Big Bay State Park in Wisconsin is a large protected outdoor area found in the heart of Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior.
Known for its scenic camping spots, excellent hiking trails, and outstanding natural beauty, this state park is easily one of the best outdoor areas to visit when exploring the Apostle Islands.
Home to incredible coastal views, dramatic cliffs, and a fantastic area of outdoor activities, the area is just begging to be explored.
To inspire your next outdoor adventure, here’s our guide to visiting Big Bay State Park!
Don’t leave home without the Moon Wisconsin: Lakeside Getaways, Scenic Drives, Outdoor Recreation (Travel Guide).
Big Bay State Park Trip Planner
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How to Travel to Big Bay State Park?
Big Bay State Park is located on Madeline Island, the largest island in the Apostle Islands archipelago. The Apostle Islands are located off the coast of the Bayfield Peninsula.
While most of the islands are part of the wider Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, this state park has the distinction of being run as its own distinct, protected area.
The islands are all located on Lake Superior, and Madeline Island can be reached by ferry, private boat, or charter from nearby Bayfield, WI, found on the mainland. The small town is the hub for tourism in the area.
You can catch regular ferries across to La Pointe, which is the largest settlement (although only a few hundred people live here!) on Madeline Island. Cars can be taken over on the ferry, and are allowed on the island (the majority of the other Apostle Islands are car-free).
From La Pointe, it’s just a ten-minute drive (or you could even hike the six miles) to the edge of Big Bay State Park. You can stay in La Pointe or arrange a camping permit and spend the night under the stars within the state park itself.
Visitor Information – Know Before You Go
Big Bay State Park is open all year round, even during winter. The park is open from 6 am to 11 pm each day. Visitors will need to pay for a car registration permit if they are driving into the state park, which needs to be arranged in advance.
Camping permits will also be required, again in advance. Permits can be ordered and paid for online.
The park protects an area of 2,350 acres that was established in 1963 to protect the beautiful nature found here. There are basic facilities such as toilets, picnic benches, and clean drinking water in the camping areas.
Visitors should remove all rubbish they bring into the park! For more information check out the official park website.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Big Bay State Park
Big Bay State Park is open all year round, but given the climate of Northern Wisconsin, you’ll have a very different experience depending on the season you visit.
Most visitors arrive at the park in summer, with June, July, and August being the most popular months. This is when the weather is at its best, and conditions are perfect for camping, hiking, and kayaking. This is also when the ferry crossings are at their smoothest if you ever get seasick!
Spring and fall are quieter, although the weather is more unpredictable. Always check the forecasts, because Lake Superior is notorious for storms.
In winter, the lake can actually ice over entirely, and it will often be strong enough for the ice highway to be opened. This is a unique time to visit; you can join snowshoeing or cross country skiing activities in the winter months.
10 Best Things to do in Big Bay State Park, Wisconsin
The best things to do in Big Bay State Park always revolve around outdoor activities. You can bring your own equipment or organize advance tours with local companies and adventure outfitters to really get to the best spots.
If you need a break from outdoor activities, visit nearby La Pointe for a little history and culture, too. There are plenty of restaurants and shops to enjoy if you’re wanting something more relaxed.
1. Camping in Big Bay State Park
One of the best reasons to visit Big Bay State Park is for camping. One day is never enough to explore all the hiking trails, beaches, and lookouts waiting for you, so why not stay the night in the great outdoors?
There are 60 camping spots available, so you really need to book online and in advance, particularly in peak season. There are basic facilities, and some sites even have electric hookups for campervans and road trippers.
We found the campsites to be very quiet and comfortable. The park has made good efforts to design it so you’re not staring at your neighbor, too.
2. Hike the Point Trail
If you only have time to do one hike while exploring Madeline Island, make it the Point Trail in Big Bay State Park. The trail conveniently starts next to one of the parking areas, close to the campground. It extends for two miles, mostly along the coast.
