A Complete Guide to Big Bay State Park

A Complete Guide to Big Bay State Park

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At 2,350 acres, Big Bay State Park is the largest tract of land in Madeline Island, Lake Superior, Ashland County. Madeline Island is the largest island in the Apostle Island chain.

A Complete Guide to Big Bay State Park

Big Bay State Park is a popular camping ground with great attractions including a beautiful beach, a lagoon, bogs, stunning views of the ocean, sandstone bluffs, and lush vegetation.

A Complete Guide to Big Bay State Park

There is a lot to see and do here and this guide will offer you a complete overview of the park and information about how you can have an amazing experience when you visit this park.

The park is open year-round, even during the winter season. It opens at 6 am and closes at 11 pm daily. The best times to visit the park would be in July-August when the weather allows for much hiking, kayaking, and camping. Some people (especially winter sports lovers and hunters) prefer to visit in the Winter season as well. Spring and fall are quiet times here, with minimal crowds.

History of Big Bay State Park

Established in 1963, Big Bay State Park features stunning lake caves, sand bluffs, a beach shoreline, camping grounds, and numerous hiking and walking trails. It is the largest protected area in the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior.

The Ojibwa connection

The Big Bay State Park is located in La Pointe, a domain claimed to be home to the traditional Ojibwa/Chippewa community (Native Americans). French settlers came in as traders and established a fort in La Pointe, which later grew to become an important location for the American Fur company.

The head of the company, Michel Cadotte married the daughter of an Ojibwa chief (Madeline) and named the island after her.

The Ojibwe/Chippewa communities considered this island as a spiritual center and petitions by the chief led to the treaty of La Pointe (in 1854) that offered these local communities permanent reservations on the island and around the Big Bay State Park and successfully ended years of conflicts between them and the Mississippi cohort.

The Ferry Ride to Madeline Island

You can drive, bike, or hike to Big Bay State Park. However, most people enjoy using the ferry as part of the vacation excitement when visiting the park. You will spend extra money on the ride, but it will be worth it. The ferry makes several trips during the day.

It is a 20-25 minute voyage that gives you unparalleled views of the lake and the surrounding. The Madeline Island itself is refreshing, full of beautiful beaches, numerous hiking trails, and the La Pointe town has become a thriving shopping and entertainment location for people visiting the park. 

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Lakeshore Rock formations

The jugged, uneven coastline is another fascination for travelers in Big Bay State Park. You can take stunning photos standing on these rock formations, overlooking the massive Lake.

If you are a daredevil, dive from these cliffs to enjoy a swim in the lake. You can spend hours sitting on these rocks as you enjoy the cool sea breeze.

Camping at Big Bay State Park

There are a total of 60 campsites and all come equipped with amenities. Campgrounds tend to fill fast here, especially in the summer. 

Family campgrounds

The 21 campsites share common shower and toilet facilities. 7 of those sites are walk-in sites. These are spacious and private tents you can rent within the grounds. Instructions on how to camp can be found at the campground center. 

Outdoor Group Camps

There are two outdoor group camps in Big Bay and both are situated about half a mile from the family campgrounds. They are a bit secluded but being right at the edge of the water, they give you better access to the lake.

Amenities in the campgrounds

Amenities here include shared vault toilets and hand pumps. There are electrical hookups, showers, and flush toilets as well. You can purchase your food and other supplies from La Pointe, 7 miles away. There is a pet area, a wildlife observation deck, changing stalls, picnic areas, and parking spaces. If you are wild-camping, firewood is available for sale at the park center.

big bay state park campground map

Other campgrounds near Big Bay State Park

If (by any chance) you find the few campgrounds at Big Bay State Park full, there are other options to explore, close to the park.

Big Bay Town Park campgrounds

The number of campsites: 61 (22 electric, and 6 remote sites. The rest are family campsites. RV campsites available as well)

Activities: Camping, kayaking, canoeing, picnicking, bird watching, snowshoeing

Amenities: Fireplaces for campers and picnic, shower facilities, restroom, firewood available for sale.

This town park is situated directly opposite the Big Bay State Park, about 6 miles from the ferry dock at La Pointe. You will have access to the Big Bay State Park and the big lagoon. The view of the lake from the camping grounds here is stunning. 

Big Bay State Park Activities

The crashing of the Lake Superior water waves against the rocks makes for an exciting scene, especially when there is a fierce storm. The golden color and waves of Lake Superior in the fall enhance the experience for outdoor lovers here.

Big Bay State Park Water Sports

When the waters are calm on Lake Superior, you may find some people daring to dive in for a swim. This is considered to be the largest freshwater lake in the world. It is about as large as the state of South Carolina!

Scuba diving, swimming, kayaking, boating, and other forms of water sports are common activities in this lake. There are no sharks to worry about when exploring Lake Superior.

