Are Apostle Islands Cruises Worth It? An Honest Review

Interested in some real-life information before booking your Apostle Islands cruises? I’ve got you.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the state of Wisconsin over the years, but boat tours aren’t usually my thing. The seasickness is real, friends, and I’m not a cruiser.

When activities on the water are presented to me as the best way to do things, though, I’ll grin and bear it because my travel-related FOMO is a way bigger deal. That was the situation with our plans to cruise the Apostle Islands.

This is what Wisconsin bucket lists are made of, and it’s not even all that hard to do. Let me help you make it happen!

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Are Apostle Islands cruises worth it?

Apostle Islands cruises are worth it. From the cost to any steps you need to take to keep seasickness at bay, I’d go so far as to say an Apostle Islands cruise is the best way to see the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

This is especially true if you’re short on time in Wisconsin. A few hours out on the water packs quite a bit of bang for your buck.

Taking an Apostle Islands Cruise: Logistics

A view of Apostle Islands cruises

The boat tours that get you close to each Apostle Island aren’t some basic water taxi service. These trips take pre-planning to make sure that you have a fun trip. Let’s start with where to start, naturally.

What city is closest to the Apostle Islands? 

Bayfield is the city closest to the Apostle Islands. That’s likely where your Apostle Islands cruises will begin and where you’ll find the main boat terminal. 

Note: Parking is available around the boat terminal, but watch for two-hour parking limits before you head out onto the water.

You shouldn’t just arrive in Bayfield expecting miracles the day of your cruise, though. Buy tickets online for your Apostle Islands tour through Apostle Islands Cruises, an authorized tour company with the National Park Service.

They’ll check you in using your name off of a printout, so you don’t need to do anything else upon arrival. We booked the night before without issues for a boat tour during the peak summer season, but we also had a few days to choose from during our Wisconsin trip. Some of the days during that time were indeed sold out.

If you only have one day to make this happen, make it happen by booking ahead of time.

What do I need to bring for Apostle Islands cruises?

A boat waits at the dock of Apostle Islands cruises.

On the day of your Apostles Islands tours, do what you need to do to counteract seasickness and get to Bayfield early if you want a seat on top. We got in line — it’s first-come first-served — a little after 9am for a 10am cruise and were among the first 10 passengers in line. Winning.

Note: There are also afternoon and evening tours available for the Grand Tour. I highly recommend the morning just in case something goes wrong with your tour, but a sunset tour on the water sounds pretty lovely, too.

There are a few cute coffee shops in Bayfield if you need to caffeinate beforehand to counteract the effects of your seasickness medication, but I wouldn’t get out of line to make that happen. Employ the buddy system as necessary.

Otherwise, make sure to bring a light jacket or sweater for your boat trip, even if it’s hot on the shore. Once that wind starts whipping, things cool down real quick. Snacks are allowed on board but available for purchase on the boat, too.

What is the best time of year to visit the Apostle Islands?

The best time of year to visit the Apostle Islands is summertime. Shoot for July and August for the best weather conditions out on the water.

If you’re taking an Apostle Islands cruise, you’ll be limited to travel during the summer and early fall for the Grand Tour. 

Tours are more limited for other tours on the islands, like the Raspberry Island Lighthouse Tour. Expect Labor Day weekend to be a cutoff point for tours outside of the Grand Tour.

For intrepid travelers interested in ice caves, you can visit the mainland ice caves during the winter months. The National Park Service recommends travel in February in that case when the ice is at its thickest. If you’re anything like me, you’re also at your thickest in February.

The BEST Apostle Islands Cruise

The most popular Apostle Islands boat tour is the Grand Tour. As I like to be where the people are to determine whether it’s worth the hype, that’s the tour we booked.

Note that Apostle Islands cruises reviews for this one are already quite good. We’re only adding to the positivity over here!

A couple smiles on Apostle Islands cruises.

The Grand Tour is a narrated tour that takes up to three hours and travels across 55 miles. It’s extremely thorough and educational, and the only case of FOMO I felt was over not having enough time to explore the islands on land. 

There are 22 islands that make up the Apostle Islands. You get to see at least 17 on the Grand Tour, if only for a moment. Each island gets the historical treatment. You’ll leave knowing quite a bit about the Apostle Islands. In fact, it’s likely more information than you’ll ever need, even if you find yourself at a Wisconsin dive bar trivia night.

This is on top of the wildlife spotting. We saw multiple bald eagles nesting in trees and cormorants and other diving birds over the course of our tour. At stops along the way, we could see fish underneath the surface. Whitefish, herring, and lake trout all call the lake home.

Fun fact: Some of the islands have white-tailed deer and black bears, but it’s unlikely you’ll see those from the shore.

What islands make up the Apostle Islands?

