MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Ice playgrounds

Along rivers and lakes, it's fun to hang out with Jack Frost.

Ice at Tettegouche.

© Beth Gauper

In Minnesota's Tettegouche State Park, trees and bushes are coated with ice.

In winter, ice comes with the territory. You can curse it or you can play with it.

Kids know how. Climbers and skaters know how. And photographers adore it.

Having fun with ice also is a good way to cope with a winter that drags on, endlessly, into April.

That's when gigantic heaps of shards pile up on Lake Superior and ice storms create glistening tableaux that make photographers come running.

Once, I considered ice the mere byproduct of conditions too poor to produce snow. That was before I really looked at it. On north-woods rivers and lakes, ice glazes snow into all kinds of magical shapes.

One year, after an ice storm turned northern Wisconsin ski trails into screaming luge runs, I cut short a ski weekend and headed home through glazed forest. But Amnicon Falls State Park was on the way, so I stopped to explore.

In the summer, the Amnicon River is a jolly little stream that tumbles over a series of waterfalls as it splits around a wooded island.

In winter, the river is frozen in place and the park is silent, but there's a palpable sense of suppressed energy, straining under the opaque marble pillars that once were rushing torrents.

As I made my way along the shore, admiring ice formations, nothing moved. Then, I noticed what appeared to be a heap of ashes at the base of Snakepit Falls.

It was heaving and sighing as if an asthmatic giant were lying just underneath, puffing life into this Mount St. Helens on ice.

I was itching to touch it but afraid to get too close, so I fetched a long stick and gave it a poke. Poof my little volcano turned out to be nothing but frozen foam, quickly scattered to the wind.

Ice is strange. A whisper of wind or droplet of mist is all it needs to shift shapes and, like snowflakes, it never takes on the same shape twice.

Blue icefall at ice caves.

© Beth Gauper

On the mainland ice caves near Cornucopia, Wis., a giant icefall is tinted blue and pink.

Now, I consider a good icescape to be a main destination. My favorite is the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore ice caves on Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula. I visit them every year that Lake Superior freezes enough to allow people to walk along its shores.

Gooseberry Falls on Minnesota's North Shore always is worth a stop for its filmy curtains of icicles, which create niches and tunnels children love to explore.

All of the North Shore rivers are gorgeous. Walking on the shallow Kadunce near Grand Marais, I once spied elfin strings of tea lights strung under thick slabs of snow. On the nearby Brule, shiny minarets topped flowing tapestries of ice.

If it's near water, any summer playground is even more fun in winter: A pile of ice is a jungle gym, swing set and merry-go-round all rolled into one.

Art at Artists' Point

Late one winter, heading home after skiing on the Gunflint Trail, I went out to Artists Point in Grand Marais, popular in summer for its piles of cobblestones that can be stacked into cairns and arches. But in winter, there was more to play with.

Ice at Split Rock.

© Beth Gauper

A piece of ice found in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on Lake Superior.

On the village side of the point, thin slices of ice lay in pointy heaps that mimicked the Sawtooth Mountains rising behind the village; they were so transparent, I lifted one to my camera and used it as a filter.

On the lake side, chunks of ice were strewn like Lucite paperweights. One was in the shape of Minnesota, its southern half a skein of tiny fractures, and its northern half so clear it refracted the sun into dancing rays of purple, yellow and blue.

Like stalactites in a cave, ice is alive. As in caves, water squeezes through cracks and cascades down cliffs and over ledges in multihued organ pipes and bacon strips; on the shore, splashing water coats rocks with fish scales and wide icicles that look like cow's teats.

Usually, wind and snow make surfaces rounded and dull, like jade.

But on this day in Grand Marais, the ice was as sharp-edged and clear as art glass, and walking on the beach was like walking through a gallery: I spotted a Picasso hen, a Chihuly chandelier, an Orrefors vase.

On the bay, craters of ice rode the waves like jellyfish, bashing each other's edges into tinsel. But in the harbor, the water was unnaturally motionless only the presence of gulls, sitting just a little too high, gave away the fact that it was frozen.

I could have played there all day, examining each piece as if it were the rarest thing in the world. I wanted to take some home, but there's no such thing as a souvenir from an ice field.

Wave action at Stoney Point

Farther down the shore, west of Knife River on old Minnesota 61, I veered off onto Stoney Point Drive and found a different kind of icescape.

There was nothing delicate there. Enormous slabs of ice were piled against the shore; from some viewpoints, it could have been the Arctic.

At Stoney Point, storm-watchers come to watch waves pound tractor-sized boulders along the shore. As I climbed from one to the other, I heard a crash as a big chunk of ice calved into the lake.

In the water, waves had beaten the middles out of the ice craters, turning them into hoops of loose shards.

Nothing stays the same for long on the North Shore. And occasionally, a storm can create a wonderland that those lucky enough to see it will remember for the rest of their lives.

Blue ice in Duluth.

© Beth Gauper

Slabs of blue ice pile up near the mouth of the Lester River in Duluth.

Tettegouche ice forest

In April 2003, a wild storm pounded the North Shore, and giant waves coated the shore with ice. Soon afterward, photographer Paul Sundberg took his camera into Tettegouche State Park to record the scene.

"The spray had frozen in the trees, and it was just an enchanted forest," he said. "I was careful I didn't get too close to the edge, but one thing I never thought about was the trees themselves.

"I was shooting Palisade Head, and I'd just picked up my camera and taken five steps back when the top half of a tree broke off, with maybe 1,000 pounds of ice on it. It would've broken every bone in my body, although I never would've survived."

One March, I was lucky enough to pass the same Tettegouche point after it had been covered with ice. It really was like walking in a magical ice forest.

