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