Ice Caves, Structures and Icy Landscapes in Door County
By Mark Crawford
Winter transforms Wisconsin’s landscapes in a way that no other season can—lakes, rivers and waterfalls freeze, forming spectacular ice formations. Ice builds up all winter along the Lake Michigan shoreline, sculpting a variety of shapes, ranging from looming masses of jagged ice blocks to delicate, intricate ice structures molded by wind and current.
Below are some top sites in Wisconsin for viewing these impressive ice forms, including accessible places in Door County. Unlike Wisconsin’s other natural wonders, this one-of-a-kind art gallery vanishes in the spring—so bundle up and see it while you can!
River Gorges and Ice Walls
Hiking trails in Willow River State Park in Hudson provide scenic overlooks of the Willow River gorge, showing off its ice-covered rock ledges and waterfalls. In nearby Menomonie, cross-country skiers can view an impressive, 25-foot tall ice wall on Red Cedar State Trail. On the other side of the state, “up north” near Hurley, don’t miss the interesting ice shapes that form along the rocky shores and rapids of the Potato River.
All of Wisconsin’s waterfalls provide spectacular “ice shows” during the winter season. The waterfalls in Copper Falls State Park, Pattison State Park and Amnicon Falls State Park draw plenty of visitors during the winter. Pattison State Park features Big Manitou Falls—at a height of 165 feet, it is the tallest waterfall in Wisconsin and the fourth-tallest east of the Rocky Mountains (its companion, Little Manitou Falls, is 31 feet in height). Amnicon Falls State Park features a series of waterfalls and rapids along the Amnicon River—its ice decorations can be viewed from a covered foot bridge or trails along the river.
Last year’s cold winter made the Bayfield-Apostle Islands Park Ice Caves accessible for the first time in five years. More than 100,000 visitors came to bask in the wintry beauty of the ice caves and sculptures. Normally the red-colored sea caves along the shore are only accessible by boat—but when the ice is frozen solid and safe, they are accessible by foot. Pillars of ice extend from the cliff tops to the base level, forming giant stalactites. From the cave ceilings hang thousands of glittering icicles. Another fun experience is simply walking across the frozen expanse of Lake Superior, which creates the adventuresome feeling of being an early explorer. Check to see if the temps have dropped low enough to make these mysterious caves accessible!
Lake Michigan Shoreline
Frozen formations can be found all along the Lake Michigan shoreline, especially in Door County. Top spots include North Bay State Natural Area, Baileys Harbor Boreal Forest and Wetlands, and Peninsula State Park, all of which are known for the interesting ice formations that build up along the shorelines. Perhaps the most impressive spot is Cave Point County Park near Jacksonport where intricate icicle structures are ever-changing, depending on wind and current. Because this area rarely freezes over, water splashes and sprays over the rock edges, forming interestingly-shaped layers of ice and stalactites. Farther south, Whitefish Dunes State Park along Lake Michigan showcases a vast tumble of glittering ice formations along its beaches, which can be accessed from several winter trails.