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Big Bay State Park Fishing

Lake Superior is a rich ground for trout fishing. If you prefer to fish in the lagoon inside the park, you can catch the northern pike. Just make sure you have your fishing license and you are good to go year-round.

Big Bay State Park Swimming

Lake Superior creates a narrow but stunning beach in the Big Bay State Park. It stretches on for about 1.5 miles along the shore. This is one of the best beaches in the Apostle Islands, with soft, small-grained sands, and a shallow shore that allows swimmers to have a great time here.

The water of Lake Superior is so clean you can see the bottom of the lake. There are bathrooms and changing rooms close to the beach. 

To get here, you can decide to explore the beautiful boardwalk trail that provides several access points to the beach or you can take the staircases leading to the beach from the car park. Enjoy a great evening watching the sunset with your family or build beautiful sandcastles with your kids on the beach.

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Big Bay State Park Kayaking, boating, and canoeing

Kayaking and boating are popular activities here, especially in the summer. You can rent out a kayak and safety gadgets at the park. One unique feature of this park is that the beach faces east. As the sun rises, the water warms up, making it ideal for a great morning kayaking adventure. Boating is also allowed, especially in the deeper sections where swimming is prohibited.

Launch your kayak from the barrier beach and paddle around the sandstone cliffs to break from the park and get rewarded with beautiful views of both the lake and the park. Find your way through the sea caves and enjoy marine life through the clear, calm waters of Lake Superior. If you are a beginner kayaker, consider signing up for a kayaking tour because sometimes the lake can be unpredictable and when the waves come crashing, you could be caught in a tight fix.

Sea caves of Big Bay State Park

To visit the sea caves here, you can rent a kayak and launch from Joni’s beach or wherever you deem fit within the Big Bay State Park. The largest cliffs and sea caves can be found at the big bay point, about a mile from the beach. These are large, scenic caves that showcase a masterpiece of years of stone erosion by water.

Hiking at the Big Bay State Park

Although water is available at the park, it would be advisable to carry fresh water and enough food for a day hike in the park. When walking through the forest, carry bug spray to ward off irritating bugs and mosquitoes. There are numerous trails to explore here;

Point-Trail loop

Length: 0.5 miles

The point trail is a moderate loop ideal for beginners. It starts right at the parking area (close to the family campgrounds) before meandering into the forest, following the Lake Superior shoreline. You will enjoy stunning views of the Lake, the rugged rocks and cliffs, and the lush vegetation (ferns, maples, pines, and birches). The trail is well marked and there is an observation deck to sample everything the park has to offer in a glance.

Boardwalk trail

Length: 1 mile

The boardwalk trail runs along the shoreline, offering you excellent views of the beach. Some sections of the boardwalk are also wheelchair-friendly. You will be walking amidst thriving flora and fauna. There are numerous off-shoot trails to bring you closer to whatever attractions you want to observe intimately. You will pass by the barrier trail that brings you to the shoreline and back to the parking area.

The boardwalk was designed to protect the areas around the beach. You will find information plaques along the trail. Pets are not allowed on this trail.

Bay View Trail

Length: 1.3 miles

Start this trail at the parking lot, go through an open area past several picnic tables and enter into the forest. You will be walking along Lake Superior, enjoying great views of cliffs and the waves crashing into the rocks.

You will want to spend time taking beautiful photos at the designated lookout spot that provides uninterrupted views of the lake and the cliff. You can decide to combine this trail with the Wood trail if you want a longer hike. Bird watching is also a common adventure for people using this trail.

Lagoon Ridge Trail

Length: 2.5 miles

The Lagoon trail is not marked. It is a bushy trail that takes you through a natural environment with little human interference. People who walk this trail are looking for serene and peaceful moments to interact with nature.

Although it is not marked, it is an easy-to-follow trail as markings from previous hikers sort of show you the way. This is the trail that takes you through the sand spits, the lagoons, and the bogs in the park. It ends as a loop back to the parking area.

Hiking at Big Bay State Park

Biking at Big Bay State Park

Some people prefer exploring the park using bikes hired in La Pointe. It is a great way to enjoy what the park has to offer although some trails (lagoon trail and boardwalk barrier trails) may not be very ideal for biking. There are not biking trails on the beach.

Bird watching in Big Bay State Park

There are many birds on Madeline Island and people who come for this activity inside Big Bay State Park are never disappointed. There is an observation deck created for this purpose. Some of the birds you should expect to see include double-crested cormorants, seagulls, herrings, cliff swallows, blue herons, piping plovers, red-winger blackbirds, owls, terns, and balding eagles.

