The lessons of the ice: hiking the Lakeshore Trail

February 8, 2021

A sound like a low moan rattles in the trees, a gust of wind lifts swirls of snow, like snow ghosts, at the edge of the sunlit cliffs. Five below zero, a wind chill of -15 degrees, and there are no other boot prints in the snow ahead. I cinch my hood down tight around my face and continue down the trail.

It is early February. In some years, the lakeshore ice would be fast against the Mawikwe Bay caves by now and thousands of people would be setting out on foot across the frozen lake to witness one of the great wonders of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. But the lake is fickle. Ice conditions are woven of many factors – wind, currents, and more – not just cold temperatures. Despite the frigid February temperatures and wild chill, jagged cracks bolt across the surface of the ice like dark lightning, pressure ridges groan and crackle at the edges. There will be no access to the caves by foot until the National Park Service deems the ice safe for foot travel. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the beauty of Lake Superior and the caves from above: the Lakeshore Trail is open.


Beginning at the Meyers Beach parking area ($5 parking fee) the Lakeshore Trail winds in and out of the protection of the trees that keep the wind at bay for the first 1.8 miles, dipping into steep ravines and leading across boardwalks that help negotiate the sharp-cut terrain. Chickadees flit in the branches, their calls like tinkling ice. 

Meyers Beach and Lakeshore Hiking Trail – NPS Map

The first “cave” encountered is the Crevasse – a deep slash in the sandstone where the trail zags back into the forest to a wooden bridge that spans the edge of the cave and gives the hiker dizzyingly beautiful views into its depths. 

The next half-mile is the heart of the cave section of the trail. Several times the trail skirts close to the edge of the cliffs opens to views of the wide ice-fringed horizons of the big lake and then juts out on to long fingers of peninsulas where you can look back at the fluted formations of ice that drape the caves.

There is a wild beauty in the ice, and a lesson. Some national park features are as old as time – the layers of rock in the Grand Canyon, the ancient trees of the Redwoods — but here the beauty is fleeting, ephemeral, never the same twice, jewels of sunlight and cold, changing as the light changes. By summer, the ice will be gone, kayakers will flit across the water like colored arrows, the sounds of waves will boom again. But for now, it is a world of ice. The national lakeshore is not “preserved” like an artifact on a museum shelf. Creating a national lakeshore or national park ensures that the processes of nature can continue – wind and water, ice and snow and sunlight. It is a lesson in time and process and beauty, a lesson written in ice.

Photos and text by Jeff Rennicke, Executive Director

To enjoy that beauty safely, be sure to dress appropriately – layers of winter clothing, hat, mittens, good snow boots. Ice grippers on your boots and trekking poles can provide added stability. Carry water. Know the distances (1.8 miles to the Crevasse, 2.4 miles for the main stretch of cave views). Use extreme caution around the cliff sections.

Important note: the National Park Service (NPS) says lake access to the mainland caves is unsafe and is not currently allowed. The Park Service updates current conditions here.

If contemplating a visit during this pandemic, the NPS asks visitors to adhere to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health authorities to protect visitors and employees.  This includes staying at home, with limited exceptions and, if using shared or outdoor space, maintaining social distancing of at least six feet.  

We invite you to share your photos of your next hike on the Lakeshore Trail with us on the Friends of the Apostle Islands Facebook page as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. As always, we also invite you to join our cause to support the park we love.

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