Bewitching Bayfield: A Wisconsin Winter Getaway

By Sharyn Alden
Special to

Far from urban cares, suburban sprawl and midwinter blues, the tiny town of Bayfield (year-round pop., about 650), at the top of Wisconsin, is a gateway to Lake Superior and the magnificent Apostle Islands.

In the 1400s, long before Europeans arrived, the Ojibwe people settled on previously unexplored shores of Lake Superior. Ojibwe, French, and British settlers eventually discovered Madeline Island, which today is a 20-minute ferry ride from Bayfield, and the only Apostle Island inhabited year-round.

But it wasn’t until the late 1880s that Bayfield came into its own, when commercial fishing began to prosper. The Boutin and Booth fisheries supplied fresh fish to markets throughout the U.S. Whitefish is still a favored selection at local restaurants, and whitefish livers are a local delicacy.

Put dog sledding at the top of the list of ways to have fun outdoors. Over the first weekend in February, the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race welcomes dog sledders with all levels of experience. Options range from an 80-mile run for experienced dog sledders to a short family-oriented course. After your trek across the snow, warm yourself with hot chocolate around the bonfire.

Candlelight skiing is a Wisconsin tradition, and there’s a good one near Bayfield, usually scheduled for February, which will take you along the icy shores of Lake Superior. Snowshoers can have the thrill of walking over the ice on Chequamegon Bay by glittering candlelight. 
Book Across the Bay,” an annual 10-kilometer race, draws skiers, snowshoers, and walkers, who start in Ashland then work their way north to Washburn along a course lit by luminarias made of ice.

If ice fishing is your thing, you can hire a licensed guide to hone your skills and help reel in a specific species. Or look to them to give you the edge on perfecting the art of dead-sticking, jigging, and tip-ups.

Take advantage of the rolling countryside around Bayfield by skiing Mt. Ashwabay, three miles south of Bayfield, one of the best spots in the region to enjoy downhill skiing. From the top of the mountain, you can see the Apostle Islands—arguably some of the best views around.

By the late 1880s, settlers had discovered the Apostle Islands were perfect for sandstone quarrying and lumbering. The result was that Bayfield became a boom town, and plenty of mansions were built on its high hills overlooking the harbor.

One of these is the Old Rittenhouse Inn, a legendary beauty known for its fabled wraparound veranda, a few blocks above the harbor. The 1890 grand dame, lovingly restored by Jerry and Mary Phillips beginning in 1974, offers 12 guest rooms, ten with wood-burning fireplaces. A romantic weekend in February with dinner, dancing, and a room with a fireplace is a guaranteed cure for any midwinter blues.