It’s Not Too Late for the Party: Day-Tripping to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Winter Sunrise on Lake Sperior ~ Duluth, Minnesota

Getting up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning just about killed this night owl, but I was determined to view the ice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore before it was too late.  Lake Superior is a moody, unpredictable body of water, and the ice is unlikely to remain stable for foot traffic for much longer, as we optimistically hope that signs of Spring start to appear in the month ahead.

Meyers Beach Road ~ Parking at Apostle Islands Ice Caves  Meyers Beach Road ~ Parking at Apostle Islands Ice Caves

It has been an amazing year for the ice caves, with an estimated 78,000 people visiting a natural wonder that has not been accessible for winter foot traffic since 2009.  The parking lot at the entrance to the ice caves quickly fills, and the .4 mile length of Meyers Beach Road connecting the parking lot to Highway 13 incrementally adds walk distance and time to your trip.  Given the weekend crowds, we wanted our time at the ice caves to be spent actually on the Lake’s surface viewing the caves, not walking 3 miles round trip on the highway before even setting foot on the ice.

The sunrise departure was rewarded by a parking space on Meyers Beach Road.  As we parked just a few minutes after 8:00 a.m., the line of parked cars almost reached the Highway 13 intersection, and stretched out for well over a mile along the highway’s shoulder when we left at noon.  Need I say, if you’re visiting on one of the busy weekend days, get there early (despite sacrificing the beautiful afternoon light for photos).  The National Park Service’s website and FAQ’s handout are full of helpful tips for your visit, so be sure to review here.

Trekking to the ice caves from the parking lot

Hugging the shore of Lake Superior, you can easily forget that you are walking on the largest freshwater lake in the world (in terms of surface area).  When you glance toward the center of the Lake, you are reminded of its vast size, which makes even more amazing the fact that Lake Superior was 95% iced over as the end of February approached.  The temperature on Saturday morning as we hit the ice at 8:30 a.m. was approximately -10°F (-23°C) and it warmed up to 0°F (-18°C) as we departed at 12 o’clock noon.  No concerns with ice melt as we hiked several miles along the ice!

National Park Service snowmobiles heading across the ice

TIME magazine has a very interesting satellite photo series slideshow, showing the progression of the ice cover on Lake Superior this winter.   As you look at the satellite photos, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is on the South Shore in Wisconsin (while Duluth, Minnesota is located on the North Shore).  But, enough with the geography lesson — on to the ice caves!

Ice-covered shore at Apostle Islands ice caves

That’s my husband modeling this season’s ever-present trends … warm hat with ear cover, buff revealing only eyes, multiple layers top and bottom, and just for the ice caves hike, a pair of ice cleats over the winter boots.

Kat B. at the ice caves

Rather than ice cleats, I chose Yaktrax for my winter boot overwear, in addition to SmartWool long underwear, thermal running tights and Craft ski pants for the bottom layers, and similar layering on top.  And, of course, the HotHands hand warmers in my mittens, toe warmers in my boots, and a body warmer pack in the inner pocket of my winter jacket, with their welcome warming glow when we stopped to explore.

Apostle Islands Ice Caves ~ 3/1/14

Pretty sure I could hear March roaring in like a lion as we wandered through the nooks and crannies of Lake Superior’s winter wonder.

Apostle Islands Ice Caves ~ 3/1/14      apostle 27c 3_1_14

Apostle Islands Ice Caves ~ 3/1/14

Occasionally, the ice beneath our feet would crack or groan, and in some spots you could still hear water gurgling and moving beneath the solid surface.

Lake Superior ice floor

While typically a photographer may hope to capture a landscape view without the presence of human life, the magnificent expanse of the walls and curtains of ice were best appreciated when compared to visitors standing in awe.

Curtains of ice at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Curtains of ice at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

As we walked a couple of miles out from the parking lot to a classic arched structure of the Apostle Islands, so often featured on kayaking adventure brochures and websites, we could feel the wind picking up with intensity at our backs, and decided it was time to head back.

Apostle Islands ice caves ~ 3/1/14

Apostle Islands Ice Caves ~ 3/1/14

Apostle Islands Ice Caves ~ 3/1/14

Apostle Islands Ice Caves ~ 3/1/14

While the light was warming the colors on the bluffs and brightening the whites of the ice, tempting me to stay with my camera in hand, the increasing crowds and line of people trekking to visit the caves for the afternoon made me appreciate our early morning departure.

Apostle Islands NPS Rangers  Crowds of visitors to the Apostle Islands ice caves on 3/1/14

After over 3 hours of winter hiking along the frozen shore, my husband’s icy eyelashes said it all.

Ice eyelashes after Apostle Islands ice caves hike

More photos from the ice caves and Lake Superior’s winter wonder coming soon … but there’s still time for you to make your own trek to the ice caves.  Be sure to share your photos and adventures when you do!

Ciao! ~ Kat

36 thoughts on “It’s Not Too Late for the Party: Day-Tripping to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves

  1. Wow, I am surprised your camera kept functioning (or did you pack some handwarmers for it?). These are really beautiful ice scenes. I imagined the rocks surrounded by water and waves that formed their round shapes over the millenia. But to be there on the ice walking around and underneath – that’s an amazing experience. However, those cracks in the ice would have been a bit freaky to me….

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  2. Cheryl Howland

    I am in AWE of the spectacular show of Nature with the cliffs and frozen water and just the sher scale captured in your photos. I love your descriptions and facts you give from the dress and footwear of you each. Kudos to you two for making and taking the time to go on this frigid but excellent adventure. It is a wow and thank you for sharing this amazing display of Mother Nature. I can close my eyes and imagine the first explorers who came across these caves.

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  3. This is one of the most fascinating posts I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not a huge fan of winter — and this one has been especially brutal — but you succeeded in celebrating the beauty and wonder of the season by taking readers on an incredible journey. Thank you!

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  4. Pingback: Lake Superior’s Frozen Wonder: The Apostle Islands Ice Caves, Part II | Travel. Garden. Eat.

  5. Pingback: Last Look at the Apostle Islands Ice Caves | Travel. Garden. Eat.

  6. Great pictures! I am finally getting out there myself Monday. Been busy hosting guests from all over at our little inn, Ole and Lena’s Place. We still have a few openings!

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  7. These are terrific! I’m envious – I’d love to get out there, but it’s quite a drive from here. The passage to Grand Island in the UP is now open, and I’d go there right now if we weren’t in the middle of house selling issues 😉 Thanks for sharing your journey!

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    1. With the forecasted high winds and then warming trend coming up, the season may be quite short this year for cave trekking! I didn’t have a chance to visit this year, but from what I have seen from others’ photos the ice this year isn’t quite as dramatic. Thanks for stopping by, Heather!

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