Ah, the siren song of an island vacation. There’s Key West. Catalina. Maui. And Wisconsin River sandbars and northwoods flowage islands. Insert sound effect of screeching brakes here. Wisconsin has islands? Yes, not only does the Dairy State have its own islands to brag about, but they’re every bit as appealing in their own Wisconsin way. So, turn on your favorite Jimmy Buffett tune and take a virtual tour of five Wisconsin islands.
At 14 miles long and three miles wide, Madeline Island is the largest of the 22 islands that make up the Apostle Islands archipelago in Lake Superior. Madeline Island is the only developed island with La Pointe as the main village.
To reach the island, vacationers board the Madeline Island Car Ferry at Bayfield to make the 25-minute ride to paradise or take a water taxi. While on the island, check out the Madeline Island Museum. This state historic site is made up of four log structures including the only remaining building of the American Fur Company built at La Pointe in 1835. There’s also a free one-hour Madeline Island Walking Tour with locals acting as guides and serving up tidbits on the history of the island.
For boat and guided sea kayak tours, check out Adventure Vacations and Living Adventure. This is your chance to explore sea caves, snorkel over a century-old shipwreck and tour the historic lighthouses. Sailing charters are also popular. Dreamcatcher Sailing offers a complete hands-on sailing experience, whether you’re experienced or a novice. End the day at Madeline Island Yoga Retreats, an all-inclusive women’s retreat center that uses yoga and meditation to make the whole mind/body/spirit connection.
When you’re ready to call it a night, consider your options. There are two campgrounds on the island – Big Bay State Park with 60 sites, and Big Bay Town Park with 36 sites. There’s also the Inn on Madeline Island, a conglomeration of properties including rental homes, cottages, condominiums and hotel rooms. More information can be found at the Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce.
The islands of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage in the Northwoods give travelers an all-around outdoor experience without being too far from civilization. There are 58 different campsites scattered throughout the flowage, all accessible only by water, which usually means canoe or kayak. Most are non-reservable, so first come, first served. The more shallow eastern side is a designated “quiet area” with no motor boats allowed. Lake Bastine provides access to the sandbar islands by boat, and is also where many of the area’s resorts are located.
Detailed canoe and kayak routes are available and will take you off the beaten path and away from the hustle and bustle. These routes and other information about the Turtle Flambeau Flowage can be found at the Mercer Area Chamber of Commerce.
Head five miles off the northeast tip of the Door County Peninsula through the waters known as port des mortes or Death’s Door (home to numerous sunken shipwrecks, thus the name) and you’ll land on Washington Island. At about 35 square miles, it’s the largest of the 30 islands sprinkled off the peninsula.
To tour the 100 miles of paved roads on the island, visitors can bring vehicles or bikes via the Washington Island Ferry Line, which runs every half hour during high season. Check out the Island Clipper for a passenger excursion with a narrated crossing.
For some fun in the sun, head to the south end of the island at Sand Dunes Beach. There’s also Percy Johnson County Park, with a gentle sloping beach perfectly suited for little ones to do some wading. For a unique beach experience, check out Schoolhouse Beach. This geological wonder is covered by the tiniest of white limestone pebbles made smooth and round by the tumbling action of the waves.
Take your pick of lodging choices knowing there isn’t a chain in the bunch. Choose from properties with distinctive names like Froghollow Farm B&B and Bitter End Motel. More information about Washington Island is available at the Door County Chamber of Commerce.
Think of Rock Island as the little sister island to Washington Island. After all, you must take a 10-minute ferry ride, called the Karfi, from Jackson Harbor on Washington Island to get to this primitive oasis. There are no permanent residents on this 912-acre island. The entire island is a state park and while most visitors make it a day trip, there are some great backpack camping sites - 40 in all, but you have to bring in your own everything.
While you’re there, don’t miss Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Not only is it Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse, it may be the most unique, too. You can actually live in the lighthouse for a week at a time on the condition that you serve as a tour docent. The lighthouse enthusiasts are more than willing to put up with no electricity or running water for this unique volunteer opportunity.
The 92 miles of the lower Wisconsin River from the dam at Prairie du Sac to the confluence with the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien is prime territory for sandbar islands. Canoeists, anglers, campers and other outdoor devotees consider this their warm-weather Mecca when water levels are low and sandbars are plentiful. There are no rapids or falls on the lower river either, making it a fit for beginners who like a leisurely paddle pace. For more information, take a look at the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board.
Visitors to the area can work with an outfitter for a guided overnight tour. Wisconsin River Outings is one of the largest outfitters with several hundred canoes and several dozen kayaks, and specializes in group outings. Travelers are encouraged to pack “artificial shade” for mid-summer outings, which might include a small canopy, wide-brimmed hat and plenty of sunscreen. This stretch of river is protected – spin around 360 degrees and you’ll see no development, just tree lines, bluffs, and maybe some eagles.