The islands that make up the Apostle Islands are:

  • Basswood Island
  • Hermit Island
  • Stockton Island
  • Oak Island
  • Manitou Island
  • Bear Island
  • Otter Island
  • Ironwood Island
  • South Twin Island
  • North Twin Island
  • Rocky Island
  • Devils Island
  • Sand Island
  • York Island
  • Eagle Island
  • Raspberry Island
  • Madeline Island
  • Gull Island
  • Outer Island
  • Michigan Island
  • Cat Island
  • Long Island

As I said already, we learned about 17 out of those 22 islands on our Apostle Islands cruise. I listed them all in the order we saw them above, so just look at the top 17 if you’re really into the details. We may have seen even more on our trip — the tour company itself promises 21 out of 22 — but I jotted down islands that got some narration.

Let’s dive into what you can expect on your own Grand Tour.

A forested area from the boat on Apostle Islands cruises

You’ll start at Basswood Island and its sandstone quarries that were in operation until 1910. From there, you’ll travel to Hermit Island. Our guide referred to it as Wilson’s Island after a cranky old man named William Wilson who at one time called this one home.

This was our first glimpse of the cliffs and caverns that make this region of the state so scenic. The rocky arches here are about six feet in diameter. Adventurous folks can actually swim underneath.

Sea caves of the Apostle Islands

Stockton Island was next. This is the largest of the islands in the national park, and the second largest overall after Madeline Island. This is the most popular island for campers, which makes it more developed than the others. It’s also home to a healthy black bear population.

We cruised by Oak Island, the tallest island with the deepest waters surrounding it, and Manitou Island.

Fun fact: “Little Manitou” nearby is a rockpile that alerts boaters to shallow waters.

Bear Island, named as such because it resembles a bear, Otter Island and its impressive tree regrowth, and Ironwood Island, named for its ironwood trees, all got a brief explainer. We lingered some at the South Twin and North Twin islands. North Twin Island is an environmentally protected place because of its virgin forest and unique wildflowers.

On Rocky Island, you’ll see evidence of three privately-owned properties that earned a special lease agreement with the park. From there, the cruise spends some time around Devils Island and its intricate caves.

This island is home to the Devils Island Lighthouse, a spot you can visit if you make it ashore on a volunteer-led tour. You’ll see this and all of the main features of the island from either side of the boat.

We were starboard, which I guess is the right side, right?

A lighthouse on Apostle Islands cruises

It’s time for the back end of your tour from here. See Sand Island and another lighthouse, York Island, another popular destination for Apostle Islands camping, and Eagle Island with its numerous nesting areas.

We lingered on the water for a while at Raspberry Island, home to another easily accessible lighthouse that you can tour a couple of times a week. One of the volunteers there used to be the boat captain’s high school principal, so that’s fun.

A view of Raspberry Island on Apostle Islands cruises

You’ll get one last view of Madeline Island before coming back to shore and wrapping your head around everything you were able to see in such a short amount of time. It was a fantastic morning out on the water, and no one barfed, not even a little.

I’m super delicate when it comes to the water, so if I can handle it, you can handle it.

More Apostle Islands Boat Tours

If you’re not able to book a Grand Tour for whatever reason, you have other options. One is taking your own boat out to one of the islands. You’ll need to pay docking fees and contend with reserved spaces for all of the guided tours out there…and also have a boat.

A boat buzzes by on Apostle Islands cruises.

If that doesn’t sound like you, there are other guided excursions that are a heck of a lot less work, less luck, and less money. Book any of these tours online ahead of your travel so that you’re not disappointed upon arrival in Bayfield.

  • Michigan Island Lighthouse Tour: This one takes you onto shore to explore Michigan Island and the Michigan Island Lighthouse. If you’re able, plan to climb the tower for expansive views of the islands.
  • Raspberry Island Lighthouse Tour: Yes, there is more lighthouse action in the Apostle Islands. This guided tour takes you on a historic journey to the well-preserved Raspberry Island Lighthouse, naturally.
  • Stockton Island Day Hiking Tour: Hit the beach and the trails of Stockton Island for about two hours on shore. Explore the island’s bogs, dunes, and pine forests. There’s an overnight option for Stockton Island if you want more time.
  • Oak Island Overnight Camping Shuttle: This is exactly as it sounds. Take a shuttle for your planned overnight to Oak Island and explore the tallest of all the Apostle Islands. This one is more limited than some of the others, so plan ahead!

Another option is booking Apostle Islands kayaking tours with a private company. Escape Excursions has some great options to get closer to the sea caves with docking opportunities to explore on foot, too.

A fun kayaking tour is likely what I’d look into on a return trip to the Apostle Islands now that we have a bit of a primer on the place. If the Grand Tour is all I have to show for myself on trips to this Wisconsin wonder, though, I’ll be perfectly fine with that, too.