The trail is laid down and marked well, so you won’t get lost. That’s great because it gives you more time to spend looking out over Lake Superior and enjoying the dramatic cliff-top views of the rugged, red rocks and crashing waves below.
If you came to Madeline Island looking for those iconic scenes with crystal clear water and rocky cliffs, you’ll find them on this trail.
Do you have the right hiking gear here’s 40 Hiking Essentials: The Ultimate Hiking Packing List
3. Visit the Big Bay Town Park
Big Bay Town Park is located just north of Big Bay State Park and is home to a beautiful camping ground, a long boardwalk, and a lovely beach.
The camping ground is right next to Big Bay Lagoon. You can base yourself here for a spot of kayaking or canoeing. If the water is warm enough, you might want to jump in for a swim, too!
4. Walk the Barrier Beach Boardwalk
One of the best hikes in the area is the excellent Barrier Beach Boardwalk. This long boardwalk stretches from Big Bay Town Park right along the coast into Big Bay State Park.
The boardwalk runs along the barrier, so you’ll have beautiful views of Lake Superior and the adjacent beaches as you stroll along the 3.5-mile-long trail. You can take the same boardwalk back or stay and explore more hiking trails, such as the famous Point Trail.
5. Try Kayaking and Canoeing
One of the most popular activities in the Apostle Islands is kayaking and canoeing, and there’s no exception to this at Big Bay State Park!
The immense red cliffs and serene beaches of Madeline Island are best viewed from the waves, but make sure you pick a calm day, or you could end up getting more soaked than you bargained for, given the wild nature of Lake Superior.
It is also very popular to rent a canoe and paddle the waters of the lagoon. This is an iconic way to experience the Northwoods and just how wild this part of the states can be.
6. Discover La Pointe
La Pointe is the small settlement where the ferry from Bayfield arrives; it’s the starting point for your journey into Big Bay State Park. Before or after your adventure into the park, take some time to explore La Pointe too – it’s a charming little town with a fascinating history.
Only a few hundred people live here year-round, but there’s a full museum and an art gallery, as well as plenty of little cafes and wine bars to enjoy.
Learn about the indigenous and European history at the Madeline Island Museum before taking in the culture at La Pointe Center Art Gallery.
7. Visit in Winter for Cross Country Skiing
Once the snow has begun to fall, Big Bay State Park turns into a winter wonderland for avid cross country skiers. The hiking trails become ski routes, and you can navigate your way through woodland and snow-covered scenery.
Because the park lines the coast, you need to be careful of snowfalls and hidden crevasses if you get too close to the cliffs, which is why many novice skiers will elect to explore with a guide.
8. Hit the Winter Trails with Snowshoes
If cross country skiing is too fast-paced for your liking, slow things down and get back to nature with a snowshoeing trip across Big Bay State Park.
Bring your own snowshoes or hire some when you reach Bayfield or the island itself. You can then leisurely stroll across the marked hiking trails, with snowdrifts underfoot.
9. Explore the Madeline Island Wilderness Preserve
At the far northern end of Madeline Island, you can find the wild outdoor scenery of the Madeline Island Wilderness Preserve. This area isn’t as busy as the more well-known Big Bay State Park, so it makes for an excellent place to explore in summer.
With plenty of hiking trails available, you could easily walk there and back in a day from the camping grounds at Big Bay State Park, enjoying the scenery as you go.
10. Explore the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
You’ll also want to save plenty of time during your trip to explore the wider sights of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, many of which are within easy reach of Madeline Island and Big Bay State Park.
You can arrange boat trips, kayaking or canoe trips, or even snorkeling, scuba diving, or fishing excursions across the park. There are 22 islands and mile upon mile of coastline on the peninsula, too.
One of the biggest highlights not to miss are the sea caves at Meyers Beach. In winter, these beautiful caves are totally iced over; you can walk out onto the water and into the caverns for an otherworldly experience.
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