Big Bay Sand Spit and Bog

When taking a hike inside the Big Bay State Park, make sure to visit the sand spit and bog. You’ll find sand ridges, an extensive sphagnum-sedge bog, and a lagoon that opens up to the bay mouth. There are four zones to explore here; a dry, grassy beach, a 20-foot wide wet sand beach, a rear beach (heath zone) that slopes away from the beach sand, and a tall shrub zone.

On the west side of the sand spit, you’ll encounter beautiful aquatic vegetation submerged in shallow water. A series of conifers, black and white spruces, and other vegetation lies on the eastern side of the sand spit.

Red sandstone rocks

The jugged, outcropping rocks on the Lake Superior shoreline are spectacular. The rough-edged cliffs that have a red hue make a great platform for cliff jumpers. It is a scary sport but very thrilling when watching others jump into the pristine waters.

Lush vegetation

Big Bay State Park contains a variety of vegetation. The best way to experience this is by taking a hike through the park. For instance, if you walk through the Big Bay Sand Spit’s heath zone you will encounter a sparsely wooded region that contains white pines and open spaces that contain lichens, blueberry, junipers, huckleberries, and bearberries. 

You will also find giant hemlocks and numerous wildflowers growing freely in this park.


The night sky in Big Bay State Park is clear, especially in the summer. If you will be camping here, you will enjoy stargazing as you lounge by the beach or by your campfire.

Big Bay State Park Hunting

Hunter can enjoy hunting deer at the park. However, you need to get more information about the dates and hunting restrictions before you visit the park for this activity.

Big Bay State Park in Winter

Although the big bay is most active during the summer, it remains open throughout the year and some people prefer to visit during the winter so that they can enjoy winter sports here.

Skiing and snowshoeing are important and popular sports here during the winter. You can find equipment and other safety gadgets for rent inside the park.

As a safety precaution, do not explore unmarked roads. Rangers inside the park normally mark out different sections and roads to offer people directions on where to go and what to avoid during the winter season. Some of the sections are closed during winter. They will offer this information at the Park’s center

Winter hike

All trails are open throughout. However, you are advised to exercise more caution while walking on the ice during the winter season. The ice has not been tested to establish safety levels. There will be no leaves on the trees so do not expect to enjoy much in terms of vegetation but this also means that you will have almost completely non-interrupted views of the lake!

Big Bay State Park Wildlife viewing

During the winter season, you may encounter deer, beaver, red fox, or even black bear inside the park. This time is also the designated hunting and trapping season here. Different bird species keep migrating to the park while others migrate from the park in search of warmer weather.

Winter Safety Precautions

Always dress in layers when visiting the big bay park during the winter season. The weather here can be very unpredictable, and unforgiving. Cover exposed areas of your skin with cream to avoid cold burnouts when hiking (just as you would, while hiking in the sun). 

If you decide to go for a swim, be warned that the water will be very cold during this time of the year. 

If you will be driving from La Pointe, be wary of the slippery ice on the road. Drive slowly and carefully.

big bay state park and dogs

Big Bay State Park and Dogs

Let’s start with the obvious: dogs shouldn’t be left unattended and you should pick up the poop. Waste should be disposed of in dumpsters or trash receptacles.

Dogs are allowed in most campgrounds, trails, roads, and outlying areas of the parks. They must be on a leash no longer than 8 feet at all times, if they are not under control at all times, they can be seized and subject to local laws pertaining to stray animals.

ID tags are a good idea if your dog isn’t micro-chipped. If you do lose your pet you can contact the Ashland County Humane Society at (419) 289-1455.

Rabies could be a thing as there are wild animals like raccoons your pooch could come in contact with so make sure your pooch has all current vaccinations.

Other animals like deer, red fox, coyote, squirrels, and beavers. Black bears, cougars, groundhogs, and wolves have all been spotted at Big Bay

Wildlife of Big Bay State Park

You may encounter several wild animals during your visit to Big Bay State Park. Most of these animals stay away from the areas frequented by human beings but it is possible to spot a coyote or a raccoon occasionally.

Follow the park’s guidelines when you come across these animals. For instance, do not feed them or leave your items exposed. Campers are advised to store their foods and other valuables in fool-proof containers. 

Always try to be environmentally conscious when visiting this park. This means that if you are exploring natural trails (such as the Lagoon trail), try the leave-no-trace concept by ensuring that you do not interfere with the environment or leave trash and other pollutants.

American Black bear

Bear sightings are rare in this park but always be keen when walking through the woods. The American black bear is the largest mammal in North America and although they seem cuddly, they can be very dangerous. Campers are especially advised to be extremely cautious and on the lookout for the bear when camping inside this forest.

If you go camping here, there are tips and tricks you can use to keep bears off your campsite. The national park service provides a guideline on what to do when you encounter black bears while hiking or camping in the woods.

