Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sea caves, sandy beach await on lake hike

Mawikwe Bay sea caves

Mainland trail in Wisconsin part
of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Day hikers don’t have to leave the mainland to experience the beauty of the famous Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. A fairly new route, the Lakeshore Trail, runs through a Lake Superior forest, an impressive sandstone cave formation, and along a windswept beach.

To reach Lakeshore Trail, take Wis. Hwy. 13 north from Bayfield, Wisconsin. At Park Road, turn toward Meyers Beach. A large paved parking lot sits 0.4 miles away at the road’s end.

Look for trail signs on parking lot’s northeast side. You’ll head east through aspen, birch, several maple varieties, and a few pines. Given the mix of trees and their different fall leaf colors, early September is an ideal time for the hike; mosquitoes also will be few at that time of the year.

A few hundred yards from the parking lot, the trail goes up and down a gully, which in spring and early summer can boast running water. Stepping stones make for easy fording, though.

Sea caves
When you cross a sand road, you’re about 0.8 miles along the trail. Continue that same distance again, and you’ll glimpse the lake and the trail’s highlight: the Mawikwe Bay sea caves.

The lakes’ crashing deep waves and millennia of winter ice carved out honeycombed caves and a 50-foot chasm that runs more than 200 feet long. A natural bridge runs over the formation. The tinted sandstone and rainbows from the spray gives the formation a magical feel.

The caves can’t be accessed from the trail except during winter when the lake freezes (You may see kayakers at other times of the year clambering about the caves, however.). During winter, icicles hanging from the sandstone roofs are otherworldly.

The trail skirts the chasm. If children are with you, make sure they stay away from the cliff edges and off the natural bridge. All are unstable due to constant erosion.

Extending the trail
This marks a good place to turn back for a round-trip hike that is slightly more than 3 miles long. For a more ambitious hike, however, continue onward. After more than a mile on the bluff overlooking the sea caves, follow the trail inland through the forest. The flat trail winds through more hardwoods in a peaceful setting.

Be forewarned that once in the forest, the trail can be difficult to follow. Fortunately, it soon meets a dirt road. Turn left onto the road, which drops about 80 feet in elevation, until reaching a sandy beach.

Seagulls are numerous here. The clump of trees across the lake’s horizon is Eagle Island.

Keep walking east and north along the shoreline for about a half mile or once it turns to cobble. Return the way you came for a roughly 10-mile round trip.

Lakeshore Trail is managed by the National Park Service. There is no fee for hikers to enter or park.

Read more about day hiking Bayfield County, Wisconsin, in my Day Hiking Trails of Bayfield County guidebook.