It took millions of years for layer upon layer of sand to flood into the area now known as the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield County, Wisconsin. Over time, that sand cemented into sandstone cliffs, which was then carved out by the glaciers. What resulted are imposing red, orange, and brown rock faces that jut out in dramatic fashion over Lake Superior’s shores.
In the summer, the most popular way to explore the Apostle Islands Sea Cavesis by kayak, but in the winter, when the ice conditions are deemed safe by the National Park Service, you can walk right out on the lake, army crawl into rock tunnels, and shimmy between tight rock faces into vast chambers. Anyone willing to brave the chilly winter temperatures is treated to an impressive display of icy stalactite structures, frozen cascades, jagged archways, and glassy ice plates piled up against the shoreline.
If you’re planning on heading north to the ice caves, here are some tips for getting the most out of the experience.
1. Check Ice Conditions Before you Go
Access to the ice caves depends entirely on the weather during any given winter. While they opened two years in a row in 2014 and again this season, the next most recent year was 2009. High winds and rising temperatures can affect the safety of the ice cave route in just a matter of hours. Rangers with the National Park Service regularly check the thickness of the ice by drilling holes in key areas. The ice needs to be at least 8-12 inches thick for them to open to the public. Call 715-779-3397 ext. 3 for the latest ice conditions or check their official Facebook page .
2. Make a Pit Stop in Duluth
If you’re heading to Bayfield from the Twin Cities, the drive will take about four hours. It would be a shame to drive right through one of the top ranked outdoor towns in the country without at least stopping for some grub. Dining options are plentiful in Duluth, with Canal Park Brewing and Fitger’s being among the favorites for burgers and beer.
3. Prepare to Hoof It
Parking for the ice caves is entirely on the Highway 13 roadside. On the opening day this year, thousands of people showed up, leaving some to walk as far as 2.5 miles just to reach the entrance at Meyers Beach. Keep this in mind if you are bringing young children, dogs, or anyone who might not appreciate walking long distances or being out in the cold for extended periods of time. Your other option is to take a shuttle from Cornucopia or the Legendary Waters Resort & Casino in Red Cliff, which will drop you right at the lakeside entrance on Meyers Beach Road.
4. Bring Cash
Starting in 2015, the Park Service began charging a $5 fee to visitors 16 and older. This is a small price to pay for the increased staffing needed to insure safety and monitor ice conditions, as well as the portable toilets they make available on shore.
5. Watch your Step
Terrain varies from one year to the next, but in 2015, much of the route was characterized by bare ice, making it particularly treacherous. Crampon devices for your shoes and ski poles can go a long way in keeping you upright. Other stretches are a mix of snow and ice, so boots, rather than shoes, will be preferred in most cases.
6. Dress Appropriately
Most visitors will enjoy exploring the caves of upwards of 2-3 hours, so come prepared for the conditions. It can be particularly windy out on the open lake, so multiple layers covered by a shell is best. Also consider carrying a backpack with extra clothing, snacks, and water.
7. Be Careful Where you Stand
You may notice ice chunks that are many times your own size scattered along the ice near the base of the cliffs. Those have actually fallen off the rock at some point. As such, do not stand directly under any large, dangling ice formations. You never know when they may come down.
8. Don’t forget your camera
Truthfully, there are few places you can find that are more photogenic than the Apostle Islands Ice Caves. So if you've been striving to break your record number of Instagram likes, this place offers the perfect opportunity.
9. Stay in Bayfield:
If you plan on making a night of it, Bayfield has plenty of accommodation options. Your best bets are either the Winfield Inn, the Bayfield Inn , or one of the many B&Bs in the area. Be warned that Bayfield is a small town that doesn’t see as much action in the winter as it does in the summer, so most eateries and pubs close down by 8:00 pm. On your way out of town, be sure to stop at Big Water Coffee Roasters in Bayfield. Their organic, fair trade blends beat any gas station coffee you could grab on the way back to the Twin Cities by a long shot.