Will the Apostle Islands Ice Caves open in 2019?
We have had our first snow in Bayfield and people are asking, will the Apostle Islands ice caves open in 2019? The answer is yes, but that requires an in depth explanation for most people that don’t live in Bayfield County. Most people believe there are only one location for ice caves in the Apostle Islands and the National Park Service only tells people about the Meyers Beach location. You can’t blame them for doing this because they need funds to operate the park and starting in 2015 they started charging an entrance fee at Meyers Beach, every year prior they had been free to access. There is no entrance fee at any other ice cave locations in the Apostle Islands. That is why the NPS only promotes Meyers Beach, because they own the parking lot at the end of Meyers Road and can effectively charge each person an entry fee.
To begin to better understand the ice caves you need to start with an understanding of the geology of the Apostle Islands. There are three layers of sandstone, each deposited by glacial periods. Each layer has it’s own interesting attributes but the oldest layer, the Devil’s layer of sandstone, has the most erosion and the most intricate caves. Most caves people are familiar with form in soluble rock and are formed from the inside towards an exit. The caves in the Apostle Islands are the opposite, our caves are bedrock outcroppings that are formed from the outside and tunnel in. The sandstone bedrock outcropping have been exposed to wind and wave for so long that the erosion has created caves. This is why you find the best caves in the oldest sandstone, furthermore this is also why the best caves in the Devil’s layer of sandstone are found in areas that have the most open water fetch and the least protection from other islands.
So, now that you know that the caves in the Apostle Islands are eroded bedrock outcroppings it is easier to understand why there are many more ice cave locations. Not every eroded bedrock outcropping is large enough to fit a 20′ tandem sea kayak into and for the purpose of this article that will be the standard we use to determine if something is an ice cave or not. However, I can tell you that the larger caves draw larger crowds and you can honestly have a much better time at smaller caves with smaller crowds. Some of the best ice caves are the tiny portholes that you can barely fit a person into, but everybody wants the impressive photos to share on social media, so when listing ice cave locations in this article we are referring to eroded bedrock outcropping that is large enough to fit a 20′ tandem sea kayak into. If you really want to get to know the amazing serenity and solace available in the Apostle Islands I suggest you explore the smaller caves as well. The map below helps to understand where you can find bedrock outcroppings on the Bayfield Peninsula.
There are ice caves at Red Cliff (Red Cliff, Wi), Roman’s Point (Herbster, Wi), Meyers Beach, Sand Island, Devil’s Island, Cat Island and Madeline Island. The Ice Caves on any island are always the last to form because the ice sheet forms around the mainland first and then fills in the islands. Meyers Beach and Romans Point are on the West side of the peninsula where there is lots of open water and the ice will set up and look promising several times, usually in January, but will be blown out by wind and waves. The last time the Meyers Beach ice caves were accessible was February 2015.
The Red Cliff Ice Caves have been accessible every year for the last 10 years. It is important to understand that the Red Cliff Caves are on the Red Cliff Ojibwe Reservation and access to many locations on the Reservation is only allowed with a tribal guide. The Red Cliff Ice Caves usually become accessible to foot traffic around the middle of January and will stay accessible usually through March. The earlier you can get to the ice caves the more intricate and pristine, towards the end of the season the ice will usually look muddy because the granules of sandstone stain the ice a reddish brown color.
So, the next time you are wondering if the Apostle Islands will open this year, remember that they are actually accessible every year if you know where to look. The ice formations are much better at the beginning of the ice cave season when you can beat the crowds. If you don’t like crowds go explore some other sandstone bedrock outcroppings. Anywhere you can find a sandstone cliff there will be amazing ice formations because the sandstone leaks out water as it is porous and the water dripping over the cliff will eventually form frozen waterfalls that cascade from the cliff edge to the surface of the lake. If all the mainland ice caves become accessible, Meyers is the best, Romans and Red Cliff are tied for second.