Things To Know Before Visiting The Apostle Islands Ice Caves
A visit to the Apostle Islands Ice Caves is a rare winter treat full of icy beauty. The caves are not accessible every year, and when they are, they are sometimes only accessible for a handful of days. This makes this spectacle all that much more special for the thousands that flock to see it when the caves are open to the public. Here's what you need to know before making your journey to see this beautiful Lake Superior phenomenon.
To get the most out of your visit, you'll want to plan on at least a 3-4 hour visit, if not more. There is a lot of walking just to get to the caves, plus you'll want plenty of time to explore once you're there. You don't want to do all that walking to get to the caves just to turn around and leave right away because you didn't plan on enough time. While the caves aren't closed after dark, you'll want to plan to be back off the ice by dark, as ice travel after sunset isn't recommended. When the sun goes down, it gets dark quickly, so you'll definitely want to plan ahead to start your walk back before sunset to avoid walking in the dark.
What To Bring/Wear
Like many other outdoor winter activities, you will need to dress warm enough to be comfortable in the cold conditions, but also not dressed in such a way that you can't walk a significant distance. You'll be doing a handful of miles worth of walking, so take that into account.
For footwear, rangers recommend sturdy boots, ice cleats, and ski poles to prevent slipping while traveling on the ice. Waterproof boots are suggested as well, as snow and slush can lead to very uncomfortable cold and wet feet. There are two different types of ice you may encounter. The first is the normal, flat, slippery ice you're used to seeing on inland lakes. The other type of ice is uneven chunks of ice that were pushed into shore and frozen into place. Both of these types of ice present footing challenges, and make footwear and cleats very important.
When it comes to clothing, you want to dress in layers. It's an old adage for people that live in this part of the world, but dressing in layers will provide the necessary warmth to deal with the potentially frigid and windy conditions on the ice, but also grant you the option to remove a layer or two while walking to the caves to keep you from breaking a sweat, which can be a bad thing when dealing with winter temperatures. Don't forget warm gloves, hats that cover your ears, and scarves or facemasks to keep your skin covered to prevent against frostbite.
Snacks and water are encouraged - especially water, with all of the walking you will be doing. Just remember that whatever you bring in, you need to bring out. There are no trash receptacles on the ice, and you don't want to be that jerk that left your granola bar wrapper or beverage bottle behind to ruin the natural splendor for everyone else.
A small backpack might be a good idea to store your beverages and snacks, as well as any extra clothing you want to have with you that you don't want to wear at a given moment.
If you are bringing children, a small sled to pull them on might also be helpful. Dogs are also allowed, but must be on a leash and you need to pick up after them.
The main access point for the ice caves is at Myers Beach, which doesn't offer a lot of parking spaces. Even during "non peak" times, you can still expect hundreds of visitors there along with you, trying to enjoy the experience. It is recommended to try to visit during the week, and to carpool with others to cut down on the number of vehicles. Most parking is along the Myers Beach Road and along Highway 13. You could end up having to park and walk upwards of 2 miles or more just to get to the ice. If you park along Highway 13, you are asked to park on the North (nearest to the lake) side of the highway.
In some years, there have been shuttle services. Most of these shuttle options are privately run (by area businesses), and not operated by the park. While there is a small fee for these shuttles, they are definitely recommended to cut down on the amount of time you'll spend looking for parking spots and walking from your car to the caves and back. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore website posts shuttle options when they are available. You may also be able to find shuttle options from the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce.
There is an admission fee to access the ice caves. There is a $5/person/day fee for people over the age of 16 regardless of how or where you access the caves. Those under the age of 16 are free. The fee can be paid at the Meyers Beach parking lot, at the end of Mawikwe Road, and at Park Headquarters. Cash is the only accepted method of payment, so make sure you plan ahead. There is no ATM in the area. There is also a $10/person annual pass if you wish to visit more than once, and this pass can only be obtained at the park headquarters. There is no parking fee on site.
Accessing The Caves
Once you're on the ice, the walk from Myers Beach to the first part of the ice caves is just over a mile. You'll be walking on lake ice all the way from the beach access point, which is why proper footwear and cleats are so important. The park website says it is about a 2.5 mile round-trip walk to the first part of the ice caves, while it is roughly a 6-mile round-trip from Myers Beach to the far reaches of the ice caves.
Extra walking distances to be aware of include if you park on Highway 13, the length of Myers Beach Road is about 0.4 miles long. Add this to whatever distance you are parked away from the road to determine your full walking distance from your car to the caves.
While You're At The Caves
There are no toilet facilities on the ice. There are limited facilities at Myers Beach for use, but due to the limited number, there may be lines. There are also no trash containers on the ice. There are garbage receptacles at Myers Beach as well as the Mawikwe Road/Highway 13 intersection.
Remember to respect others. Hundreds or even thousands of people are likely to be on the ice at the same time as you. Everyone visiting is likely hoping to take some photos and explore various parts of the caves area, just like you. Take your time and take your turn when attempting to capture photos or access areas that have somewhat limited access points. Being courteous toward each other will make the experience better for everyone.
If you're hoping to use your cell phone for any purpose during your visit, be aware that cellular coverage in the area of the ice caves is spotty. You should definitely not rely on your cell phone as a safety lifeline, and if you are hoping to use your phones to transmit photos/videos to social media, be aware that in areas where you might find coverage, connection speeds may be slower due to a high number of people trying to use their phones in the area.
It sounds silly, but remember that ice is everywhere and ice is slippery. Every year there are reports of people that slip, fall, and hurt themselves while walking on the ice, or climbing around in the caves area. It is recommended not to climb on rocks or ice features to avoid hurting yourself or others. There are also places with smaller openings where you or your children may be tempted to crawl into to explore or take photos. Park officials warn you should not do this, as ice can suddenly shift, potentially leaving you trapped.
Large icicles and frozen waterfalls leave heavy and sharp chunks of ice suspended above many areas. You should avoid standing under any ice feature to avoid being injured or killed by falling ice, which can break and fall in any weather conditions.
As with any trip onto a frozen body of water, always be aware of ice conditions. There are a number of streams and springs along the shoreline that can erode away ice and make it unsafe to walk or stand on. Many of these water inlets may be hard to detect, especially during particularly cold weather. If you see even a small area of open water, avoid it as the thickness of the ice around the open water may be compromised and unsafe. There are also places along the shoreline where you may hear running water falling or trickling down the rocks and ice formations. Moving water can erode ice, and you should avoid areas where you can see or hear running water.
If windy conditions develop while you are on the ice, this may cause water to ooze through cracks in the ice, lead to the ice to shifting or cause a rising and falling of the ice. If you detect any of these conditions, you should head back to Myers Beach to get off the ice.
Need To Know More?
The National Parks Service has a full FAQ section on their website with more tips for your visit, rules, and other information about the caves. You can visit the FAQ page for the Apostle Islands Ice Caves here.