Apostle Island Ice Caves

The brutal winter that slammed the Midwest this year wasn’t all bad.  For the first time in five years, the Apostle Island Ice Caves were accessible, which led to thousands of people viewing an increasingly rare spectacle.

Just outside Cornucopia, Wisc. sits a roughly three-mile stretch of sculpted shoreline.  Waves from Lake Superior and the natural onslaught of erosion and Mother Nature’s toll have created unique formations out of sandstone and when the cold of winter sets in and conditions are just right, ice caves form and can be accessed by foot.  I visited the caves back in 2008 on a Sunday and didn’t see a single person.  Five years later, with social media in full swing and regional and national news media focusing on the caves, a Sunday would easily see 10,000+ people at the caves.

I was able to make the trip twice.  Once for Minnesota Public Radio and a second time with my dad, my son Evan and his friend.  Each time was amazing and different.  The temperature fluctuations and people’s interactions with the ice formations change the ice formations so that each time you return, it’s like you are seeing something new.  There are small caves only a foot high that will force a 6’4 human like me to army crawl for what seems like an eternity before an opening appears.  Then there are caves you can climb into and disappear into darkness.  It made me feel like a kid all over again since every time you turned a corner, there was some new and awesome formation to explore.

For those still thinking about visiting them, get on it.  The mercury is supposed to hit near 50 degrees today in Duluth and be above freezing for most of the week.  This past weekend saw 14,000+ people visit the caves on Saturday.  If you go out there, here are a few tips to keep in mind…

    1. Always check with the National Park Service to be on top of ice conditions.  The ice can change quickly and you don’t want to be on the wrong end when the ice breaks up.
    2. It’s about a one mile walk from the time you reach the shore until you reach the first caves.
    3. The caves stretch for about three miles meaning if you walk the entire stretch, you’re looking at about eight miles of walking.
    4. You don’t need snowshoes.  There is a path that is well-packed from thousands of people walking.  That doesn’t mean you can’t ski, snowshoe or snowmobile.  All three modes of transportation were in regular use both times I visited.  As for snowmobiling, I don’t know where you’d reach the lake since there is no obvious access point near the Meyers Beach Road parking lot, which is the main access point for the caves.
    5. If you want to get shots of the caves without many people, plan on going in the afternoon or during the week.  It was common to see 10,000+ on the weekend.  Even going during the week might not be enough.  My last trip there on a Wednesday, arriving at 230pm, saw cars parked 1.5 miles from the entrance.  Don’t let that get you down.  We drove to the park entrance, turned onto Meyers Beach Road and hoped we would find a spot where someone had just left and we lucked out.  Parking costs $3.
    6. Bring a cellphone.  You are a long way from shore and if things go bad, it’s good to have that on you.  Reception is spotty, but about half the time you can pick up a strong enough signal to make a phone call.  I was using AT&T.
    7. It also wouldn’t hurt to pack a snack or something to drink.  There are no garbage cans at the caves so make sure you pack away whatever trash you create when you go out there.
    8. There is a gas station and restaurant (Village Inn) near the caves.  That’s about it.  Bayfield or Iron River are your next best bets for gas stations, food and restaurants if you are looking for those things.
    9. Finally, be respectful of the caves and the ice formations so others can enjoy them after you leave.  Many people are traveling hundreds of miles to see these caves or are taking off work.  It’s just common sense and good manners to leave things as you found them.  You don’t want to be like these guys.

    Who knows if these tips will help you before the ice gives away and the water opens up, but if we are lucky enough to be able to reach the ice caves again in future years, maybe some of these tips will go a long way in helping make your visit a joyful one.

    You can read more about the ice caves here…

    Good luck and get out and enjoy this awesome spectacle while you can!