Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands are a nature lover’s paradise, and nearly 184,000 people visit the area each year. Tourists tend to visit in the spring and summer, when the waters of Lake Superior warm to swimmable temperatures.
That’s all well and good, but if you’re looking for a gorgeous destination for a winter trip, the Apostle Islands certainly qualify, provided that you know where you’re going (and you’re willing to dress in plenty of layers).
Here are a few reasons to put this gorgeous natural area at the top of your winter to-do list.
1. You Can Only See The Ice Caves In Winter
The ice caves are the Apostle Islands’ most breathtaking landmarks, though they’re not exactly easy to access (nor are they always accessible). Visitors must walk over the ice of Lake Superior to visit the caves, which requires… well, ice. That means that you’ll need sustained periods of wintery weather to make the trip.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore staff regularly evaluates ice thickness, and visitors can only traverse the ice after several weeks of below-freezing temperatures. Major weather events can also compromise the stability of the ice, so prior to your trip, check this page to determine whether or not the ice caves are open. We can’t stress that enough -- most Apostle Islands travelers head here for the ice caves, but the conditions need to be absolutely perfect for the ice to be traversable
If the weather cooperates, the mainland ice caves are enchanting. They’re located on the western end of the Mainland Unit in northern Bayfield County. Set your GPS to 90500 Meyers Road and prepare for a lengthy 1.1-mile walk in each direction. Consider bringing ski poles and heavy-duty winter boots along with heat packs, warm drinks, and other essentials.
While there are no authorized tours, visitors can explore the caves on their own during low-risk conditions. Be sure to carry cash, since there’s a small fee (currently $5 per person per day) to visit the ice caves.
2. You Can Photograph Frozen Waterfalls
During your approach to the ice caves, you’ll also get the opportunity to see frozen waterfalls lining the cliffs of the area. Bring your camera and make sure you know how to photograph in bright conditions. Most modern cameras (and smartphones) have a “snow” setting, but you can also set your camera’s aperture and shutter speed manually to ensure the best possible shot.
If you’re not a photography buff, the aperture setting controls the depth of the field, while the shutter speed controls the duration of the exposure. When shooting snowy landscapes, you’ll generally want a small aperture setting and a long shutter speed, but play around with the options in bright lighting to get a sense of how your camera works.
While the frozen waterfalls and icicles are beautiful to behold, resist the urge to stand near them. Icicles can come crashing down without warning, potentially causing injury, so you’re better off staying near the established cave paths.
3. You’ll Love Spending Time At The Nearby Ski Hills
Mount Ashwabay is a family-friendly recreation area with affordable day rates, well-kept slopes, and fantastic views of Lake Superior. Here, you’ll find 12 alpine runs over 65 acres, perfect for downhill skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and other winter activities. There’s even a dedicated tubing hill, so if you’re traveling with family, this is a must-visit destination.
As with the ice caves, weather affects the available activities, so check the website when planning your trip. With that said, most of the trails and mountains remain accessible throughout the winter, even during short periods of unseasonably warm weather.
4. Experienced Hikers Can See Incredible Views On The Lakeshore Trail
The Lakeshore Trail is a serious undertaking, since it has a number of steep slopes and stream crossings. It extends for about 4.5 miles, but if you’re up for the challenge, it offers some of the best views of the lake during the winter.
The trail starts in the Meyers Road parking lot, so you can add it to your itinerary when visiting the ice caves (or in place of the ice caves, if the weather isn’t cooperating with your travel plans). As with the ice caves, you’ll want to dress in layers and bring a backpack with food, extra clothing, and other essentials.
5. Nearby Bayfield County Has Excellent Nordic Trails
For gentler trails, head to Bayfield County, where you’ll find an assortment of Nordic trails perfectly suited for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The Drummond Ski Trail system is ideal for beginners, though Nordic trails are always somewhat intense. If you’re not much of a skier, several businesses in Bayfield offer snowmobile rentals, including Adventure North Rentals.
Some of Bayfield County’s trails are free to the public, but others have modest access fees. As with pretty much every other winter activity on this list, weather can affect accessibility, but Bayfield County operates a trail website that makes research easy.
6. The Lighthouses Are Beautiful In Snowy Weather
While the Apostle Islands’ famous lighthouses are beautiful at any time of year, you’ll see them in a whole new light (pardon the pun) in the winter. Key stops include the Old Michigan Island Lighthouse, built in 1856 and retired in 1929, and Sand Island Lighthouse, built in 1881 and still in service.
In total, the Apostle Islands are home to eight historic lighthouses (nine if you count Old LaPointe Lighthouse, which is now in ruins, but still viewable), so if you spend a substantial amount of time exploring the area, you’ll inevitably encounter a few. Guided tours of the lighthouses are not available during the winter, but the structures are still quite picturesque.
7. You Can Spend A Romantic Weekend In A Cozy Lodge
Sure, summer resorts are fine, but we’ll just say it: Lodge vacations are underrated. Cozy up with family and friends at one of the many wonderful lodges near the Apostle Islands, and you’ll understand the appeal.
Great accommodations in the area include the Old Rittenhouse Inn, a historic bed and breakfast with 20 guest rooms in two striking Victorian homes. The inn has a gourmet restaurant and frequently hosts wine tastings. Be sure to check the website if you’re traveling around Valentine’s Day, since the Old Rittenhouse offers special packages for romantic getaways. If you’re traveling with a larger group, their Mystery Dinner Weekends (scheduled upon request for groups of 8 to 14 guests) also deserve some consideration.
Another option is The Lightkeeper’s Lodge, a small but luxurious hotel on Madeline Island. Amenities include gas fireplaces, jacuzzi tubs, private decks, and nautically themed artwork to help you appreciate the culture of the Apostle Islands.
Lodging is typically less expensive in the winter, but you’ll still want to plan your trip as early as you can; when winter conditions make the ice caves accessible, lodge rooms tend to fill up quickly.
8. You Can Enjoy Quiet Comfort On Madeline Island
You’ll travel to the Apostle Islands to enjoy the natural beauty, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll spend your entire trip in total isolation. Madeline Island, the largest of the islands, has a wonderful (and slightly weird) local culture with plenty of great restaurants, bars, and other points of interest.
Stop by The Beach Club, a pub-style restaurant known for its whitefish cakes and fish tacos. During the winter, the dining hours vary, but the restaurant is open seven days a week. To ensure a spot, give them a call when scheduling your trip.
You might also grab a cup of coffee at Mission Hill Coffee House, which features a full deli, a large wine selection, and an adjoining gift shop. This little shop has a little bit of everything, and it’s a nice place to relax with friends and enjoy some conversation. This is also one of the few spots on Madeline Island with public Wi-Fi, so most travelers will find themselves heading to Mission Hill at least once.
Wherever you go, you won’t have to fight crowds. Winter isn’t a peak season for tourism on Madeline Island, so you’ll be able to enjoy the welcoming atmosphere without feeling rushed.
The Apostle Islands make a great destination for a winter vacation, and whether you’re hoping to spend your days exploring or relaxing, you’ll find plenty of options. Plan your trip as early as you can, bring plenty of warm clothes, and prepare for a remarkable experience -- there’s no place like the Apostle Islands, and the colder the weather, the more you’ll want to extend your stay.