Something pretty unusual happened last week when on Tuesday, the Bay Area was the hottest location in the state. Not being one to stay cooped up in the air conditioning after being quarantined for so long, I thought it was time to head out somewhere the heat was less oppressive. Luckily for us, we live next to a natural refrigerator. When the wind’s out of the south, it’s always cooler on the other side of the peninsula — especially this time of year when the water is still pretty cold.
Paddlers and boaters are familiar with the world famous sea caves on the mainland of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Hikers and ramblers can access a different perspective of these amazing formations by testing their boots on the Lakeshore Trail, a there-and-back excursion that winds along the shore for about five miles one way. The trailhead is at Meyer’s Beach, about three miles north of Cornucopia. The trail is rugged and the Park Service recommends it be used by “experienced” hikers. While there are a lot of ups and downs and cliff hazards, I’ve seen plenty of kids and people old enough to know better traversing the trail in flip-flops and Chuck Taylors. Personally I’d suggest a flexible pair of hiking boots or some decent trail running shoes without much treadwear. Hiking poles also aren’t a bad idea. And I’d suggest going early on a weekday if possible; it’s hard to avoid crowding on the narrow boardwalks and paths. Bug spray is also a must.
The trail takes you on a boardwalk with a lot of stair steps the first three-quarters of a mile or so. This segment is off the water and leads you through first- and second-growth birch, spruce and alder. Early-summer birdwatchers will observe red-eyed vireos, ovenbirds and rose-breasted grosbeaks along this stretch. Once you’re past the boardwalk, the trail improvements taper off and you’ll be crossing some creeks and climbing up and down small but steep ravines. As you approach the lake, the forest opens up into pines and cedars along the cliffs, and you’ll see Park Service signs about the hazards as well as the features of the area (It’s disappointing if not surprising that they have to remind people not to throw rocks off of the cliffs at paddlers.) The overlooks offer stunning views of the cliffs, arches and sea caves, but the edges are eroded and unstable so take care when going for that perfect photo or selfie. One of the coolest features on the trail is the crevasse, a deep narrow inlet with a rock bridge over the top. Hearing paddlers’ voices echoing underneath you in this section is a very weird effect, as are the sound of ravens’ croaking that mimics human speech.
The trail follows the cliffs and overlooks for the better part of a mile, and looms over the lake at 100 feet in most spots. Birches, cedars, and mountain ash all struggle to eke out a living on the cliff edges. Keep an eye out for the Keyhole, the natural bridge formation that’s easier to spot when the trees aren’t leafed out. Looking northeast, you can see the little hump of Eagle Island, and looking south over Mawikwe Bay further along the trail, you can see over to Bark Point. One of my favorite geeky things about the trail is the RTWOS — Real Time Waves Obervation System — sensor that’s just lying along the trail. This is a joint project with UW-Madison, the Park Service, and Wisconsin Coastal Management. Not only does it provide important safety information, it has a webcam where you can check out all the wave and storm action. I didn’t see much wildlife beyond red squirrels and garter snakes, but the cliffs are home to swallows and I heard a phoebe calling from far inside a cave, his little beeping call echoing over the water.
The trail eventually leaves the water and heads into deciduous forest on its way to a beach and backcountry campsite. If you don’t want to hike 10 miles round trip to the beach, head back for a different perspective on the sea caves and spend some time at Meyer’s Beach. There’s not much actual beach left due to the record high lake levels, and they’re having some problems with algae blooms even this early in the summer. But it’s still a lovely spot for nature and people watching. Happy wandering, everyone!
Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.