During the chilly winter of 2014 the tiny northern Wisconsin town of Bayfield exploded on social media. Thousands of visitors and National Park enthusiasts flocked to the frozen shores of Lake Superior for one of the most unique experiences in the park system, the mainland ice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Record crowds and below zero temperatures combined for a wintertime sensation.
However, if you are expecting to drive up, park in the lot, take a short walk and see the wonders of the ice caves this year, you will be in for a surprise. Our 2016 El Niño winter has something else in mind.
Going to the ice caves first requires the ice caves to form. The rugged, iron-red shoreline in this area is famous for unique vertical cliffs, eroded by the waves of Lake Superior. As winter begins to freeze the water, the waves splash up and freeze on the rock formations. Layer upon layer of ice slowly builds on the rocks forming the ice covered caves that attract so many visitors each year.
But in order to see the ice caves up close, one more element has to be in place. The only way to visit the caves is on foot, which requires Lake Superior’s already frigid waters to freeze solid enough for visitors to safely trek the 2 mile round trip hike out to the caves. Despite record Snowmageddon winters, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore hasn’t been cold enough this winter for the caves to open. We’re still patiently waiting to take another trip to the area and have these tips about planning a visit:
Planning your Visit to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
As mentioned above, 2014 was an excellent year given the frigid temperatures in the upper Midwest. Now in 2016 our above normal temperatures slowed the formation of the ice required to hike out to the caves. See the bottom of the page for sources of information to make sure the caves are open before you plan to visit.
Once the NPS staff declares the conditions safe for the general public, pack up your warmest winter gear and best winter hiking boots to begin making the journey to Meyers Beach, the designated entrance onto Lake Superior and trailhead out to the caves. On a weekend when the conditions are right, the number of visitors can quickly exceed the lot capacity. During the height of the social media craze in February 2014, the tiny lot was full and parking along the highway added miles onto most visitor’s hike. If you can, arrive early to get a spot in the lot or prepare for extra walking.
Once you’ve made it to Meyer’s beach, begin the 1.1-mile hike across frozen Lake Superior to get to the cliffs where the ice formations begin. Beware the wind off the lake can be fierce and on most days you will be fully exposed to the elements. The hike can also be challenging, remember it is the snow covered uneven surface of Lake Superior after all.
Slowly though, you will begin to see the ice formations. From the beginning of these formations you continue another 2 miles along the shore viewing these unique ice formations and beautiful frozen lakeshore. Take time to crawl in and under the ice formations, admire the slow but powerful forces that have shaped the landscape of this pristine lakeshore.
- Don’t walk until you are exhausted! With all your winter clothes on the 3+ mile hike in the snow and across the ice to the end of the cliffs can be tiring and is only half of the journey. You now need to turn around and hike the 3 miles back to Meyers Beach and potentially down the road if you did not get a parking spot in the lot
- Bring something to drink and granola bars or something to snack on, it can be a long but rewarding day.
- Arrive early if possible to get a spot in the lot. If you have to park on the road remember it is a major Highway in the area and can be heavily traveled year-round. Watch for park staff directing traffic and slow down when driving to and from Meyer’s Beach.
- Avoid the traffic and check out bus information to Meyers Beach, found on Bayfield’s home page. Their map from the 2015 season provides a good overview of the area.
- Be sure to check the park information before heading out. A change in the wind, or a warm up can bust up the ice on Lake Superior and force the park to close the ice caves to the public.
- Check the weather and dress appropriately; the wind off of Lake Superior is COLD.
Latest Apostle Islands Ice Cave information:
To get the latest ice conditions from National Park service visit the park’s home page. Also the park regularly provides ice updates on their Facebook page along, with photos and up-to-date information. Ice information is available by phone. Call the Ice Hotline: 715-779-3397 x 3 for a recording of the latest conditions.