Touring the Sea Caves of the National Lakeshore in Bayfield County:
Very likely the most beautiful sea kayaking experience anywhere in the state of Wisconsin, the National Lakeshore girding the northern tip of the Bayfield Peninsula is blessed with sandstone caves, cliffs, rock shelves and arches, all set against a huge blue sky and an inland sea of jade green water for miles on end and as far as the eye can take.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 15, 2014
Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Great Lakes Paddling
Put-In + Take-Out:
Meyers Beach, Cornucopia, Wisconsin
GPS: 46.88402, -91.04902
Time: Put in at 1:00p. Out at 4:00p.
Total Time: 3h
Miles Paddled: 10.5
Cormorants, seagulls, two bald eagles and a gazillion sandpipers.
The northern tip of the Bayfield Peninsula – from Cornucopia, a fishing village that is the state’s northernmost town, to Bayfield, the picturesque nook atop a hill overlooking the lake – is blessed with magnificent sandstone cliffs that have been sculpted by eons of wave and wind, etched by cycles of groundwater freezing and thawing percolated within the porous rock, all of which have created a veritable playground of gorgeous geology, the most stunning of which are caves, tunnels and arches.
I cannot overstate the incredible grandeur of this area. This is, of course, an iconic paddle trip experience but for good reason. Consider it a pilgrimage. Yes, there will be a lot of other kayakers out on the water and yes, if you do paddle, you should put this trip on your must-do list at some time in your life. It’s worth the drive, regardless of how far you’re coming from.
Meyers Beach is found at the end of a long side road off of Highway 13 named Meyers Road, four miles north of “Corny” and there’s a road sign signaling the turn as you approach it. I mention this so that you don’t scour the town of Cornucopia for a road that doesn’t exist there. True, there is a beach in Corny you may launch from but that adds at least 4-5 miles of paddling that does not offer the stunning geology further north.
What we liked:
The cliffs, the caves, the coves, the arches, the turrets, the tunnels, the color of the water, the immensity of Lake Superior – the whole damn wondrous feeling of being alive and unbelievably lucky enough to be experiencing such arresting beauty in the first place! I’m not exaggerating and this isn’t just me. All the paddlers out there had the same awestruck and joy-smitten expression on their faces; you can’t not – the sublime nature of it all just radiates.
Let me be a little more objective.
It’s about a mile or so to paddle to the first incline of cliffs. Beforehand, it’s all undeveloped sandy shoreline. Once the cliffs begin, they don’t end until the beach at the midway/turnaround point. It’s nonstop action, all of it arresting. At times blindingly bright, at others, mysteriously cool and dark, the great lake here is a chiaroscuro work of art in contrasts of light and shadow.
Depending on the time of year you paddle and/or recent rainfall, there are many seeps within the porous sandstone out of which water trickles, percolates or pours out with no real waterfalls per se but some refreshing spritzes for sure! Some of the cliffs contain mineral deposits which, mixed with water and oxidation, exude some incredible streaks of colors but it’s nowhere as phenomenal as what you find at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore nearby in the U.P. You’ll see lots of ferns and just the most romantic, quixotic tree roots clinging on to dear life staying alive who knows how.
There are a few caves that you can thread your way through and even a couple you could duck under and try your luck (as long you’re not claustrophobic) but most are like recesses and back alleyways, grottos. Together with the many tunnels and eyelets to paddle directly through or under, the experience is breathtaking.
Four miles of paddling takes you to the first beach and safe spot of terra firma to get out, stretch your legs, heed nature’s call, go for a swim, have a picnic, etc. Most folks turn around here and head back to Meyers Beach. The next take-out location is 6.7 miles away at Sand Beach.
What we didn’t like:
First off, whatever I’m about to say is pipsqueak stuff fit for pampered royalty or spoiled rich kids. This trip is so full of wonder that there’s precious little to dislike.
That said, the parking lot at Meyers Beach will not be a pleasurable experience for the following types of people: Those who A) don’t like government, much less so-called “big” government and/or B) outfitters with their gear everywhere and large trailers that take up four private cars of space and lots of people in general, tourists or locals.