Can you stay on any of the Apostle Islands?

A view of Madeline Island on Apostle Islands cruises

You can stay on the Apostle Islands, especially if you’re into camping. If you want to stay overnight in the national park, you need to reserve campsites well in advance. The season here is pretty short thanks to the elements.

As far as which island to target for camping, personal preference come into play for that. I mentioned this already, but you’ll find the most amenities on Stockton Island.

Getting to each island for your overnight depends on the island. If you have your own ride, docks are first come, first served, with a number of spots reserved for the national park service and guided excursions.

For Apostle Island hotels and accommodations that don’t have anything to do with camping — I don’t blame you — your only option is Madeline Island. You’ll find a variety of short-term rentals, condos, cabins, and cottages to choose from.

Use the map below to get you started:

Where to Stay in Bayfield

We were traveling from Ironwood, Michigan, on our own trip to Bayfield and the Apostle Islands. To be more efficient about it, I’d recommend staying in Bayfield the night before your morning cruise. 

Ironwood was fine, but it meant we had to get up extra early the day of our trip to make the one-hour drive there. Even if you have a later cruise, Bayfield is all kinds of cute if you’d like to linger for a while.

Much like Madeline Island, Bayfield caters to an accommodations market that favors vacation homes, short-term rentals, and cottage-style overnights. I’ve had friends rave about Lucy’s Place, a beloved bed and breakfast with the kindest hosts in Bayfield.

If you like bed and breakfasts and motel-style stays, use the map below to browse your options in Bayfield:

Apostle Islands Cruises: FAQs

What is special about the Apostle Islands?

The Apostle Islands are special because they show off the power and breadth of Lake Superior. From historic lighthouses to caves carved out by the water, this environment is both serene and impressive. This is the Midwest at its best.

An Apostle Island cruise is one of the best ways to get to know this part of the country.

Does anyone live on the Apostle Islands?

The Town of La Pointe on Madeline Island is the only Apostle Island with people who live on it. It’s important to note here that as a result, Madeline Island is not part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The only other inhabitants on the islands are the critters you may encounter if you do more than a boat ride. There’s a decent population of black bears on Stockton Island and Sand Island, for example.

How do you get to the Apostle Islands?

You get to the Apostle Islands via ferry, boat tour, or personal boat. A personal boat can mean a kayak or your own boat, depending on your means.

Guided excursions are by far the easiest way to reach the islands, even if you’re seeking an overnight experience.

Are the Apostle Islands worth it?

The Apostle Islands are worth it for their natural beauty, accessibility, and potential for wildlife spotting. Book Apostle Island cruises and you can be even more efficient on your own trip to the Apostle Islands, Wisconsin.

I’d love to return for a longer stay to explore more of Bayfield, WI, and the islands that allow stopovers. There are more adventures waiting in this scenic part of the state!

Ready for the Best Apostle Island Tours?

Your Flight: I use a variety of tools to find cheap airfare, but if you’re looking to book during a particular period of time, especially during busy times (e.g. summer school breaks, you should use Skyscanner. It’s a great tool for when you’re more flexible, too, as it allows you to compare travel based on length of travel, departure date, etc.

To get to the Apostle Islands, you’ll need to get to Bayfield, first, and Northern Wisconsin can feel pretty remote. Here are a few sample drive times:

  • Duluth, Minnesota: 1 hour and 45 minutes
  • Eau Claire, Wisconsin: 3 hours
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota: 4 hours
  • Madison, Wisconsin: 5 hours and 30 minutes
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin: 6 hours and 20 minutes
  • Chicago, Illinois: 7 hours and 30 minutes

If you’re on a road trip already as you plan Apostle Island boat tours, you’re most likely to find deals out of Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, or Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

You’ll need a car to explore Bayfield no matter where you land. Book a rental ahead of time using an aggregator like Hotwire or Priceline before your trip.

Adventurous folks should subscribe to Going, formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights. You’ll get all kinds of deals in your inbox throughout the year.

Your Accommodations: I usually use Booking.com and Hotels.com for our hotel needs. My favorite Airbnb alternative these days is Vrbo. If you’re seeking an overnight in Bayfield, scroll up for my top picks.

Seeking even more wallet-friendly accommodations? Try Hostelworld. Much like my Apostle Island cruises reviews, their picks are heavily vetted and reviewed to offer you a safe experience on a budget.

Etc.: For general travel goodies, visit my Favorite Things page. For more information on planning your travel, visit my Travel Tools page.

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Agnes Groonwald

Agnes Groonwald is the creator of Travel on the Reg, a travel/humor blog for regular people who travel in a regular fashion. She has been to 50/50 U.S. states and explored 30+ countries, most often as a digital nomad. She's all about sharing the honest truth about travel, real experiences, and all the quirky stuff about her favorite (and not so favorite) places.