Many people know about the Apostle Islands Ice Caves, which form along the Lake Superior coastline of the Apostle Islands National Lakesure in Northern Wisconsin. On years when this natural wonder is accessible, they are pretty amazing.

The thing is, most years, they aren't able to be accessed by the public. There are, however other ice caves that are accessible and offer a somewhat similar winter wonderland.

What are the Apostle Islands Ice Caves, and why are they so rare?

If you aren't familiar, the coastline along the Apostle Islands National Shoreline during the winter months takes on a breathtaking charm, dotted with a series of "ice caves" on the cliffs that line the shore. These cavernous spaces, some large enough to hold a group of people, combine caves within the cliff walls and sheets of icicles that have formed from melted snow above.

While these caves themselves occur pretty much every year, they are rarely accessible to the public due to the nature of the ice on Lake Superior. It takes a long period of perfect conditions for ice to become stable enough to hold visitors to travel by foot to these natural wonders.

MORE: What to know before visiting the Apostle Islands Ice Caves

Very cold conditions combined with extremely limited or no wind are needed to allow ice to form that will be safe enough to hold what is often hundreds to even thousands of people that make the roughly one-mile trek to see these features. Being there is no island or land shelter to the west or north (where most of the wind on Lake Superior comes from), we might see stretches of cold or calm, but getting them in the right combination and timeframe is much more rare.

Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth

The last time the ice caves were accessible by foot was for a brief time in 2015, which was a rare second-straight year of accessibility, following a wildly popular 2014 ice caves season.

So it's been 8 years since they were last accessible, and it doesn't appear to be likely that they will open this year either.

Where are the other Lake Superior Ice Caves in Wisconsin?

Conveniently, they aren't too far from the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Ice Caves. The ones everyone knows about at the national lakeshore are along the northwestern coastline of the Bayfield Peninsula, with most people accessing them from the Meyers Beach access (just east of Cornucopia) and making the roughly one-mile hike east along the shoreline.

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The other ice caves are in more protected areas along the Lake Superior shoreline, with most of them located on the eastern side of the Bayfield Peninsula, where they see less wind to break up ice formation. Popular locations for tours include along parts of the Chequamegon Bay shoreline and near Red Cliff.

While conditions allow for more regular ice formation that will permit visitors to check out these ice caves, there are a couple of things to note.

First, while these ice caves are still quite spectacular, they are generally smaller in size than those along the national lakeshore. Still absolutely worth seeing though, especially during years where the "big caves" aren't accessible!

The other thing of note is that these tours are organized via a private company. Unlike the cave tours at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore where you just pay a small park access fee, you'll need to book your tour for these caves in advance. While it will cost you more to participate in these cave tours, they limit the group size per tour, which makes for a much more enjoyable experience. They also rent ice cleats (which are highly recommended) and offer daytime and nighttime tours. More on all of that in a bit.

When conditions allow, the company that offers these tours does offer an option on the other side of the peninsula, with a tour option at Roman Point, just east of Herbster. Being it is on the same unprotected side of the shoreline as the national shoreline, they deal with similar challenges, and haven't been accessible since 2015 - just like the caves along the national lakeshore.

How to take advantage of these other ice cave tours

These tours are made available by Woods and Water Guide Services out of Bayfield, who also offer sea kayaking and other tours throughout the year. The company says that the ice cave tours along the east side of the Bayfield Peninsula usually open in late January or early February, usually lasting into March - and they're open most winters!

They limit their tour sizes (which will make for a great tour experience) and offer two different tour types:

  • A daytime tour that lasts about 3 hours, and travels about 4 miles.
  • A nighttime tour that lasts about 2.5 hours and travels about 4 miles.

All of their tours travel on well-groomed trails, with headlamps provided for their night tours. If you don't have your own ice cleats, you can rent some for $5 per pair. As someone that has spent plenty of time on ice, including going on ice cave tours, rent some ice cleats if you don't bring your own. You'll appreciate it, I promise.

Speaking of ice caves, here are some photos from the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Ice Caves from a trip I did back in 2014, which was the second to last time the caves were open.

See Photos of Apostle Islands Ice Caves

See the Apostle Islands Ice Caves as they appeared in 2014, the second to last time they were open to the public.