A little more on points A and B:
A) This is an official National Parks launching area, so you’ll be shaken for a $3 day usage fee. To what this money goes, I have no idea but it’s only $3, so who cares? Next, expect to be greeted by a ranger who will cordially ask you some basic questions. In the case of kayaking, you’ll be asked if you have a spray skirt, PFD/life jacket and wetsuit. I did because it would be foolish not to have those things when embarking upon the unpredictable whims of Lake Superior.
I don’t know if the ranger would actually prohibit you from launching if you didn’t possess any of those three items but like I said, it’s basic stuff you should have already. That said, I was roasting hot and sweaty like a suckling pig by the time I reached the halfway point at the beach. I paused there to just sit on the sand after taking a refreshing dip and swam like a sweet seal in that clean, clear water and soak the whole scene in. It’s a good place to stretch your legs combing the beach and having a lunch. But I paddled back just in shorts, no shirt and with my PFD off but near. No spray skirt either. I could do this because there was zero wind and the lake was calm. I was lucky! Always be prepared when you’re out on Lake Superior.
B) I paddled this on a Friday afternoon in mid-August and I had the bad timing of beginning when one large group was taking out but the good timing to begin before the next one had their act together. Point is, you will be sharing the water (it’s a big lake!). But because the parking lot tends to get busy, expect to carry your boat about 100 yards to the beach, including a steepish stairwell. It’s a concrete parking lot so I don’t recommend dragging your boat. Best to carry it with a buddy or use a caddy/trailer.
If you plan on paddling this trip by renting from an outfitter, you’ll likely need to go along with a group. I don’t think any outfitter just rents a boat to you and off you go on your own (maybe if you whipped out your American Canoe Association card for instant street cred but then again if you were that kind of person, you’d probably have your own boat, one of many, and not renting in the first place). If that is the case, plan on your paddle taking about 8 hours. The reason for this is not only will you be with a group of others and corralling tourists is like herding feral cats but more to the point – you’ll first need to take a basic emergency rescue training course before they assume the liability of escorting you out on Lake Superior. This is a good thing, to be sure but something to factor in before you head up to the peninsula sans kayak but want to paddle around in a rental
The only other dislike is I would have preferred to go further on towards the next beach at Sand Bay, near the humongous Sand Island. The problem there, however, is that trip is roughly 10.7 miles one-way. I really wanted to leave my bicycle there and treat this trip like a point-to-point river paddle and then bike-shuttle back to the car. But that would have been a 13.3-mile bike ride on questionable roads, for which I did not have time. This is one of those “good news, bad news” things. The bad news is you have to paddle back the same way you came. The good news is it’s so [expletive deleted] incredibly magnificent that it’s like being awestruck twice (plus you do see the caves and cliffs from a different perspective).
If we did this trip again:
Do this trip in mid- to late afternoon. Why? The sun. It’s not so much a heat issue as it is the colors of the rocks. One thing I learned from Arches National Park in Utah is the colors of the red sandstone rocks really do change during the day, depending on the position of the sun in the sky. With the sun lower on the horizon and all those rocks facing west, I bet they’re simply luminescent. Plus, if you’re really lucky, you’d see the sun set below the water, a phenomenon that is a rare treat that never gets old.
I will definitely be back here though, it really is a kind of pilgrimage. Next time I’d like also to paddle-camp out to one of the Apostle Islands. Each has its own character and charisma (Eagle Island has a heron rookery; Devils Island arguably has the prettiest caves; Outer Island has a lagoon; Oak Island has 100’-high banks; Michigan Island probably has the prettiest beach; Basswood Island has a former quarry, so forth and so on).
Also, it’s worth noting that one can hike a trail that begins at the parking lot at Meyers Beach and takes you along the tops of all these cliffs with many views looking down into the fissures, caves and crevasses. It’s a spectacular hike.
This may sound either redundant or reductive but the exquisite bliss of this trip lies in its simplicity: yellow sun, blue sky, green water, red rock. A lot of each. It’s that simple, but no less spectacular. This trip rounded out my pendulum; after exploring the Ice Caves by boot in February, I vowed to return to do the same trip by boat half a year later. It’s been an unusual year in between but beauty remains. I feel utterly grateful for having been able to experience this landscape in such different conditions. In February it was 9 below zero. In August, it was 86! No more hoar frost and icicles the size of church spires; in their place, jade green water and red rock almost like corral. Two faces of the same coin. This place is a heritage and a treasure. It will always be on my to do list.