Fall in Wisconsin's Big Bay State Park

Stay warmer by the lake at this little-known state park—even in November

by Sharyn Alden
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

It’s been called one of Wisconsin’s loveliest North Woods settings: Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island, the largest and most accessible of the Apostle Islands. The park was established in 1963 on 2,400 acres of lakeside property.

Madeline Island’s distinctive natural characteristics—sandstone bluffs, caves, and a sandy beach of more than a mile long—are windswept remnants left behind from four glaciers that carved the landscape over 100,000 years. Once home to missionaries and Ojibwe and European fur traders, the island has a rustic charm not often found at other great escapes. The Madeline Island Ferry Line makes the 20-minute trip between Bayfield and La Pointe until freeze-up—usually in early January.

Known for its breathtaking lagoons and thick forests, Big Bay turns magical when the temperature starts to plunge. In late fall, when the deciduous trees lose their leaves and the area takes on a whispery quiet and allure not known to the summer crowds, the park is starkly beautiful. Which is why I like to head for the park Big Bay in late fall for some northern camping (fewer campsites are available after November 1). Five of the park’s 60 campsites are open in the winter, and after Labor Day you don’t usually need a reservation. The exception is during the Bayfield Apple Festival, a popular event that draws big crowds the first weekend in October.

I enjoy hiking the half-mile-long boardwalk that takes you through groves of red and white pines. This trail, fondly known as the Big Bay Boardwalk, is just one of several maritime trails that traverse Lake Superior’s coastline of forests. The beach here is all sand, rather than sand washed over rocks and pebbles. That’s due to the wave action beyond the lagoon, which grinds up shells and stones, then pushes the sand to shore.

"Warmer by the lake” is a phrase often heard here, and it’s true. In fall and winter, Big Bay State Park is often warmer than destinations 20 or 30 miles inland. Mark Eggleson, superintendent of Big Bay State Park, explains, “We have a large thermal mass, and it takes the lake a long time to heat up and a long time to cool down. In September, Lake Superior is often warmer to swim in than it is in July.”

Madeline Island is also a major point of interest for birding enthusiasts; more than 240 species have been recorded at Big Bay. (Ask the park office for a current list.) My November outings here have scored sightings of red polls, pine grosbeak, gray jay, boreal chickadee, and pileated woodpecker. Some lucky visitors may see great gray owls, which have been known to nest in the park.

Don’t miss Big Bay’s picture postcard lagoon, northern boreal forest and dunes, and sphagnum bogs. Contemplate the mighty power of Lake Superior, evidenced by the sandstone bluffs with their smooth hollows and windswept curves. Most campers speak gushingly about the quiet and the de-stressing sound of waves. Hunting season at Big Bay runs from mid-October through early January. Eggleson says the trails are open and safe during fall and winter hunting season, as hunting isn’t allowed in camping or hiking areas.

Headed to Bayfield? Check out our 48-hour bucket list itinerary!