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How We Backpacked on Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore With Kids

Backpacking in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore with kids!

Sam and I have never considered traveling in an Airstream “camping”. Camping is what you do in a tent either with a car or in the back country. We had the goal this summer of introducing our kids to backpacking, and at first we planned to go at least once a month all summer.

It was a bit of a lofty goal.

June & July ended up being super busy with family and other projects and we really didn’t have time to sit down and really hash out details until the end of July. Looking ahead at our schedule we picked a place we knew we wanted to backpack and started making reservations.

The Apostle Islands have been on my list to visit for over a year. I had heard they were beautiful, and what a great spot to overnight camp! We had never camped on an island before and it just sounded like fun. The Apostles fit into our itinerary well, so we focused on getting our plans solidified.

Doing Research

First we had to figure out which island we wanted to camp on. Not all of the Apostles are easily reachable, nor do all of them have campgrounds. I called the Apostle Islands visitor Center in Bayfield to ask about possibly canoeing out to the islands, but the ranger on duty said they don’t recommend it. The water is unpredictable enough that they recommend sea kayaks, spray skirts, and wet suits. He did say there was a shuttle to both Stockton and Oak Islands and great camping there.I did some research online to figure out which island sounded the best for our situation. The National Park Service website has great information about the sites, whether there is water nearby, the hiking trails, maps and all sorts of useful information.

Next, we looked at the ferry schedule to both Oak and Stockton Islands. They don’t run everyday, and we had to time our visit so we wouldn’t be out there for a week since a) we didn’t have enough time off work for that, and b) it would be completely overdoing it. We wanted something simple, yet long enough to have a good experience. The shuttle ran on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We figured Friday & Saturday would be busiest and hardest to get a campsite, so we opted for heading out on Sunday morning and back on Tuesday, even though that would mean missing church. That schedule would give us 2 nights which seemed about perfect.

After we looked at our calendar and figured out our time frame, we called the Visitor Center in Bayfield and she helped us come up with campsites that were available in our time frame. We figured we had 2 or 3 different dates that would work with the shuttle schedule. We originally wanted to camp on Oak Island since there were a few campsites we could hike to on our second night. After talking with the ranger, however, she helped me plan a route for Stockton Island which was more appealing because there was little to no hiking the first day, a ranger program that night, and then our own, personal, beach campsite the second night where the shuttle could pick us up without having to hike back. It sounded perfect!

Finally, we had to figure out where to leave the Airstream. During my phone call with the park ranger, I asked about overnight parking. The Park Service charges a minimal fee to park in their lot (with a trailer it was $8), but after picking up our camping permit and actually seeing the small parking lot I was worried we wouldn’t fit. Instead I called the Apostle Islands Ferry service and asked them. They directed us to a public parking field about a block south of the ferry building. Its roped off, but had plenty of room for us to park our truck and trailer and best of all it was free!

Preparation of Gear

I’ll have more on which gear we took, food we ate, and clothes we packed in future posts. Each one of those is a topic in and of itself! We do carry our tents, sleeping bags, and pads with us in the truck at all times. Last time we went near the storage unit we also picked up Sam’s backpacking bag (its pretty large) and some other miscellaneous gear. This was not the first time we’d ever been backpacking so we felt we had a pretty good handle on what we’d need.

The night before we packed up all our bags, cleaned up the campsite and made sure everything would be ready to go right after we got the kids out of bed.

The Backpacking Trip Day 1

We had a bright and early 8:30 am ferry to catch in Bayfield, WI. We were driving from Ashland, WI which was about 30 minutes away.

Sam and I woke up around 6:00am and we got the kids up around 6:30am. It wasn’t hard to wake them up as they were super excited! Everyone got dressed and while Rachel supervised putting cream cheese on the bagels, I helped Sam get hitched up and we were off around 7:15 with Go-Gurts, grapes, and cream cheese bagels to eat in the car for breakfast.

Parking was pretty simple and straightforward and then we had time for a photo before making our way to check in for the ferry. I feel like we arrived just in time around 8:15, checked in at the front desk and made our way down the dock to the boat.

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Group selfie before we head for the ferry.

The ferry ride to Presque Isle on Stockton Island took about an hour. It was crazy windy, but we went up on deck anyway to check out the view. The kids had all packed their stuffed animals, and Andrew had to pull out his elephant to make sure the pachyderm was doing okay.

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Once we got to the island, we unloaded our stuff and hiked to our campsite. The 19 sites at Presque Isle are spread out from the Visitor Center to about a half a mile up the trail. The ranger on the boat recommended site #15, so we hiked almost the whole half mile to check out it. She wasn’t joking when she said it was a good one.

There were quite a few trees to shelter us from the wind, and a nice grassy spot on the bluff overlooking the bay. It was perfect!

After getting our tent set up, all the kids wanted to do was hang out in it! We had a quick lunch and then pulled out our Jr. Ranger Books and worked on those for about an hour while Sam enjoyed his work-free time getting caught up on editing video.

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After we had rested for a bit, we grabbed our day packs and hiked back to the Visitor Center where there was well water to fill up our bottles. We signed in for our campsite and then decided to hike the Anderson Point Trail over to Julian Bay (about 1.4 miles) hoping it would be less windy on that side of the island.

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It totally was! The kids played in the sand, Sam and I stretched out on the sand  and closed our eyes for a bit to relax. Because the bay was so much sheltered than the surrounding area, there were about a dozen sailboats moored out on the water. Our relaxation officially ended with Andrew’s announcement he needed to use the bathroom (the island encourages the use of the port a potties since it is a higher traffic area) so we cut across inland and hiked the .4 miles back.

