Every winter, the water reliably freezes in Red Cliff Bay, a sheltered cove carved into the Bayfield Peninsula. This means that you can access the glittering ice caves and formations that decorate the bay's sandstone cliffs. But this unique ice show only lasts a few weeks each year. So, when the temps drop and the ice thickens, grab your traction cleats or snowshoes and make your way to Red Cliff Bay.
Red Cliff Bay sits a few miles north of Bayfield and is part of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation. It's also 20 minutes due east of Meyer's Beach, a spot along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore that serves as the launching pad for the lakeshore's famous ice caves. The Apostle Islands ice caves, however, lie along an exposed section of Lake Superior on the peninsula's western shore, where powerful winds and waves routinely come up against the shoreline. This makes the ice too dangerous to traverse most winters – and thus leaves the impressive caves inaccessible.
Red Cliff Bay, in contrast, is tucked into a quiet pocket on the peninsula's eastern shore, with shallow waters that quickly freeze each winter. So the cliffs are easy to visit with your favorite people, and the ice is just as magical.
In Red Cliff Bay, icy sculptures form every winter, thanks to the water that continually seeps through the porous rock and out onto its face. Once exposed to the air, the water freezes into intricate crystals; long, jagged icicles; thick slabs of ice and everything in between. The show is a colorful one, too, thanks to the minerals in the rock, oxygen levels and other factors.
Take An Extraordinary Tour
The best way to experience this dazzling wonderland is by signing on for a tour with Rustic Makwa Den. Owner Troy Gordon is a member of the Red Cliff, as are almost all of his guides. This means your tour will not only showcase the area's gorgeous natural scenery but will include a cultural exchange as your guides tell you about their tribe's long history in this region.
"You're really getting a special tour," Gordon says. "There are so many beautiful things to see, plus our guides talk about our life here on the reservation." Guests also appreciate having a tour led by one of the First Peoples, he says.
Rustic Makwa Den offers daily ice cave tours once the bay freezes, which is usually sometime between late December and early February. Starting from the Legendary Waters Resort Casino, the tours run about two hours, and are easy enough for kids and novice ice-hikers. In fact, the handful of caves open for exploration tend to be on the smaller side, so kids have an easier time exploring them than adults.
Already been to Red Cliff? It's worth a return trip, Gordon says, as the ice formations are never the same. "The magic of the ice is that you never know where it will form, or what you'll see."
Explore Frog Bay Tribal National Park
While you're in the area, make sure to save some time to explore Frog Bay, the nation's first tribal national park. This park features nearly two miles of trail winding through an old-growth hemlock-cedar forest and down to the shores of Lake Superior, where you can spy five of the 21 Apostle Islands. The acreage is also home to bobcats, black bears, wolves and nearly 100 bird species.
A smattering of interpretive signage offers some information about the plants, animals and the Anishinaabe, a culturally related group of Indigenous peoples that includes the Lake Superior Chippewa. Stroll the trails to learn and appreciate the rich history of the land.
"We want to give people a sense of place so you can acknowledge the place you're visiting," says Gabrielle VanBergen, who until recently was deputy administrator of the Red Cliff treaty natural resources division, "and really take in the incredibly long, long history this land has had."
Stay A While, In Style
As the Bayfield Peninsula lies in one of Wisconsin's more remote areas, plan to stay a few days. The Legendary Waters Resort & Casino is near the bay, and all 47 of its rooms offer views of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands. Nearby Bayfield offers innumerable lodging choices, from the posh Old Rittenhouse Inn – Wisconsin's first bed-and-breakfast – to the Harbor's Edge Motel to condos, cabins and cottage rentals. This means that whether you're traveling with your sweetheart or the kids, you'll be able to find the perfect spot to stay.
Extra Fun Around the Area
Fuel up together for your adventures at The Fat Radish in Cornucopia that serves up dishes such as Lake Superior fish tacos and gourmet mac 'n cheese, or try the Copper Trout for inventive pizzas crafted from fresh asparagus, dry-cured prosciutto, smoked bacon and more, enabling you to share great food – and fond memories of your trip – with your family or friends.
If your route home takes you through Ashland at the bottom of Chequamegon Bay, pop in at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center. This informative facility contains kid-friendly exhibits, an art gallery and an interpretive trail through the property's wetlands. A five-story observation tower allows you to experience more of the area's beauty while capping off a quality getaway with your crew.
Up for more outdoor winter adventures? Explore these 6 amazing winter hiking spots in Wisconsin.
The health and safety of our travelers is our top priority. Please approach ice caves with the utmost of caution. Respecting Wisconsin’s awe-inspiring natural land formations means bringing the proper safety equipment with you on your adventure!