During the chilly winter of 2014 the tiny northern Wisconsin town of Bayfield exploded on social media. Thousands of national park enthusiasts flocked to the frozen shores of Lake Superior for one of the most unique experiences in the park system: a visit to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves.
The mainland ice caves only form in the coldest temperatures.
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 solid on the rock formations. As the cold continues, the surface of Lake Superior also freezes solid forming the floor of the caves.
Layer upon layer of ice slowly builds on the rocks forming the ice-covered caves that attract so much attention.
The only way to visit the Apostle Island ice caves is on foot, trekking the 2-mile round trip hike on the frozen lake. Despite record Snowmageddon winters, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore hasn’t been cold enough since 2014 for the caves to open.
Planning your visit to Apostle Islands Ice Caves
As mentioned above, 2014 was an excellent year given the frigid temperatures in the upper Midwest.
Since then above-normal winter temperatures slowed the formation of the ice required to hike out to the caves. Make sure the caves are open before you plan to visit. You’ll likely see the posts on social media start popping up as soon as the caves open.
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 Meyer’s 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 busy year of 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. The hike can be challenging. The surface is uneven and slippery in most locations. The wind can be fierce and on most days you will be fully exposed to the elements.
As you approach the 1-mile mark the ice formations begin to appear. From the start of the ice, formations continue another 2 miles along the shore. Just remember the farther out you go, the more time it adds to your hike back to the car in the elements.
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.
Travel Notes for Your Visit to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves
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 Meyer’s Beach.
Bring something to drink.
Even though the temperatures may be well below freezing, the physical nature of the hike can easily dehydrate. Bring hot tea, cocoa or water to the hike. There are limited amenities in the area so something to snack on is a good idea also.
The parking areas fill quickly. Arrive as early as possible in the day to get a spot in the lot. If you have to park on the road, remember you’re along a major highway in the area. The road is heavily traveled year-round. Watch for park staff directing traffic and slow down when driving to and from Meyer’s Beach.
Check the weather.
On our 2014 trip there were many hikers in tennis shoes without hats. Exposure and frostbite can happen quickly. Dress appropriately. The wind off of Lake Superior is COLD!
Check the park Information site before you go.
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. You can also check bus information to Meyer’s Beach, found on The City of Bayfield’s home page.
- 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.