When winter in the Apostle Islands starts people from all over the country flock to the shores of Lake Superior to experience the beauty of the season. The stark contrast of the snow to the rust-colored stone offers some of the most beautiful natural scenes in the world.
Pair that with ridiculous amounts of ice, blue sea, winter activities, and you have a dream winter vacation destination. Top it all off by ending your day in front of a fire in your cozy cabin and you’ll quickly figure out why visiting the Apostle Islands in the winter is a true bucket list experience.
Winter in the Apostle Islands
What to Expect for Weather
Winter in the Apostle Islands can be defined as the months of December, January, and February. During these months, the area will be blanketed in snow and experiencing cold weather. You can expect cold wind chills, short days, and even colder nights.
All of the islands will be closed down, with the exception of Madeline Island, limiting your access to the Apostles Island National Lakeshore mainland only. But don’t let this deter you, the Bayfield peninsula and mainland is a winter wonderland in this area and there is plenty to do during your visit.
Temperatures during the winter months will range from highs in the ’30s to lows well below zero degrees. As you get into late January and February, you’ll see the coldest months and strongest cold fronts. It also not uncommon for you to experience heavy snowstorms or windchills taking the temperatures around 20 degrees cooler than on the thermometer.
Best Time to Visit During the Winter Season
While the winter is one of the best times to visit the Apostle Islands, it can still be a wide range to choose from for those new to the area. So when exactly in the winter should you go? Well, that all depends on a few different factors.
The ice caves are the biggest draw point for the area. Seeing those is dependent entirely on the quality of the ice of Lake Superior. The National Parks Service monitors the ice incredibly closely and while it can change from day to day, they recommend visiting in February which is generally when the ice is most consistently thick.
Of course, that being said, this also makes it the busiest time for visitors to the ice caves. So if that specific tour isn’t high on your list, you can always opt to visit earlier in the winter to avoid some of the traffic. On the other hand, if you have a specific lodging in mind that you’d like to visit, why not plan your vacation around its availability?
One of the biggest factors in planning your trip is the weather. If you aren’t familiar with the area, you’ll definitely want to keep a close eye on it. Wisconsin in the winter is quite cold, so if you aren’t acclimated to the temperatures of the northern U.S. it can be quite a shock.
A good idea is to search the temperature trends of the timeframe you are thinking about in order to ensure that you’re prepped and ready for the weather you’ll be subjected to!
Also, keep in mind that the moisture of the area (thanks, Lake Superior!) combined with the cold weather makes things feel colder as well, so make sure that whenever you go, pack and dress accordingly. Don’t fret though – there are plenty of shops in the area that sell coats, boots, and anything else you would need for outdoor adventuring in the winter.
Apostle Islands Winter Highlights
One of the main reasons that visiting the Apostle Islands in the winter is such a hit among tourists is the beauty of the ice. In the coldest months, Lake Superior freezes over. As it does, the ice does a number of amazing natural manipulations including stacks, shelves, icicles, sheets, and more.
Walking on the beaches in winter is fascinating as the ice often piles up in huge mounds from the force of Lake Superior pushing it onshore.
At times the ice can be safe to walk across, allowing tourists to access some of the offshore beauty with the ease of a short hike. This is a place with some of the most unique vantages. You’ll be hard-pressed to find this caliber of natural beauty anywhere else.
Lake Superior Ice Caves
There’s a huge variety of things to do in the Apostle Islands area, even in the winter. Arguably the main thing that draws in tourists to the area is the ice caves.
Caused by the constant moisture from the lake, the ice caves are naturally formed hollows in the sandstone of the islands and shores. What makes them so special is that during the winter, the moisture in these caves freezes due to the harsh temperatures, causing enormous icicles and shelves to form all around the caves.
By walking across the frozen lake, visitors can access the caves and take pictures galore. In addition, it’s incredibly easy to go on your own tour of the ice caves – just follow highway 11 to the Apostle Islands National Shorefront. Here, you can buy tickets, and after a short hike (two to three miles one way) you will be face to face with the natural wonder of the caves.
Keep in mind, though, that being able to access the ice caves is not guaranteed and does not happen every year. Walking on ice in Lake Superior can be very dangerous and the absolute optimal weather conditions need to happen in order for accessing the ice caves by foot to be possible. As a result of this, the ice caves are not possible to visit every year.
Surprising to many, the Apostle Islands and surrounding area is a year-round fishing destination. Locals relish in the winter environment to put up their snazzy fish houses on the ice and drop a line in the ice waters of Lake Superior.
It’s possible to fish independently or with the assistance of a local operator. Just be sure you are appropriately prepared, have warm clothes, and a fishing license.
Hiking in Winter
Winter hiking on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a very popular activity. From the mainland trails, you can observe the frozen majesty of Lake Superior and the surrounding areas from some amazing viewpoints. This is a must for nature lovers, so make sure to bring your camera!
Snowshoeing and cross country skiing are also enjoyed on many of the hiking trails when there is good snow cover. If you desire to try these activities, you’ll want to come in January and February for the best snow.
If you want a little more speed, consider checking out a snowmobile rental and cruising along some of the trails that the National Shorefront has to offer. This combines the beauty of the natural scenery with the thrill and ease of covering the snowy terrain with speed.
Winter Lodging Options
If you are looking for a cozier, or maybe even a more romantic winter getaway in the Apostle Islands, then worry not. There are a handful of rental options that you can settle down in. Not only can you rent a cabin at Canoe Bay Escape Village, but there are also a few more unique options to boot.
If you are traveling with a group, check out the Lake Superior Barn. You may think a barn doesn’t sound comfortable, but you’d definitely be wrong. It has been remodeled with modern amenities and sits alone among the forest overlooking Lake Superior itself.
Simpler arrangements are also available if you’re on the hunt for something a little less flashy, and the Bayfield Rustic Yurt is a great option. Complete with a wooden stove and outdoor seating area with a fire pit, this option is ideal if you’re looking to unplug and unwind for a while.
Looking to feel like a kid again? Boulder Ridge Treehouse provides the perfect opportunity for you to reminisce the simpler days. This is a great local find that you’ll be excited to go back to at the end of the day. Enjoy views here that you couldn’t possibly find at some hotel. This is a great option for writers too as the balcony and the unique views are incredibly conducive to the creatives among us.
The last of these unique lodging experiences is the Camp Lake Resort. A small group of cottages that will warm your heart despite the cold of the winter. These are a good choice for those who enjoy the amenities of a hotel with the beauty of nature. In addition to the usual (microwave, fridge, TV, etc.), you also have an outdoor picnic and grill area to enjoy nature before you cozy up inside for the night.
These cabins are a good find for small families as they offer modern comforts to keep children happy but also close enough proximity to nature to keep things exciting. It allows for a time you and your family won’t forget while not having to break the bank or brave the risks of being too remote.
Our Favorite Apostle Islands Winter Activities:
- Ice Fishing
- Visiting the Ice Caves
- Booking a cabin for a winter escape
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