Mainland Ice Caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

My husband, on the very good advice of his father, has decided that we need to make a point to do one new thing together every month. It doesn’t have to be crazy, it can be as simple as going to a new restaurant, but it has to be something that we have not done together before. Thus begins my new series “Something New.” To kick things off in January we went to the Mainland Ice Caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore near Cornucopia, WI.

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Some very menacing ice spears, which formed on tree roots that have worked their way through the cave ceiling, dangle precariously above your head, the wind gently swaying them back and forth.

What a fantastic trip! In the summer these caves are only accessible by boat, but in the winter Lake Superior (sometimes) freezes enough to create a mile-long frozen road. This has not happened since 2009 and this year thousands of people have made the trek to the caves. We went on a cold, blustery Sunday. The roads were treacherous to drive on and we figured the weather would guarantee us a nearly people-free experience. We were WRONG. Cars were parked for at least a mile on both sides of the road and people were everywhere. Luckily for us, we arrived near the end of the day and many people were about to leave.

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Our friends, A and H, giving you a good idea of the scale of the ice. H lies underneath the wall of ice, which stops just inches from the surface of the frozen lake.

As the ice forms, it leeches out minerals from the rocks, giving it a pinkish-rusty color in many places.

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Inside one of the caves

The different ice formations in each cave and on every surface of the rock was spectacular

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Pink Ice forms as mineral-rich water seeps through cracks in the cave ceiling.

The ceiling of this cave was low and we had to crawl on our bellies to get through. A quick turn over and we saw these (above) pink curtains of ice hanging over us.

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My husband found a secondary way out of this cave and peeks in to say hello
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I love the juxtaposition of the horizontal striations of the rock and the vertical lines of the ice

Definitely bring a thermos of your hot beverage of choice. We brought hot apple cider, lightly spiked with brandy. So very tasty and, on a cold day like this, invigorating and rejuvenating. After exploring for a while we found a nice little cave to rest in.

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This wall of ice covered the entrance to the cave so our hiding spot was well hidden from other tourists.
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Here, in our hiding spot, the ceiling was covered in these delicate, spiky icicles

We thought we would only stay out an hour, but we were there for a few and could have stayed longer were it not for the sun giving way to darkness. The trip back was harrowing and next time we go we will be 100% sure to get OFF the ice by the time the sun sets. The wind had picked up and was blowing snow over the trail so it was nearly impossible to tell what was safe and what wasn’t, even with flashlights. If you go, give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the caves and make sure it is still light out when you start heading back. And for the love of God, dress warm. I saw way to many people out there trying to brave it with just street clothes; they didn’t last long. Even with long underwear, jeans and snow pants, my legs were f-r-o-z-e-n by the time we got back to the car. Also, think long and hard before bringing your dog. There were a lot of dogs out there who were obviously not built for that kind of weather. It’s a long hike and your dog’s paws are not invincible.

The caves are near Cornucopia, Wisconsin, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive east from Duluth, Minnesota. To get to the caves, just travel north from Cornucopia on Highway 13 and turn left on Meyer’s Road. The road will take you to a parking lot where you can pay for parking (you must pay, even if you are parked on the road), and there are pit toilets there too. There are stairs going down from the parking lot to the trail; turn right at the bottom and follow the masses. Before you go, call the Ice Line at (715) 779-3397 – extension 3, for the most current ice condition information. This is Lake Superior and conditions can change rapidly. In fact, as we experienced, conditions can change even while you’re visiting the caves. There are National Park Rangers who monitor the ice conditions regularly. Don’t go if they say it’s not safe.

This is definitely a worth-while journey but keep your wits about you and remember that you are a very small bug at the mercy of a very large, often times very angry, Great Lake. It is spectacular, it is awe-inspiring, it is a rare event and you should go! For more information about the Mainland Seacaves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, visit the National Park Services website (http://www.nps.gov/apis/mainland-caves-winter.htm)

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