Ice Caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Last month I had heard about the seaice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore being accessible for the first time in 5 years.  I think I first saw an article in the newspaper and then checked out the park service website, and also saw an NBC news report.  So last week I finally decided that this weekend would be the perfect time to head up that way.  So I made the decision and booked a room in Ashland – thinking that the caves were offshore from Bayfield, WI.

Well, on Thursday Feb 20 we had our biggest winter storm of the season.  It had started as rain then turned over to wet heavy snow.  We had about 10″ here in St. Paul and up near Bayfield they were predicting near 15″.  On Friday morning, the roads were pretty bad, of course the storm had just finally ended about 6am, so I didn’t think anything of it.  When I went home at 5 on Friday evening the roads were worse than in the morning and travel was not advised for Saturday.  I went to see about canceling my hotel, usually you can do it up until the day of arrival, not so fast.  I had until 4 o’clock the day before.  Oh well, figured I’d have a look in the morning and make the final decision.

As I left the house Saturday morning, the roads around my house were pretty good.  OK, I’ll give it a shot.  694 out of Oakdale wasn’t too bad, just a few icy patches and traffic moving well – though in  the opposite direction cars were backing up.  Getting onto 36 towards Stillwater was a bit nasty, but I’ll give it a bit further.  Across the river into Wisconsin and things were looking good.  Then I turned onto US-63 north…

What am I doing out here???

What am I doing out here???

The road was entirely ice, but it had frozen hard to the concrete and the extreme cold made it nice and hard.  So in the end, it wasn’t too bad to drive on.  The minimal traffic also helped.  Only ran across one foolish person who was in a hurry and needed to pass everyone.  Seriously.

I had left a bit later than originally planned and given the road conditions the drive took about 2 hours longer than planned.  So instead of getting into Bayfield around noon-ish it was about 3 pm when I walked into the Visitor Center in Bayfield.  It was then I learned that the ice caves were over on the other side of the peninsula – about a 20 minute drive.

So the ice caves are not where I expected them to be...

So the ice caves are not where I expected them to be…

Not bad, but given that you need at least a couple hours to get out to the caves and back and sunset was at about 5:30 I decided to just drive past to scope it out and then head to the hotel, relax for the evening and hit the caves early on Sunday.

As I approached the Meyer’s Beach, where you access the lake, the cars were parked probably nearly a mile back from the turn out and not quite as far going the other direction. Definitely better to hit it early in the morning!  There have been nearly 60,000 people visiting the caves this year, in 2009 when they were last accessible it was under 10,000. On to the hotel.

After a good night’s sleep I was on the road out to the caves by 7:30 and pulled into the beach parking area about 8:30.  No cars on the road yet, that’s a good sign.  However, the cars were backed up about halfway down the entrance road where I parked.  The Park Service had plenty of Rangers, and other staff, out directing traffic and pointing people in the right direction.  It wasn’t too cold as I left the car, but as soon as I was on the lake the wind was brutal.  At least on the way out to the caves the wind was at my back – of course I knew what that meant for my return trip…

I was just walking in boots, as were the vast majority of people.  There were a handful with snow shoes and I saw just two people on cross-country skis (I had though about bringing mine).  Next time – SNOW SHOES!  Given the number of people, in some places, especially around the caves, there were good trails packed down.  In other areas it was like a beach.  The benefit of it being only 5 degrees was that the snow never got slushy – it was like a sandy beach.  Think warm thoughts;-)  And bring SNOW SHOES!

It was definitely worth the effort. The number of people, despite the cold and wind and fresh, sometimes deep, snow really surprised me.

The return leg back to the parking lot was indeed brutal as it was heading into the wind.  But it was well worth the effort and cold.  As soon as I was off the lake and onto dry (snowy) ground, the effect of the wind was clear.  I took my hat and gloves off and opened my coat as I felt downright hot!  Made it back to my car about 10:45, so the entire trip was just a little over 2 hours.  Was on the road by 11 and pulled into my garage about 3 pm!

A great weekend trip!

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