A winter storm and heavy snowfall is closing public access to the spectacular ice caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The Pioneer Press reports that the National Park Service is temporarily curtailing the ability of visitors to hike to and view the caves because of the storm, which may dump up to a foot and a half of snow on the region. The icy mainland caverns have generated a mini-tourism boom in a remote corner of northwestern Wisconsin.
The newspaper said that the earliest that the park service would restore access for visitors would be at sunrise on Saturday. Rangers will check ice conditions after the storm ends to determine if the ice will be stable enough to support visitors. Wind can churn up waves waves that break up the very ice that tourists must walk on in order to get to the caves. Last year, strong winds broke up the Lake Superior ice in a matter of hours.
This is the first time since 2009 the ice has been thick enough for hikers to safely reach the caves. Prior to the storm closure, the rare access prompted an unprecedented number of visitors to travel to view the awe-inspiring caves. MPR News reported that so many people hiked in to see the caverns that five other national parks sent staff to help the Apostle Islands staff handle the crowds. The local Sheriff's offices, the U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol have been pressed into service to assist as well.
The Park Service estimates about 50,000 people have visited the area since the caves formed — more than the number of tourists who come to the area during the summer season. An estimated 20,000 people visited the caves over just the past weekend, including 11,000 on Saturday alone, which set a record.
MPR's story said that more than 24,000 articles about the ice caves popped up on a Google News search, and the national and international coverage continues. In the past 24 hours, Slate magazine ("Available for a Limited Time Only, Exploring Wisconsin’s rare Lake Superior ice caves") and a blog on the Wall Street Journal website ("Visitors Can Now Trek Across Lake Superior to See Sea Caves") carried stories about the phenomenon, accompanied by multiple spectacular photographs.
National Geographic posted a full article entitled "Winter Splendor Unveiled at Ice Caves" on Wednesday. It includes 10 gorgeous pictures to illustrate the story.
"Cave visitors take a cold walk of three miles or more over the ice to explore cliffside sea caves draped in the mantle of winter," the story says, explaining that, "the caves formed from the action of lake waves on ancient sandstone cliffs that ring the park. In the summer, crashing waves make them inaccessible to visitors."
Updates on ice conditions will be posted at nps.gov/apis.