Ice Caves and Snowy Trails Await In Your Personal Winter Playground

Discover the Midwest’s high adventure and hygge comfort.

sea caves
Ice caves are a highlight of the Apostle Islands. | Posnov/Moment/Getty Images
Ice caves are a highlight of the Apostle Islands. | Posnov/Moment/Getty Images

I looked down—way down—into the volcanic gorge below, the Bad River not-quite frozen in its tumbling descent. All around me was red basalt—a rock that usually pops up in and near oceans—and tall, dark, emerald groves of white spruce and balsam fir. The park trail I was walking joined up with the North Country National Scenic Trail, a 3,200-mile trek from North Dakota to Vermont. Yesterday, I was searching for elk. Tomorrow, I would be climbing granite and seeing the country’s first tribal national park. 

I felt a world away from my home in Madison, Wisconsin, though I had only travelled a few hours north; the time it took for the fields and highways to transition into national forests and roads less traveled was shorter still.

Up here in Northwest Wisconsin, you count lakes, not buildings. The accents are thicker, and so are the trees. The region’s utter veneration of the outdoors—even in the dead of winter—is either a fiery display of local Scandinavian roots or a testament to the outdoors themselves: 1,200 miles of snowmobile trails. 400+ miles for fat biking. 100+ miles of the NCT. The 54-mile Birkebeiner Trail, home of the world-famous Birkebeiner, where you can ski sans 10,000 fellow competitors all winter long. Ice caves, national forests... the list goes on.

And because this is still somehow "flyover country," I had all this to myself—and for a song. Cabins can still be had for $500 a week. Premier area trails are regularly empty. Thousands of lakes mean a view is never far away, though it may be a frozen one. Pack your best hygge-worthy socks—here’s what’s in store in Northwest Wisconsin.

cooper falls
Copper Falls is all yours in the winter. | Photo by Jacqueline Kehoe

Hit some of the Midwest’s most stunning trails

Let’s jump back to that volcanic gorge—it’s the piece de resistance of Copper Falls State Park. A billion years ago, this area was rifting apart, leaving behind a legacy of tough volcanic rock for the Bad River to beat, battle, and carve. Several waterfalls are accessible via easy-to-moderate hikes, though the Doughboy’s Nature Trail is the one to tackle here.

Thirty minutes south in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, scope out the trailhead for Juniper Rock Overlook, a quick 1.4-mile section of the North Country Trail, the longest in the US. With sturdy boots—or ice cleats, poles, or snowshoes, should the weather require—you’ll wander slowly up and up through groves of ironwood, basswood, and birch, past scores of granite outcrops, and onto Juniper Rock, for one of the most magnificent panoramic views over the Northwoods.

Further north near Bayfield, rent snowshoes at Howl Adventure Center and hit up the Sugar Bush Trail at Mt. Ashwabay. Quick but steep, you’ll climb 700 feet above Lake Superior through old-growth forests overlooking Chequamegon Bay, all in incredible peace and quiet (if you don’t count the chickadees and woodpeckers).

Go for a wildlife drive

Wisconsin-77 doubles as the Great Divide National Scenic Byway, a 29-mile stretch between Glidden and Hayward. Hurtling you under an endless canopy of oaks, aspen, birch, maple, and beech, it’s a constant stunner, but full disclosure: nearly every road up here is. The guarantee you’ll get on 77 though, is that the road is always well-maintained and you won’t be alone, though you may be the only one with wheels. Out of the forests that creep up to the asphalt’s edge may pop one, two, three elk—some 400 call this area home—or a curious wolf, deer, or black bear.

ice cave
Strange beauty is everywhere along the coast. | Posnov/Moment/Getty Images

Go spelunking—into an ice cave

When Lake Superior freezes over, something magical happens at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: ice caves form. Well, sometimes—it requires the right winds and consistently low temperatures, which makes the unpredictable phenomena that much more incredible to witness first-hand.

But should it happen—follow the NPS’ page for updates—grab your snow gear and your camera, and book it for Meyers Beach. It’s a 1.1-mile walk on Lake Superior to hit the first cave, with another 1.8 miles of sea caves, cliffs, and icy curtains to add on, should you like. A thermos of hot cocoa for the trip back doesn’t hurt, either.

frog bay
Frog Bay is America’s first Tribal National Park. | Photo by Jacqueline Kehoe

Explore the first Tribal National Park

In 2012, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa worked diligently with local organizations to form Frog Bay Tribal National Park, the nation’s first. It may be a shy 180 acres, but this is some of Lake Superior’s most beautiful—and endangered—boreal forest, dense with cedar, birch, and pine. The park is currently closed to non-tribal visitors, but once it opens anew, rake the Beach Trail to the water’s edge and count the Apostle Islands in the distance.

On your way out of the park, stop at Copper Crow Distillery. In true Wisconsin form, they make their gin and vodka with whey—local, sustainable, and it gives the tail end of the spirit a potent tang. This is the first Indigenous-owned distillery in the country, and everything is brewed and bottled on site by the Basina family.

The Birkebeiner
The Birkebeiner is one of the world’s premier cross-country races. | Photo courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

See how Hayward is hay-weird and wonderful

If there’s one thing you see in Hayward, make sure it’s the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. In the warmer months, you’ll climb into a four-story, giant fiberglass muskie—and pop out the mouth. (In winter, when it’s closed, you’ll have to be satisfied with the head-to-tail view.) It’s definitely the largest fiberglass structure in existence, and it’s probably the biggest fish in the world. 

If there are two things you see in Hayward, make the second the Birkie Trail, home to the Birkebeiner, the world’s premier cross-country event (this year, you can even participate virtually). Every February, nearly 10,000 skiers swoosh their way for 54 miles from Cable to Hayward, but the trail’s open—and groomed—every day of the year for those looking for a bit more elbow room. Hayward’s Hatchery Creek Loop is a great jaunt just off the main course if you’re looking to park and ride. You can fat-bike the Birkie, too, and there’s a separate trail system just for snowshoers.

Where to eat

The 833-person town of Cable is a surprising stand-out here: The Rivers Eatery tops their stone-oven pizzas with everything from cranberry olive oil to mandarin oranges; Velo Cafe has a mean rosemary/brown-sugar latte; and the Brick House Cafe never disappoints with their Crème Brulee French Toast. (It’s Guy-Fieri approved too.) 

Hayward—a metropolis at nearly 3,000 residents—is worth a look, too. Angry Minnow Brewing Co. serves up classic Wisconsin ales in a gorgeous 19th-century lumber warehouse, and downtown’s Main Street Tacos is probably about as far north as tried-and-true Mexican gets.

Where to stay

You only have one logical choice here: book a cabin. Somewhere deep in the national forest, preferably. Check out North Country Vacation Rentals, and if you see numbers close to $100/night for adorable, modern, fully equipped cabins fit for 2–4, that’s not a typo. Welcome to the kind of snowglobe getaway you—and your wallet—didn’t think existed. Now that you’ve found it, do your part to respect it. Leave it unspoiled, with only a few snowshoe tracks left behind in your wake.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.