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October 21, 2014

Ice caves: Crowds get rare glimpse at natural wonder

Thousands of visitors are taxing the infrastructure of the little towns of Bayfield and Cornucopia, Wisconsin, for a relatively rare chance to glimpse the “ice caves” on Lake Superior’s south shore.

But locals aren’t complaining. The tourism jolt amounts to a gold rush – or make that ice rush, Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

Cheryl O’Bryon at the Village Inn in Cornucopia said the inn is full and the restaurant bustling at a time of year when it’s typically silent as a winter snow.

“The last three weekends have been like nothing we’ve seen before,” O’Bryon told WPR. “It is definitely an economic miracle, there’s no doubt about that.”

As many as 4,000 tourists have trekked to the ice caves each weekend in the last few weeks, largely thanks to the region’s deep freeze. Lake Superior is nearly 94 percent ice-covered, the most since 1996.

So it’s relatively uncommon for Lake Superior to be so hardened that people can troop out onto it to see the red-rock shoreline cliffs and caves, encrusted with massive icicles (it was last accessible in 2009). In some cases, the ice itself forms the “caves,” where curtains of icicles several feet thick drape down from rock overhangs.

Visitors say the winter wonder is worth the trek. Want to go? A few things to know:

– You’ll likely have to walk at least 2 miles round-trip, probably longer because there won’t be parking near the lake access point.

– Parking is an issue. Visitors have been parking on Highway 13 and several side roads for a mile or two in either direction of the sea caves access point at Meyers Beach. This past weekend, locals were running shuttle buses to the lake access point from Ehler’s Store in Cornucopia, as well as from a plowed farm field-turned-parking lot at Happy Hollow Road and Highway 13.

– Give yourself time, and you might consider a hotel. It’s nearly four hours from the Twin Cities, and plan about three hours to walk to the site, explore the splendor, and hike back. A BringMeTheNews staffer on Saturday night stayed at the Best Western in nearby Ashland, which has a hot tub – a nice way to end the day.

– It’s overstating the obvious, but dress for the cold. If your toes go numb, you’ll be a long walk from any way to warm up.

– Call the National Park Service Ice Line for the latest conditions, 715-779-3397, ext. 3. Here’s just about anything else you’ll want to know, from the National Park Service. You might check out Bayfield’s Facebook page for the latest on conditions and more info on getting to the caves:

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A few photos from Saturday by BringMeTheNews’ Ben Grove:

ice cave crowd

The crowd really doesn’t hinder the experience much – it’s a lot of people, but they are spread out along along shoreline. And it’s actually kind of nice to share the experience with other awe-inspired strangers.

ice curtain

The ice itself forms caves in some spots. In other places, natural rock caves are encrusted with ice.

icicle