Secrets of Bayfield County
You’ve probably been to Bayfield, Wisconsin. Or, at the very least, heard of its myriad charms: stately Victorian B & Bs, sailboats skipping between islands that rise in low mounds out of Lake Superior, sweet little shops where you can find ice cream, a bottle of wine, or a well-selected novel—whatever your pleasure. Indeed, Bayfield is so charming that many visitors, utterly entranced by those first fresh lake breezes, never bother to venture beyond the compact downtown.
On a recent weekend visit, my partner and I tracked down some of the hidden pleasures to be found in greater Bayfield County. After settling the dog at the kennel, we set our sights northeast. Freeway gave way to state highway, and we passed through summer resort towns shimmering as the heat of the day built up. Midway through the Chequamegon National Forest, we jagged off the main road towards the Delta Diner.
This 1940 Silk City Diner, set like a mirage in the northwoods, offers funky, boldly-flavored breakfast and lunch items. We enjoyed thin Norwegian pancakes, one laced with jalapenos, and a “Mex Benny” composed of dense cornbread, eggs, and chorizo gravy. If you don’t think you have room for dessert, you should order some anyway. The pies (triple chocolate pudding and lemon sour cream) were among the best I’ve sampled. If you don’t have time for a meal, the neighboring Diner Store has coffee, outstanding baked goods, and other provisions to go.
Amply refueled, we continued to the White Winter Winery in Iron River for a tour and mead tasting. Normally a grape wine drinker, I was amazed at the range of styles and flavors that owner John Hamilton coaxes from honey and fruit. Bayfield County is home to more Travel Green Wisconsin certified businesses than any other county. At White Winter, sustainability is embedded throughout the business, from sourcing ingredients locally to composting the waste generated. Time your visit right, and you can attend one of the Winery’s Summer Porch Concerts, culminating in a pig roast held over Labor Day weekend.
After heading east on Highway 2, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Superior from the observation tower at Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center. While the Center is handy for a quick orientation stop as you enter the area, you may find yourself lingering to view the well-curated exhibits, feed the fish in the pond, or walk the trails.
Entering the final stretch towards Bayfield, you might be tempted to skip the lakeside town of Washburn. Don’t. Washburn has a laid-back, artsy scene that makes it a worthwhile stop. Cafe Coco offers fresh, hearty breakfasts and lunches featuring their handcrafted breads and pastries. You’ll have the chance to burn off your meal while wandering through the town’s art galleries or along the lakeside path. We took a short drive into the rolling hills above town to stop at Tetzner’s Dairy. The farm store isn’t staffed—just write your purchases (in pencil!) on one of the well-worn envelopes and leave exact change.
Our dinner destination was Good Thyme restaurant, housed in an impeccably restored prairie style house just north of downtown Washburn. The owners have created a warm and convivial atmosphere, offering inventive cocktails and a modern American menu that hits both modern and classic touches. I, for one, couldn’t resist the traditional Friday fish fry, while my partner enjoyed a burger made with the restaurant’s blend of chuck, brisket, and short loin.
Stage North theater and bar lies at the heart of Washburn—literally and figuratively. This intimate performance space hosts a broad calendar of plays, music, and other events putting local talent on display. On our visit, we took in Twin Cities favorites Kevin Kling (his mom lives in Washburn) and Simone Perrin, while the fall calendar includes performances of Sylvia and Church Basement Ladies. The soaring lobby bar, complete with lake views, is a local watering hole even when no events are scheduled. Take your pre-show drink out to the terrace and try, I dare you, not to daydream about chucking it all to move to the shores of Lake Superior.
Upon arriving in Bayfield proper, we checked in at Le Chateau Boutin, sister property to grande dame the Old Rittenhouse Inn. Owners Jerry and Mary Phillips took a chance on Bayfield over 35 years ago, and their hospitality keeps guests coming back season after season. The five-course dinner at the Inn’s Landmark Restaurant, with menu choices delivered verbally at each table, is an anniversary tradition for many couples.
Another Bayfield tradition is to take in a show at the Big Top Chautauqua. Essentially a circus tent perched at the base of Mount Ashwabay ski hill, this eclectic venue presents performers like Greg Brown and Mary Chapin Carpenter along with house-produced variety shows featuring storytelling and historical themes.
The next morning, after picking up a cuppa from Bayfield’s Big Water Coffee Roasters, we started the day with a walk out on the city dock. We sat for a while in the crisp sunshine, watching the town wake up and listening to the Madeline Island Ferries come and go from the terminal. Before long, we tucked into a square breakfast at the nearby Egg Toss Cafe. When local berries are in season, a giant bowl makes the perfect accompaniment to your meal.
The farms and orchards a few minutes west of Bayfield are a destination for many visitors. Our stop at North Wind Organic Farm supplied us with strawberries and jam to take home. Fall’s bounty includes blueberries, apples, pears, grapes, plums, pumpkins, and other harvest treats. Pick up a brochure in town for a helpful map and guide to the farms.
Bayfield serves as the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. To explore the islands, which are scattered northeast around the Chequamegon peninsula, getting out on the water is a must. If you don’t travel equipped with a private yacht, local tour operators fill the breach, offering tour boat, sailboat, and kayak excursions ranging from an afternoon to several days or longer. We joined Dreamcatcher Sailing’s Captain Jen Lanzer and her partner for a sailing excursion to the sea caves on the north side of the peninsula, near Cornucopia. While flat winds dampened our adventure, the dramatic sea caves, carved in the sandstone bedrock by the sheer force of water, were impressive even through the drizzle. When the wind picked up for a time, Captain Jen taught this landlubber some of the rudiments of sailing.
While Lake Superior dominates, small rivers and streams subtly shape the peninsula’s landscape. Many locals recommended waterfalls as some of their favorite scenic spots. Houghton Falls State Natural Area, accessible via a short hike from a trailhead north of Washburn, protects rocky outcrops, a waterfall, and incredible lake views. Just east of Cornucopia, a series of waterfalls are easily reached from a bridge crossing the Siskiwit River; just park and locate the path hugging the river downstream from the bridge.
Our getaway concluded with a drive on Highway 13, which wraps around the peninsula and eventually hugs Wisconsin’s South Shore. In Cornucopia, poke around for awhile in Ehlers General Store. Boasting organic produce, groceries, deli, and hardware, Ehlers carries just about everything needed by locals and tourists alike. We stocked up on locally sourced goodies to bring back, including smoked Lake Superior trout, beans from Northwestern Coffee Mills, and Spirit Creek Farm sauerkraut. Beyond Cornucopia, the towns get even smaller. In Herbster, we marvelled at the campground plopped right on the beach, imagining how glorious it could be to wake up and wriggle your toes in Lake Superior sand. After browsing in a pottery studio housed in a former Port Wing church, we reluctantly struck out for home.
Bayfield’s most famous fall attraction is its Apple Festival, held the first weekend of October. Other highlights include The Old Rittenhouse Inn’s Fall Brew and Red Wine weekends and White Winter Winery’s Annual Emergency Pig-Out. Bayfield’s food-centered Fall Harvest Celebration is ongoing in September and October.