THE ICE CAVES OF LAKE SUPERIOR
Best Ice Caves in Wisconsin
If ever there were something worthy of bucket-list status, the Apostle Islands Ice Caves, located on Lake Superior along the Bayfield Peninsula, would have a spot near the top of the list. Nearly everyone remembers the winter of 2013-2014, the year the ice caves on Lake Superior went absolutely viral worldwide and put the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin on the map. Since then, conditions have only allowed the NPS to open access to the ice caves once, in 2015.
Will the ice caves open this year? We can sure hope!
Part of the reason any visit to the ice caves is so special is due to the fact they are less and less frequently open to the public. This is due to a myriad of factors related to safety as determined by the NPS, but it can be summarized by stating we need lots of cold weather to make ice, and long periods of little to no wind on Lake Superior to let that ice lock up in the Apostle Islands and continue to build into a safe sheet that allows passage along the mainland coast where the caves are located. In recent years, Lake Superior hasn’t cooperated. We’ve had plenty of cold weather that begins to make ice, only to have a NE gale blow it all out the next week. Lather, rinse, repeat over and over again. It all adds up to the unfortunate fact that having the ice caves open to the public has become less predictable, rarer, and thus, worthy of bucket-list should they become accessible again in the near future.
A December canoe trip, while dodging icebergs, to the Mainland Ice Caves revealed this gorgeous scene at sunset.
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ARE THE APOSTLE ISLANDS ICE CAVES OPEN
*** UPDATE *** March 7th, 2023. It's all over but the crying, folks. A series of winter storms broke up the ice sheet that was trying hard to lock into place and the remnants of that ice have blown in and out several times over the past weeks. It's all open water today at the mainland caves. What began as a winter of high hopes and much optimism has once again left us all wanting. Better luck next winter!
*** UPDATE *** - February 21st, 2023. I wish I had good news or could put a positive spin on what has essentially been a very disappointing winter here in the Apostles. As of today, the Mainland Ice Caves are closed and my money is on "Not Opening This Season". While there is an ice sheet along the coastline at the mainland caves, it isn't stable or safe and the NPS isn't allowing access. To make matters worse, we're staring down the barrel of an intense winter storm later this week predicted to bring a Storm Warning for the Apostles with NE winds to 45kts and waves building to 25'. If we see anything even remotely close to wave heights of 25', the little ice we have will quickly break up and blow out. At this stage of the winter, it's probably asking too much to expect enough sustained cold weather to make safe ice in the Apostles.
Ok, so enough of the pessimistic news. Let’s say we have a real winter this year, the kind grandpa used to reminisce about. Frozen pipes, cars won’t start, all that. Every year there seems to be plenty of disinformation concerning the status of the ice caves, but the only sure way to know if the ice caves are open is to check the designated NPS page here. Alternatively, you can call “The Ice Line” at 715-779-3397 x3. As the gatekeepers, the Park Service updates the open/closed status frequently during the peak winter months and provides current conditions at Meyers Beach, where you’ll begin your journey if the ice caves open.
Another excellent resource for checking the ice conditions at the mainland caves is the Sea Caves Watch camera, located atop a sandstone cliff along the coastline. It takes a series of images every hour looking NE and SW, and also attempts to ascertain wave height when applicable (summer). Note: during the winter months the lens is frequently covered with ice and snow. Be patient, as NPS staff will eventually clear it, but the camera is located in a less than convenient place that requires a hike.
"ARCH OF THE APOSTLES"
An incredible ice arch discovered during a winter excursion into the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior along the frozen coastline of Stockton Island.
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WHERE TO BEGIN
The jumping off point is at the Meyers Beach parking lot, way up near the charming little town of Cornucopia. Meyers Beach is roughly 18 miles west of Bayfield, Wisconsin on HWY 13. That’s about four hours from the Twin Cities, and six hours from Milwaukee. There’s a $5 per car parking fee, and the NPS charges an additional $5 per person fee to access the ice caves. Again, check the NPS site for up-to-date details.
A word to the wise: Parking at Meyers Beach is limited, and given the expected popularity of another Ice Cave event, you'll want to arrive early to ensure you get a spot. The last time the ice caves opened, people were overflow parking for *miles* along highway 13.
Once you leave the parking lot and descend the stairs to the shoreline of Lake Superior below, the adventure begins. Be prepared for a 3–6-mile round trip hike (depending on much you want to see) across a frozen surface that features uneven footing, including pack ice, deep snow, and the usual hazards of any winter hike.
A dramatic, yet delicate ice cave on Cat Island following a brutal freeze-up in the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior.
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HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE ICE CAVES
All the usual and standard winter adventuring advice is applicable here, as you’d expect. It bears repeating though, as the last time the ice caves were open people showed up woefully, completely unprepared for a winter hike on the frozen surface of Lake Superior. So, here we go:
- Appropriate winter attire. That means dressing in layers and leaving the stylish coat you wear to dinner Friday evening at home. You’ll want a wicking base layer, insulating layer(s), and a hard-shell or similar to block wind on top of that. Don’t forget your hat and gloves!
- Winter footwear – hiking boots or similar. Something with good support that you’ll be comfortable walking over uneven terrain in. Crampons or ice cleats can be super useful if the ice is windswept and bare. Hiking poles can also be a Good Thing to Have.
- A small day-pack or backpack. Put your water, thermos, and snacks in it. Extra gloves can come in handy too, and you’ll have a place to shed those extra layers should you overheat along the way.
- Safety gear. The fact of the matter is if the Park Service deems the ice safe enough to open the ice caves to the public, you aren’t going to need to gear up the way I do when I’m winter adventuring in the far reaches of the Apostles at the edge of the ice pack. Nonetheless, anytime you’re traveling on ice at the very least have a pair of icepicks on you and consider carrying a throw rope in your pack.
- Know your abilities and limits. While a trip to the mainland ice caves certainly isn’t too strenuous for most people to undertake, it also isn’t Disneyland. You’ll be trekking across the frozen surface of Lake Superior, which demands respect in all seasons. Dress appropriately and be prepared.
Above all - enjoy the journey!
Mesmerizing patterns in the ice from the depths of a frozen sandstone cave on Stockton Island in the Apostles. A location that is unfortunately becoming less and less accessible during the winter - the ice is rarely safe out there.
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Questions about any and all things Apostle Islands? DM me on Instagram.