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After a delicious yet slightly late dinner, and a completely ruined dessert (my fault) we raced to the Visitor Center for the ranger program at 6:30pm. Since it was too windy for a campfire, Ranger Gail held the program inside the small Visitor Center. She talked about Scar, the black bear they had to put down because he had grown too accustomed to human food. We talked about bear safety, bears on the island, and what the rangers did if they had an aggressive bear. Instead of relocating the bear (which never works here) they close that part of the island to visitors instead. It gives the bear time to relax with no human food or presence around.

After the program (there was the 5 of us, and another couple) the kids passed off their Jr. Ranger Books and Ranger Gail invited them to help her take down and fold up the flag. We found both Ranger Gail and Luke (a volunteer) to be extremely helpful, nice, and pleasant to chat with. Gail was so patient with Cara who absolutely adored her and followed her around. We stayed around and talked with the rangers until about 8pm when we figured it was time to get ready for bed. Both rangers said to come get them if we had problems with our tent and the wind and they’d leave the Visitor Center building open in case of an emergency.

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We visited the bathroom on the way back to our tent, quickly ate our mini Oreos for dessert (I brought a backup plan), and then brushed teeth and climbed into bed. We listened to our family audio book for half an hour and by that time Sam and Cara were already snoozing.

The Backpacking Trip Day 2

Monday was Andrew’s Birthday. He was so excited to be out backpacking, and we managed to completely surprise him with presents (read more about Andrew’s birthday here).

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We got everything taking down and packed up after breakfast and presents. It was fun trying to figure out how we had packed all the bags the first time, and generally just fit everything however it worked. The rangers came over to say goodbye before we headed to our next campsite which was about 3.5 miles down the trail. Ranger Gail brought us a handwritten weather report (awesome thinking on her part!), and they presented Andrew with an Apostle Islands sticker as a present (so awesome!).

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Our hike to Quarry Bay was pretty uneventful. We kept the kids’ packs super light – Rachel is carrying two long(ish) sleeping pads so her pack looks huge but was pretty lightweight. The trail alternated between forest and views of Lake Superior.

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At one point the trail is along the beach, and with the water as high as it was we would have gotten our feet pretty wet. Instead we opted to bushwack a section through the trees and returned to the beach when we would stay dry.

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We took a pretty good snack break about halfway through  and had the kids take their packs off. I feel like it totally lifted their spirits and they did great the rest of the way. I loved that the trail had no serious elevation, so the kids could get used to carrying packs on a pretty gentle trail. They are good hikers, but carrying a pack can sap your energy pretty quick!Apostle Islands National Lakeshore_54

We reached our campsite just before lunch. The Quarry Bay area has a dock, 2 group sites, and 1 single campsite. A group of kayakers had been blown in with the storm the night before and had spread out….everywhere. They were pretty good about moving their boats out from our site and we watched them paddle out a little later to rescue one of their kayaks.

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We spent the afternoon pretty lazily, which was perfect! I got a pretty good nap in (taking kids backpacking is fairly exhausting), we read, played cards, and the kids had fun whittling sticks with their knives. Cara loved playing in the sand, and we just generally enjoyed ourselves. Since this bay was more protected from the wind (which had also started to die down) we managed a campfire and marshmallows for Andrew’s birthday in the evening and then listened to more of our book before falling asleep.

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The Backpacking Trip Day 3

Cara was our latest sleeper every morning and I loved watching her snuggled up with her kitty. Rachel and Andrew would read in the mornings (they do that in the Airstream as well) and it was generally the need to go to the bathroom that finally got us up and going.

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While Sam managed the stove for breakfast, the kids and I packed up our gear so we would have time to hike to the Quarry before the ferry came to get us. It was about a 3.5 mile round trip and it was probably the fastest we have ever hiked. The Quarry was…okay. It basically was a site where “they” (whoever they were) mined sandstone. It was very moss covered, but we could still see many of the cut marks. Pretty dark though so we don’t really have any photos. The trail was beautiful, and on the way back we found some fresh bear tracks in the sand pretty close to our campsite.

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The ferry arrived at the dock to get us right around 10am.

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Once we were on board, the ranger approached us and mentioned they were headed to Michigan Island for a lighthouse tour. If we wanted, we could pay the $8 for our whole family and join them, or wait 45 minutes on the boat. Total no-brainer. I’m just glad we packed an extra lunch!

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There are two lighthouses on Michigan Island – one that was supposed to built somewhere else, and one that actually was built somewhere else and then brought over! We were able to hike to the top of the newer lighthouse (also taller) and we had an amazing view from up top!

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After Michigan Island, we actually went back to Presque Isle to pick up some day hikers, and our friend Ranger Gail! Cara was delighted to see her again, and Gail kept her entertained almost the entire way back to Bayfield. We arrived back in Bayfield around 1:30pm and unceremoniously disembarked from the boat and started the walk back to the Airstream. Gail walked down the dock with us, but then Cara had to tell her goodbye. We are so grateful for amazing rangers at National Parks and for all their hard work. Sometimes rangers make the difference between a good experience and a great one.

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We were tired, a little smelly, but overall very pleased with our experience. The kids did so awesome. Despite some less than ideal weather (cold and windy!) there was no complaining and they all just rolled with it. We’ve already started thinking about our next trip, although it definitely won’t involve an island and a ferry ride!

Backpacking on the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin with Kids

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