clover/Herbster Campground
Siskiwit Bay to Little Sand Bay
Miles: ≈14.5-16 | Map + Guide
Siskiwit Bay to Little Sand is a mixed bag as far as paddle-camping goes because the shoreline becomes the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore past Meyers Beach – the most popular public access point to the Apostles. That said, while the Apostle Island mainland campsite requires a permit, there are two public campgrounds near the end of this fifteen-ish mile section that are accommodating to paddlers as well. The shoreline along this section is spectacular and where the alluring and most accessible sea caves reside which draw paddlers in from around the world.
Little Sand Bay to Bayfield
Miles: ≈16.5-18.25 | Map + Guide
Little Sand Bay to Bayfield is remote, rugged, wild, and arguably the most scenic of all sections as it’s filled with many photogenic sea caves and rock formations along the coast. As a gateway to the Apostle Islands, this section is amazing before aesthetically settling down on its way past Raspberry Point and before Frog Bay – the first National Tribal Park of its kind. From put-in to take-out, there are four camping options outside of the Apostle Island Lakeshore to consider.
Bayfield to Washburn (Chequamegon Bay)
Miles: ≈13.5-18.75 | Map + Guide
Bayfield resides within the rather large Chequamegon Bay. Despite its urban shoreline, the waterfront has some large and scenic expanses of beachfront along the way. There are three campgrounds – one located at the put-in, two located at the take-out, and one not far beyond the southwest take-out.
Washburn to Fish Creek (Chequamegon Bay)
Miles: ≈6.75-7.75 | Map + Guide
This short section is full of gentle bluffs and small streams flowing into the bay. It makes for a relatively easy paddle as it’s largely protected by strong northwest winds due to its natural geography.
Ashland Waterfront (Chequamagon Bay)
Miles: ≈6.75-9.5 | Map + Guide
Anyone whose been there will tell you the same thing, Ashland is awesome. This short stretch is mostly urban paddling along marinas and ports but its beauty lies in the waterfront of one of Wisconsin’s great northern cities. Prentice Park is a great campground along this section.
Prentice Park City Campground
Ashland to Montreal River
Miles: ≈36.5-37.25 | Map + Guide
Here’s the longest and most disconnected part of this whole trail. With very little access from beginning to end, this thirty-plus mile stretch is diverse but also remote and requires paddling around the long Chequamegon Point and then past the wooded and sandy shores of tribal lands. The only camping option is southwest of the Wisconsin and Michigan boundary line prior to the Montreal River.
Saxon Harbor Park
Miles: ≈32.5 | Map + Guide
Madeline Island is the largest Apostle Island but not part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore so it isn’t managed by the National Park Service. The alluring blue waters and numerous access points with two great camping options (Big Bay State Park and Big Bay County Park) make this a destination worthy of its own paddle-camping trip. Bluffs, lagoons, bogs, exposed rocky shorelines, sandstone cliffs, rock formations and caves all make this unique and varied island an incredibly appealing option.
Maps + Guides:
Lake Superior Water Trail Brochure
Lake Superior Water Trail Map
Lake Superior Water Trail Guide (Low Res: 16mb)
Lake Superior Water Trail Guide (High Res: 80mb)
Lake Superior Water Trail Interactive Map