Even before you see Lake Superior, you can smell the cool, bracing air that wafts from its surface. When viewed from the overlook on Rte. 2 on the way to Ashland, the gigantic lake is blue to the point of blackness: a virtual ocean of the North.
Asaph Whittlesey, who founded Ashland in 1854, saw the lake not so much as a thing of beauty but as a highway. In its heyday the town shipped out millions of tons of virgin pine, iron ore, and brownstone, brought by rail to Ashland’s docks. The commercial buildings of the Second Street Historic District stand as sturdy reminders of the town’s mercantile roots, but visitors are more likely to pause for the Big Top Chautauqua or the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center.
6. Apostle Islands
The 22 Apostle Islands beckon to the northeast. To get closer, turn north on Rte. 13, following the shoreline of the Bayfield peninsula. Here you’ll find Bayfield, another once-bustling, now quirky port town. The burghers’ white clapboard mansions serve as bed-and-breakfast inns, while the old county courthouse, built of locally quarried brownstone, houses the visitor center for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
On the islands, it’s an intoxicating blend of water and wilderness: 50-foot sandstone cliffs line secluded coves, and wildflowers brighten the forests above. The islands appeal to sailboaters and kayakers, serviced by half-day excursion boats departing from Bayfield. From the ferry, you’ll see Raspberry Island and its lighthouse, one of six 19th-century beacons in the archipelago. To drive, take the 20-minute car ferry to Madeline Island, the only inhabited Apostle, and explore the 14-mile-long island, which is fringed with pristine white beaches.
7. Brule River State Forest
West of the drowsy lakeside town of Port Wing lies one of the most renowned trout streams east of the Mississippi: the Bois Brule. Five presidents have tested their mettle against its wily brook trout. White-water canoers also love the stream; from its headwaters it meanders gently, but north of the highway it plunges down a series of brisk rapids. In autumn the Bois Brule’s banks explode with color.
8. Amnicon Falls State Park
Continue west on Rte. 13 and dip south on Rte. U to Amnicon Falls. Faults in the 600-million-year-old sandstone bedrock divide the Amnicon River into three 30-foot cascades. A half-mile trail winds to a long covered bridge that vaults the cataract, leading to an enchanting island between the falls—a nearly perfect place for a picnic.
Superior (and its sister, Duluth) is a major seaport, thanks to the series of locks and channels that connect it to the Atlantic Ocean more than 2,000 miles away. Watch massive grain and ore freighters entering and leaving the harbor by driving Wisconsin Point Road along a sandspit to the lighthouse at its end—a popular spot for driftwood campfires on summer evenings. From nearby Barkers Island, site of the S.S. Meteor Maritime Museum, visitors can cruise the harbor, a finale to this drive beside the greatest of the Great Lakes.