Apostle Island Ice Caves!

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Travel Blog

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walking to the caves

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.

2 bald eagles and their nest
..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. 

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).

first bit of caves you come to
  I found a hotel room in Hayward (WI), which was about an hour and a half from the parking area - and it was still $120!  It was a snowy drive to the hotel Friday night and a slightly icy drive to the caves the next morning.  I guess that's to be expected when touring northern Wisconsin in winter!  I left my hotel at 7 am, got there around 8:30 and found the parking areas full already.  In fact, they filled up by 7:30 am! 

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.

  People park nearly 2 miles away from the lake access.  During the (winter) weekends (when accessible by ice), a shuttle is provided in Cornucopia (the closest town) for a small fee, but lines are often long.  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. 

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.

  But it was usually worth the wait!  But still, there were people EVERYWHERE!  Any opening large enough for a person to crawl in, usually had a least one person crawling through.  You'd be looking around at the ice formations and all of a sudden a person will slide out from a 1 ft opening. 

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. 

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.

  The path back is a little more direct, but you are fighting the oncoming traffic.  When I got back to the beach, the NPS staff said there were already 5,200 people there today - and this was just before noon!  Crazy! 

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! 

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walking to the caves
walking to the caves
2 bald eagles and their nest
2 bald eagles and their nest
first bit of caves you come to
first bit of caves you come to
I got photobombed!
I got photobombed!
Love these rocks!
Love these rocks!
this was the coolest cave - pink i…
this was the coolest cave - pink …
looking up in the pink cave
looking up in the pink cave
looking up in the pink cave
looking up in the pink cave
some people enter the pink cave th…
some people enter the pink cave t…
I entered the pink cave through th…
I entered the pink cave through t…
frozen waterfall
frozen waterfall
tiny icicles
tiny icicles
Me in a little ice cave I had to c…
Me in a little ice cave I had to …
entering a big crevasse
entering a big crevasse
people were in line to slide - but…
people were in line to slide - bu…
looking back out of the crevasse
looking back out of the crevasse
the key to my success here - my ic…
the key to my success here - my i…
sliding
sliding
and suddenly this person appeared …
and suddenly this person appeared…
someone is crawling through a hole…
someone is crawling through a hol…
found a little cave you can only a…
found a little cave you can only …
me in my little cave
me in my little cave
chillin
chillin'
crawling through the keyhole
crawling through the keyhole
the keyhole
the keyhole
the keyhole
the keyhole
blue ice
blue ice
ice crystals
ice crystals
looking out of the cool ice crysta…
looking out of the cool ice cryst…
crazy kids thinking they can roast…
crazy kids thinking they can roas…
looking out of another little cave
looking out of another little cave
another little cave for me
another little cave for me
in my sandstone cave
in my sandstone cave
more blue ice!
more blue ice!
me by the blue ice
me by the blue ice
the webcam
the webcam
my webcam shot
my webcam shot
yes, I was scared to stand under t…
yes, I was scared to stand under …
ice clinging to roots
ice clinging to roots
the nice couple I met at the webcam
the nice couple I met at the webcam
the hordes of people still heading…
the hordes of people still headin…
heading back
heading back
the line for the pink cave is much…
the line for the pink cave is muc…
one way to get out to the ice cave…
one way to get out to the ice cav…
ice, Lake Superior, sky - all white
ice, Lake Superior, sky - all white
beginning the walk on the snow path
beginning the walk on the snow path
park rangers on snowmobiles
park rangers on snowmobiles
icy road to ice caves
icy road to ice caves
icy road to ice caves
icy road to ice caves
parking along hwy 13
parking along hwy 13
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
photo by: doliveira