Apostle Island Ice Caves!
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Travel Blog› entry 32 of 33 › view all entries
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.
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.
I heard about the popularity and accessibiltiy of the ice caves this winter and decided to check them out. I quickly noticed that all hotels nearby were sold out - or only had rooms available for $200 or more. The popular cities included Duluth (MN), Superior (WI), Bayfield (WI), Washburn (WI), and Ashland (WI).
Visitors can usually park at the Meyers Beach Parking Lot, but it fills up very early on the weekends. Parking is also available along Meyers Road, or along the north side of Highway 13. I ended up parking on Hwy 13, about 1/3 of a mile from Meyers Road, which is 0.4 miles to the beach.
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.
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.
It was so much fun exploring the ice caves. I had fun crawling up in them and then sliding out again. I went alone, but there were plenty of people there that I never felt unsafe. Plus they took photos for me! At one point, I spotted the webcam and was deciding if I wanted to hang around until it snapped a photo. I heard another couple talking about it. We were early, but decided to walk a little, then come back and stand there for 5 minutes on either side of the hour, just in case. It paid off, as we made the 11 am webcam photo! After that, I worked my way back, marveling at how many people were out there.
I made the 0.75 mile walk (mostly uphill) back to my car, just exhausted! I drove through the little town of Cornucopia on my way out and noticed the line for the shuttle. I bet there were 100-200 people in line! I moved on and visited Washburn, Ashland, and Ironwood (MI) before making the 4 hour drive back home. So worth it!