Big Bay State Park Weddings and other events

What better way to get married than to do so in a place surrounded by wonders of nature? Many weddings have been conducted on the boardwalk and the beach in this park (and all over Madeline Island) over the years. The stunning vistas, beautiful beaches, and crystal-clear water make for amazing backdrops for any wedding ceremony.

Big Bay State Park Weddings

Historical locations around Madeline and Big Bay State Park

There are several interesting historical places to enjoy while visiting this park.

La Pointe

You can take a 3-mile (20 minutes) ferry trip from Bayfield to La Pointe. It is a short drive from Big Bay State Park to this town. It is a small town with a rich history and it is the only inhabited town on Madeline Island.

It was originally a French trading post in the 16th century before becoming an outpost for an American Fur Company in the 18th century. This is the spot where the Ojibway tribe grew. You can learn more about the Ojibwe People here

The local name for the town (in Anishinaabe language) is Mooningwanekaaning which means ‘Home of the Golden-breasted Flicker’. Fishing is the main activity here, so you may probably enjoy a good trout, whitefish, or siscowet dish in the quaint little hotels in the town. The locals love swimming in Lake Superior and each year they organize numerous swimming competitions that draw competitors from across the world.

Madeline Island Museum

Opened in 1958, this is the museum that documents the history of the Big Bay State Park, La Pointe, and the larger Madeline island area. Numerous exhibits and artifacts stored and displayed here detail the way of life of the Ojibwe people before and after they came into contact with the European foreigners. This island was among the earliest settlement outposts and trading centers that opened the interior of the nation for European exploration. 

Places of interest inside this museum include Casper’s center, the Old Jail, the American Fur Company building, the old sailor’s home, the pioneer barn, maple-sugaring kettle, and the fortified structures that were built by the French as far as the 17th century.

Big Bay Sloop 

These are the remains of a small unidentified (and sunken) sloop on Lake Superior, about 300 feet east of Big Bay State Park. Historians suggest that this sloop may have been used for commercial purposes (as a merchant’s vessel).

The site is a preserved and protected area today. After its discovery in 1990 as a Huron boat, historians could not authenticate the name of the vessel but the boat’s wire rigging and metal cleat places its usage between 1880 and 1920

Restaurants near Big Bay State Park

There are several fine dining and drinking places in La Ponte. Here are some of the favorites;

The Beach Club 

Location: 817 Main St, La Pointe WI 54850-2400. You get great views of Lake Superior and the ferries from the terraces of this club. There are docking facilities for customers here, so you are not restricted to whatever means you want to use-boat, car, walking, or by ferry. They have a great cocktail selection here.

Tom’s burned down cafe

Location: 234 Middle Rd, La Ponte, WI 54850-0222. This hippie bar has lots of funny and interesting signs everywhere. It is a great place to hang out, listen to the bands playing, have a drink, and just enjoy yourself. Everything here seems ‘disorganized’ in a kind of charming way. 

restaurants near big bay state park

The Copper Trout

Location: 250 Rittenhouse Ave, Bayfield, WI 54814-5046. This is a seasonal restaurant that serves fresh fish, delicious Italian-style pasta, Black Angus beef steaks, and gourmet pizza. They have vegetarian-friendly, gluten-free and vegan options. It is a small, popular restaurant, with a limited seating capacity.

Mannypenny Bistro

Location: 201 Manypenny Ave, Bayfield, WI 54814-5028. This is a family-owned restaurant and bakery that prides itself in making the best pizza in La Ponte. They have a good selection of American and Turkish sandwiches and wood stove oven pizza that comes with a bottomless cup of drip coffee. Try their delicious blackened chicken quesadilla served with red beans next time you visit this place!

Pier Plaza restaurant & Pickled Herring Lounge

Location: 1 Rittenhouse Ave, Bayfield, WI 54814-5018. This is an all-inclusive restaurant. You can stay here, dine and have a great time at the lounge. The views of the lake and the pier are breathtaking from this location. The rooms have a lake-view balcony, with a wide variety of amenities to choose from.

Hotels near Big Bay State Park

There isn’t a whole lot to choose from in the area as a lot of people go here to actually camp. We found ONE we would recommend:

Landmark Restaurant at Old Rittenhouse Inn

Location: 301 Rittenhouse Ave, Bayfield, WI 54814-5016

This is a bed and breakfast hotel overlooking Lake Superior. It is set on a historic property, in an old Queen Anne Victorian mansion that is ripe grounds for a romantic getaway, or a wedding. 

Places To Stay Nearby

Directions to the Big Bay State Park

From La Pointe, take highway H to Hagen Road (about 4 miles away) and continue along this road to the entrance of the park (about 2 miles away). From April to December, you can catch a ferry boat from Bayfield to La Pointe. If you are using your boat, you can launch from the public landing in Bayfield or a private landing on Madeline Island.

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