Tips for Exploring the Ice Caves on Lake Michigan

We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend to enjoy Winter in northern Michigan. There seemed to be a festival in every town. But event planners around the region were trumped by mother nature as thousands made the trek to see the ice caves on Lake Michigan.

My social media circles have been buzzing for days with stories and some spectacular photos showing 20′ and 30′ ice cliffs just offshore near Leland, the pinky finger of our mitten state. After reading the story on I just couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these formations.

This winter has been uncharacteristically cold, snowy, and now ice-filled. In fact, Lake Michigan is likely to break the all-time ice coverage record of 95 percent. Our frigid temps and windy weather are the perfect storm for creating these ‘ice castles’ just 500 yards off shore. They’re far from common, so it became my mission this weekend to make the migration.

Mission completed. Although at times it felt more like Mission Impossible. So I wanted to share a few tips in case you’re planning to make the trip to see the ice caves.

Tips to know before you go

  • Park close to the lake. The top viewing area is off of Onomonee Rd and N. Gills Pier Rd. Do not make the same mistake we did and park the moment you find a space. We parked on N. Gills Pier Rd near M-22 since there were so many cars. It is an HOUR walk from there! Keep driving, even if the going is slow. You’ll find a space.
  • Don’t forget to bring water. I know, obvious right? If it were summer and I were headed out on a big hike I’d have packed smarter. But I had no idea we’d be out there so long, or have to walk so far. I was ready to eat snow.
  • Bring your camera, not just your iPhone. Guess what? iPhones don’t love the cold and snow. If you want to capture the beauty of this trip to share with those who didn’t join you, bring a point-and-shoot camera along with your phone.
  • Wear good boots with traction. The terrain is a mixture of hard pack slick snow, smooth ice and sloping, unpredictable grade. It’s incredibly easy to lose your footing. Consider wearing crampons, or yaktrax if you have them. And just be slow and careful on the ice.

Was it amazing? Absolutely! But after traveling with my two kids, and my two parents we all agreed these tips would have been nice to know beforehand. I’m not sure how long the weather will permit visitations to this spectacular show of mother nature’s beauty and power. So get out there if you can, but be safe!

By |2018-09-12T13:20:14+00:00February 17th, 2014|Adventure, Scenic, Travel Tips|12 Comments

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  1. Deb February 17, 2014 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the tips Brandy. We were ready to go yesterday as the sun finally appeared and invited us out, but after reading similar stories to yours on Facebook , we decided to wait until things slowed down a bit out there. We will follow your advice. I can’t wait for the experience.

  2. Joan O'Neill February 17, 2014 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    I would add to you list: If you have a ski, hockey, or bike helmet for your kids, not a bad idea to have them wear it. As you mentioned, it’s incredibly easy to lose one’s footing, so it doesn’t hurt to protect their noggins.

    • Brandy Wheeler February 17, 2014 at 2:25 pm - Reply

      Great addition Joan. I worried both for my kids and my parents. No one wants to fall out there and crack a noggin or a hip. Protective gear can’t hurt.

  3. Staton Lorenz February 17, 2014 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    You nailed it Brandy, footing was uncertain at all times…even on the road so take Yak Trax for sure and warm gloves…the wind on the lake is always present and it’s hard to operate a camera without removing your gloves…iPhone should be kept next to your body in your jacket…mine froze up after the long walk netting zero photos.

    Also, exxpect to do some “butt sliding” in order to navigate the various levels of ice you are presented with and don’t head out too close to dusk…you really need to see where you are stepping.

  4. B February 17, 2014 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    They are south of Northport, north of leland, but nonetheless in Leelanau Township, making it Northport give credit where credit is due. It is the Gills Pier public access.

    They are beautiful. They are majestic. There are even some all the way north of Northport at the Lighthouse. 🙂 enjoy natures beauty while you can. If it gets as warm as they are saying next weekend, it will be even more unsafe.

    • Brandy Wheeler February 17, 2014 at 4:56 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the location details. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are spots all along the shoreline that are breathtaking. It is indeed a limited-time offer as visitation should always err on the side of caution.

  5. Kimberly Ciesla February 17, 2014 at 6:25 pm - Reply

    Thanks for posting this Brandy! All great tips! Also, I hope that people are mindful of walking on top of these caves, especially when others are inside and underneath. I have seen photos and videos of large cracks and have concerns that someone may be injured or worse by having these very large and heavy ice chunks falling down on them. Not to mention that should a large piece break off it would likely create such a large impact that it could break the ice beneath and fall straight on through to the lake. We all need to remember to respect the big Lake! This is still Lake Michigan! Ice or not ice! Mother Nature demands respect. Thanks again for sharing your great tips as always!

  6. Beej February 18, 2014 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    Consider trekking poles or cross country ski poles…just for a bit of stability. Even when it looks flat it is ice – consider that you are practicing walking on a glacier, that ice is slick and bumpy. We worried for some of the older folks we saw on the trek.

  7. J February 21, 2014 at 2:24 pm - Reply


  8. Jennifer B February 27, 2014 at 5:35 pm - Reply

    Does anyone have a current condition update? We are considering coming up this weekend on the 28th. Its either here or up to Apostle Islands but this would be closer for me. Thanks!

    • Brandy Wheeler February 28, 2014 at 1:59 am - Reply

      Jennifer, while the temperatures have dropped dramatically it would be difficult to say the area is safe. The thaw we experienced, combined with the winds, lead the Leelanau County Sheriff’s office to warn anyone against heading out on the ice. There has been open water and some of the caves have collapsed. My recommendation: come up, but stay off the ice.

      • J February 28, 2014 at 5:49 pm - Reply


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