Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Bayfield Reviews
Apostle Island Ice Caves! Mar 08, 2014
The Apostle Island National Lakeshore is located in Northern Wisconsin on Lake Superior and consists of 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland. This area is popular in summer, especially for sea kayaking in the Mawikwe Sea Caves. Other popular activities include boating, sailing, fishing, camping, wildlife viewing, and hiking.
Once in a while, during a particularly brutal (cold) winter, Lake Superior freezes enough that the sea caves are accessible by walking over the ice. This winter just happened to be cold enough that plenty of thick ice formed along the shore and the caves were just a short 1.1 mile hike away. In addition, these caves have some spectacular ice formations resembling those of natural caves...only made of ice.
The ice caves were accessible in mid-January 2014. The last time the ice caves were accessible by ice was in 2009. The ice caves were not well known outside of the local area until several newspapers and tv news stations reported on the caves, showing the stunning views. Wave action from before the lake freezes over forms some of the ice formations. Others are formed when from seeps, waterfalls or precipitation freezing.
Visitors can park at the Meyers Beach Parking Lot, which usually fills up very early on the weekends. Parking is also available along Meyers Road, or along the north side of Highway 13. Parking in the lot or Meyers Road is $3/car but it is free to park on Hwy 13. People park nearly 2 miles away from the lake access, one way! During the (winter) weekends (when accessible by ice), a shuttle is provided for a small fee, but lines are often long. The shuttle service picks you up in the small town of Cornucopia, about 4 miles west of Meyers Beach. The start of the caves is 1.1 miles from the Meyers Beach access (to the northeast) and extend at least 0.6 miles to "the Bowl". From there, the caves and formations thin out, but extend another 1.2 miles.
If you go, make sure the ice is safe. This year, the NPS measured ice thickness weekly (it was over 12" thick, plenty safe to walk on). The recommended minimum thickness is 8". With so many visitors this year, there was a 20' wide packed snow path from the beach and along the sea caves. The path was not level and many families pulled sleds with their small children. Along the way was an eagle's nest with 2 bald eagles sitting in the tree. Ice spikes for your shoes, or crampons, are highly recommended, especially if you want to explore in the caves. Ski poles are recommended if you need help with balance while walking. They will be in your way if you want to climb in the caves. I went with just ice spikes and it was perfect. Snow pants are recommended if you plan to climb around the caves and slide down the ice. Obviously a warm coat, hat, gloves, and boots are needed. There are no restrooms out there, so be sure to use the outhouses at the beach before you go. And pack a snack and water, and definitely a camera!
The caves vary in size from very small to very large. Most are at ground (ice) level, but some are elevated and tougher to climb into. Don't go alone, unless you go on a busy weekend when there are tons of people around. There were literally thousands of people there the day I went. It was so busy I often had to wait to explore some of the more popular caves.
The caves formed in sandstone, which is a bright orange with visible layers of bedding. Some of the sand erodes into the ice formations turning them yellow or pinkish. Some of the really thick, solid ice formations are bright blue. There are icicles inside and outside the caves, and of different shapes and sizes. One cave had little delicate snow crystals. Another had a pillar of icicles as big as a truck! Be careful when climbing, as they could break and fall on you or drop you to the ground. Several careless people were pulling themselves up and breaking the ice formations. It was sad to see them being destroyed. But most people were very respectful.
The caves were awesome to explore and had so many different, unique features. I can’t even begin to describe how cool they are. They will probably only be accessible until sometime in March, when the ice begins to melt and become unsafe for travel. Who knows, it might be another 5 years before they are accessible by ice again! It is a lot of walking. I think I was on the ice for 3 hours and walked close to 5 miles total (with 1.5 miles of that being the road walking to/from the car!).
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