When I say Wisconsin, your go-to word associations likely include cows, cheese, beer and all things green and gold. And while all are fine representations of our wondrous Wisconsin, let’s shed light on some completely enthralling yet rarely discovered geographic gems. I’m talking about the islands of Wisconsin. Yep, you read that right: I said islands. Believe it or not, Wisconsin is dotted with these diverse little flecks of terrain thanks to 800 miles of coastline that surround the state’s western, northern and eastern borders. The chance of spotting a palm tree here may be nil but sandy beaches and postcard vistas, we have plenty!
Apostle Islands (Ashland and Bayfield counties)
Referred to as the “Jewels of Lake Superior,” Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is located off the Bayfield Peninsula in Lake Superior and consists of a whopping 21 islands. This national lakeshore draws visitors from around the world thanks to its gorgeous natural scenery, eight historic lighthouses, beautiful beaches, wildlife, sea caves and incredible rock formations. Take a glass bottom boat tour, go spelunking via kayak and learn about the history of the local lighthouses.
Islands worth visiting include Stockton Island for its legendary “singing sands” at Julian Bay and its notoriety as one of North America’s highest concentrations of black bears. There’s also Devils Island, where you’ll find dramatic rock formations and sea caves plus Devils Island Light, a lighthouse that was built back in 1898. Raspberry Island is home to the Raspberry Island Light also known as the “Showplace of the Apostle Islands.” Take a guided tour of this historic lighthouse, which served as the home to several lighthouse keepers through from 1863 until 1947.
Although not considered to be part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the largest of the Apostle Island chain and the only one to host a year-round population (302 people…and counting!) is Madeline Island. May I suggest: Renting a moped, hitting up Big Bay Town Park Beach, popping in at Madeline Island Historical Museum and grabbing a summer cocktail while enjoying the eclectic signage at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.
Brunet Island State Park (Chippewa County)
It’s both an island and a state park. Need I say more? Probably not but I will anyway! Encircled by the Cornell Flowage in northwest Wisconsin, Brunet Island State Park is phenomenal and if you haven’t been, plan your trip pronto. There are so many ways to enjoy the island: explore Old Abe State Trail by bike, set up camp at any of the 70 campsites, take a dip at the beach on the south end of the island and set up for a picnic near the playground and baseball diamond. There are a number of trails worth discovering (i.e. Jean Brunet Nature Trail, Timber Trail, Pine Trail, Spruce Trail or Nordic Trail) and, deer hunting is even allowed on two-thirds of Brunet Island.
Doty Island (Winnebago County)
Another inland island, Doty Island is located off Lake Winnebago and the Fox River in Menasha and Neenah. Its 1.1 square mile of land is home to about 3,800 people, making Doty Island one of Wisconsin’s most populous islands. Doty Island is named after former Governor James Doty, whose cabin, the “Grand Loggery” is still located on Doty Island (at Doty Park of course). In addition to Doty Park, you’ll also find Smith Park, the Isle of Valor and a marina here on this quaint, historic island.
French Island (La Crosse County)
Located in La Crosse, French Island got its name thanks to its early French settlers, the first of whom arrived on the island in 1849. Bordered by the Mississippi River, Lake Onalaska and the La Crosse River, there’s plenty of fun to be had at the beaches and parks on French Island. The community also hosts weekly water ski shows at airport beach every Wednesday night at 7.
Potawatomi Islands (Door County)
Everyone’s favorite peninsula is home to more than just cherry pie and lovely sunsets. Door County also boasts the Potawatomi Islands. Take the ferry over Death’s Door to Washington Island and discover one of only five smooth limestone beaches in the world at School House Beach Park. Don’t leave the island without exploring Stavkirke, a replica medieval church, and taking in the sights and scents of the colorful lavender farms.
There’s just as much to do at nearby Rock Island, which explains why 30,000 people visit this 975-acre, uninhabited island every year. Take a ferry over for a day or camp overnight if you’d like a little extra time to sightsee. (Note: Vehicles are not allowed on Rock Island.) Once you’re there, hike the 5.2-mile Thordarson Loop Trail, tour the Pottawatomie Light, stand in awe under the elaborate carvings in Viking Hall or saunter through the two cemeteries on the island.
Other lesser-known islands in Door County include Hog Island, a National Wildlife Refuge and a nesting ground for seagulls and terns, Cana Island, home to an accessible 1860s lighthouse and Chamber’s Island, a 30-acre park with 400 feet of sand beach (and great swimming!).
St. Feriole Island (Crawford County)
Making our way to the southwest corner of Wisconsin. St. Feriole Island is part of the city of Prairie du Chien in Crawford County. Fun fact: Prairie du Chien was actually originally built on the island, which is located on a backwater channel of the Mississippi River. The city was eventually relocated to the mainland on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River due to repeat floods and fires on the island. One of my favorite historic sites in Wisconsin, Villa Louis, is located here on St. Feriole Island. There are also an array of events hosted here including Prairie Dog Blues Festival (July 31-Aug. 1), The Haunted Halls of Terror (October), Oktoberfest (Oct. 17) and Droppin’ of the Carp (Dec. 31)
Wisconsin island life…gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “When you say Wisconsin, you’ve said it all,” doesn’t it?
Mariah Haberman hosts the nation’s longest-running tourism TV show, Discover Wisconsin. She hails from Evansville, where she was brought up in a family of seven in a small farmhouse outside of town. Some of her favorite memories include Lake Michigan fishing trips with her Dad, showing sheep at the Rock County Fair and buzzing around the farm on an ATV with her little brother. Watch Discover Wisconsin Saturdays at 10 a.m. on FSN Wisconsin’s outdoor block. (Twitter: @DiscoverWI)