Exploring Lake Superior’s Spectacular Ice Caves

Millions of years ago, layers of sand were deposited by rivers, which turned into sandstone. Glaciers later transformed the sandstone into several miles of dramatic cliffs and caves along Lake Superior’s southern shore. Superior’s wind, waves, and ice continue to sculpt the sandstone caves of the Apostle Island National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. In the summer, the caves are visited by countless sea kayakers who paddle in and out of the maze of caverns and arches on calm days. (See 100 more great adventures in the U.S.)

I can still remember my first visit to the caves a decade ago. My wife and I were six weeks into a two-month circumnavigation of Lake Superior by kayak. It was the middle of October and the days were growing increasingly cold, short and–more often than not–stormy. At the end of a rare calm day, we reached the Squaw Bay caves as the sun was setting. We explored the first few hundred yards of caves using the sun’s final rays. Soon it was too dark to see the caves, but we listened to them as we paddled along the cavern-studded cliff face through the starless night. The little waves lapping into holes of all shapes and sizes were like nature’s marimba, creating a song that remains etched in my memory.

Occasionally the ice on Lake Superior makes it possible to visit the caves in the winter—as we can right now. As we crossed the bare ice on Squaw Bay yesterday we tried to pick out the spot we had pitched our tent in the dark a decade before, after paddling past the caves in the darkness. Blocks of ice were piled high along shore, deposited by wind and waves before Lake Superior froze solid. Patches of ice were so clear that we could see the delicate patterns in the sand on the lake bottom below our feet.

After hiking for a mile across the frozen expanse, we reached the first caves. Pillars of ice glistened in the sun. We spent several hours poking around in the caves, crawling on our bellies into small ones and laying on our backs to marvel at the tiny stalactites of ice carpeting the ceiling.

As the sun moved closer to the horizon we left the caves and slowly retraced our steps. A winter storm was moving in and we wanted to get home before it hit. The caves are now temporarily closed as wind and snow are buffeting the region. With any luck the caves will open in a couple days and more people will be able to experience the surreal beauty of the ice caves before ice becomes unsafe.

If you would like to visit the ice caves you can go to the National Park Service website for up-to-date information about ice conditions. If visiting the caves in the winter doesn’t fit into your schedule, or isn’t your cup of tea, consider experiencing the caves by kayak in the summer. There are several local businesses that offer guided trips to the sea caves.

Dave and Amy Freeman are previous Adventurer of the Year honorees. They run Wilderness Classroom, bringing outdoor adventure to school kids. Watch a video about their work.

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