Lake Superior’s magical ice caves lure thousands for rare visit (photos)

Apostle Islands ice caves

A fairyland of subterranean icicles awaits those patient enough to access the caves when conditions permit.

Hundreds of years of wave action, freezing and thawing have created gorgeously sculpted shorelines along Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. When these mechanics meet sandstone cliffs, magic happens: intricate arches, vaulted chambers and honeycombed passageways form sea caves that are a majestic sight to behold. In cold months, the magic is turned up a notch into full-on fairyland. Waterfalls are stopped in time, lakewater is frozen in action, and icicles take on a still life of their own turning these caves into a coruscating winter wonderland.

Each chamber displays distinct ice formations.

In order to experience this wonder, conditions have to be just so; the lake has to be frozen enough that visitors can traverse it – the ice has to be around a foot thick to handle the traffic – but the weather has to be calm enough as to not be overly treacherous.

While last year the caves were accessible for 10 weeks, in the past 20 years the park has seen the effects of climate change first-hand making it harder for people to see the caves, reports USA Today.

"The opportunity to visit the ice caves has come less and less often," said Neil Howk, assistant chief of interpretation and education for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Prior to last year, it had been five years since there was enough ice to access the caves.

Rangers checking the ice found the walk to the ice caves to be "very treacherous," according to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Facebook page. Extremely slippery conditions and piles of fractured ice sheets make footing rough and unsteady, they warned, and urged visitors to wear sturdy boots with ice cleats and use ski poles.

But this past weekend, it was all systems go. Nearly 12,000 visitors came to revel in the icy splendor; and lucky visitors, indeed. Howk says he's unsure how long the caves will be accessible.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore ice caves are located several miles outside of Bayfield, Wisconsin. If you live nearby and are interested in visiting, call the Apostle Islands Ice Line at (715) 779-3398 for current ice conditions.

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