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  • Writer's pictureDanielle St. Louis

Big Bay State Park

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Falling in love with Big Bay State Park

When I was traveling in Brazil, a fellow lodger at a hostel in Rio described Iguazu Falls as a “magical place full of rainbows and butterflies.” I wrote off his ethereal description as a byproduct of his marijuana induced high—until I saw Iguazu Falls. It was literally full of rainbows and butterflies, which made it feel downright magical. I mention this not because Big Bay State Park is full of rainbows and butterflies exactly, but because I don’t want you to dismiss this description. Believe me when I say Big Bay State Park is a sliver of paradise right here in Wisconsin (and that’s not my glass of wine talking!)

There’s inherent charm in a place that can only be reached by ferry. We arrived at the ferry terminal in Bayfield around nine thirty in the morning and were ushered immediately onto an awaiting vessel. Lucky got to experience his first ferry ride as a VIP (very important pup), as we were the sole passengers. I was relieved. Since this was his first experience on a ferry, I wasn’t sure how he would react. I was able to let Lucky out of the car and bring him to the upper deck without potentially disturbing other passengers. Thankfully, he didn’t get seasick and didn’t seem to mind the ferry ride.

Cruising across Lake Superior with the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces, we couldn’t wait to begin this next adventure.

But first, breakfast. Very near the ferry landing is Farmhouse, which happens to have a dog friendly patio. We ordered some croissants and espresso drinks and settled into a table outside. The Sunday morning traffic was lined up around the block waiting to catch a ferry back to the mainland. We were happy to not be in that line, but we ended up waiting just as long for our drinks. We weren’t willing to let bad service harsh the Zen vibe we’d established on the ferry ride over, so we attributed the delay to being on “island time” and just made the best of it.* After finishing our café miel, we drove over to the eastern side of the island to Big Bay State Park. We parked by the Point Picnic Area, which also happens to be the Pet Picnic Area, and began on Point Loop Trail.

Our hike started out routinely enough. Trees, foliage, you know, the usual. And then, LAKE. I knew I was in love at first sight. I’ve seen plenty of lakes before—big lakes, small lakes, other Great Lakes. I’ve even visited the shores of Lake Superior before. But this was different. It didn’t feel Midwestern. It didn’t feel like Wisconsin. It felt like paradise. We made our way out onto the cliffs to become more acquainted with the shoreline and to examine the deep emerald greens of Lake Superior from above. We lingered here for some time, watching more adventurous (or reckless?) park visitors jump from the cliffs into the clear waters below. When we finally got moving again, we made slow progress, stopping often to take photos and revel in the sublime scene that was the lake, the cliffs and the forest.

When we turned onto Woods Trail, we were sad to be heading inland away from the water. We were even more disheartened when the trail got muddier and buggier the further along Woods Trail we went. Thankfully, we finally emerged back at the shoreline by the Day Use Picnic Area and finished our hike along Bay View Trail. Bay View Trail offers you views of the bay, as the name suggests, but it also takes you through an area of the island that was badly beaten up by a storm—giant trees uprooted by 100 mph winds line the trail. They lay vulnerable, their entire undersides exposed, now walls of earth and root.

As we walked along Bay View Trail, our stomachs began to rumble; lunch was calling our name. When we got back to the parking lot we had an important decision to make: eat right now, right here at the Pet Picnic Area or wait a little bit longer and backtrack along the trail to a nice spot to have a private picnic? It was an important decision (because all decisions about food are), but it wasn’t a difficult one. We threw some food in a bag, a couple of crackers into our mouths to abate our growling stomachs, and set back out on the trail. We backtracked to a small inlet; it was obvious kayakers and hikers frequented this spot by all the cairns assembled there (seriously everyone, enough with the cairns). We made our way down to the water, and Lucky went for a dip in Lake Superior while Angela and I ate our lunches. And then, we just hung out. Our little nook was perfect for a lazy afternoon, alternatively wading in the cool waters and basking in the summer sun on surrounding rocks. The views of the lake and shoreline were as picturesque as they come—the Great Lake’s version of butterflies and rainbows. We could have stayed all day if we didn’t have to catch a ferry back to Bayfield. With the afternoon waning and without a clue as to when the last ferry left, we packed up and went back to the parking lot and into town.

We made it back to town with some time to spare, so we checked out Tom’s Burned Down Café, which is everything the Yelp reviews say about it and more. With an art car parked out front, this spot is a cross between Margaritaville and Burning Man. The vibe is chill, and the place is dog friendly. We enjoyed a drink and some live music until it was time to catch our ride back to the mainland. We were almost first in line again to embark the ferry, but this time we were joined by a full boat load of travelers. Rather than going to the upper deck, we stayed next to the car and looked out over the railing. Lucky looked on from the front seat. He seemed to take nicely to ferry rides. 😊

Big Bay State Park is thus far my favorite. I can’t wait to go back and spend more time in this area. There is so much to explore: from the quant town of Bayfield, to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and of course Madeline Island and Big Bay. I want to return to hike, to kayak, and to eavesdrop on what nature’s up to in this surreal part of Wisconsin.

Want more information about hiking with your dog at Big Bay State Park? Order your copy of A Dog Lover's Guide to Hiking Wisconsin's State Parks now!

Note: Leave no trace violations typically consist of trash: soda cans, food wrappers and the like. However, at Big Bay, we noticed multiple pairs of discarded men’s underwear. Apparently dudes go cliff jumping and then just leave their underwear behind? DUDES – stop littering with your underwear.

*Now that I’m no longer on the island and no longer trying to make the best of it, I would advise anyone going to Farmhouse to be prepared for anything. The croissants were pricey, and while good, they were nothing crazy special—just a croissant with chocolate and caramel sauce drizzled on it. We waited at least thirty minutes for our coffee drinks, if not longer. We devoured our croissants with nothing to drink because we were too hungry to wait. When I asked one of the employees about our drinks, she rudely informed me she wasn’t in charge of the drinks. I think they were understaffed. But still. On a positive note, they did really like dogs and even offered to bring out water for Lucky.

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