Snowshoeing up river canyons

In winter, Sundberg roams up and down the shore, skiing down frozen rivers when he can and snowshoeing up the shallower ones. 

Ice at Tettegouche.

© Beth Gauper

Ice coats a clifftop opposite Shovel Point in Minnesota's Tettegouche State Park.

The first stretches of the Kadunce and Devil Track rivers, north of Grand Marais, generally are shallow enough to traverse safely, he says, and their sheer red-rock gorges are especially scenic.

"When you go up there, little feeder streams come off the cliffs and form huge icicles coming off the sides of the canyons," he says.

"You'll see owls, timber wolf tracks, all kinds of wildlife once on the Devil Track, a deer had fallen off the cliff and lodged in the fork of a birch tree; it probably had fallen 100 feet when it hit."

Besides the falls at Gooseberry and Cascade River state parks, he's fond of a little blue waterfall on a tributary of the Split Rock River.

"It's just a fantastic place to play, a really fun spot," he says.

And along the lake, he likes to visit the beaches between Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and the mouth of the Split Rock River, especially when the winter has been cold.

"You get ice shards piling up on the shore, and the sound of cracking ice is pretty awesome," he says.

"One year, the bay of Split Rock froze so cleanly you could go on the beach and skip rocks, and the rocks would not stop, they'd go all the way out to the island and fall into open water. The sound of them skipping across the ice was just incredible."

All you have to do is look: "There are always neat little things you can find along little beaches and along the trails," Sundberg says.

You can't take any of them home as souvenirs. But the memories will last for a long time.

Trip Tips: North-woods ice playgrounds

Anywhere there's water and rock, there will be ice formations.

Always be careful when walking on rivers and lakes; to be safe, ask a local naturalist for advice, bring a buddy and carry a stick that you can tuck under your arms horizontally if you fall in.

Thick snow is no guarantee of safety; it's an insulator and may be keeping water from freezing.

Ice in the Grand Marais harbor.

© Beth Gauper

Shards of ice pile up on the harbor in Grand Marais.

For safety, wear spikes or other traction devices on your boots. For recommendations, see Walking on ice.

Formations are most delicate when the air is very cold, but the sunnier days of late winter, until the ice breaks up in late March or early April, are a perfect time to play.

Here are some of the best places:

Amnicon Falls State Park in northwest Wisconsin: The falls in this state park, 10 miles east of Superior on U.S. 2, are very easy to explore. A covered bridge allows access to the island.

Artists' Point in Grand Marais, Minn: This wooded spit of land on the east side of the harbor, beyond the U.S. Coast Guard station, is fun to explore in any season. 

For more, see our Facebook album.

Stoney Point near the Knife River on Minnesota's North Shore: Past the New Scenic Cafe on Old 61, just past the Sucker River, Stony Point Drive hugs the lake and is a good place to jump on the rocks and watch waves and surfers.

For more, see Minnesota's scenic 61.

Ice formations on the Onion River.

© Beth Gauper

Globules hang from a canyon wall along the Onion River near Lutsen, Minn.

Brighton Beach/Kitchi-Gammi Park in Duluth: On the eastern edge of town, at the start of Old Highway 61, this rocky beach also is a good place to watch surfers when the waves kick up in late winter and early spring.

Nearby Lester Park, where Amity Creek and the Lester River converge, also is a good place to play as well as ski. 

North Shore rivers: Gooseberry Falls State Park is a favorite place to clamber around, with dramatic, varied ice terrain.

The water around Lower and Middle Falls isn't too deep, but be careful around Upper Falls, which has a 20-foot pool at its base.

For more, see Gooseberries on ice.

Four miles east of Gooseberry at the mouth of the Split Rock River, a five-mile hiking trail goes up the west side of the river and crosses a bridge to return along a ridge and back to the highway.

Not far from the start, there's a 20-foot waterfall around the corner from the first bridge.

In Tettegouche State Park, Shovel Point and the campsites on the opposite point often are covered with beautiful ice formations. Past Lutsen, there are many formations on the rapids and falls of the Cascade River. 

Waterfall on the Black River.

© Beth Gauper

On the Black River in the U.P., Potawatomi Falls is sheathed in ice.

Past Grand Marais, the first sections of the Devil Track and Kadunce generally can be traversed in winter, through picturesque red gorges dripping with icicles.

For more, see Snowshoeing river canyons of the North Shore.

Black River waterfalls on Michigan's Upper Peninsula: This is the top destination of Patrick Lisi, a Wisconsin game warden whose book "Wisconsin Waterfalls" is the bible for waterfall watchers.

From Bessemer, eight waterfalls tumble down the Black River as it heads toward Lake Superior. They're all along County Road 513.

For more, see Waterfalls by snowshoe.

Northern Wisconsin waterfalls: Thirteen miles south of Superior, Pattison State Park has the fourth-highest waterfall east of the Rockies and is easily reached. 

For more, see Waterfalls of northern Wisconsin.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore ice caves: The mainland ice caves, four miles east of Cornucopia off Meyers Beach Road, are magnificent like an underground cave turned inside out, except that many of the formations are in delicate hues of blue and green.

However, Lake Superior doesn't always freeze hard enough to allow safe access to the caves, a one-mile walk from the Meyers Beach parking lot. Usually, the middle of February to early March is the time to go.

For more, see Ice caves of the Apostles.

An option would be to walk or snowshoe the Lakeshore Trail along the cliff top, which goes to the caves from Meyers Beach; however, be sure to keep a good grip on kids.

Or, visit the Eben Ice Caves in the Rock River Canyon on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They're southwest of Au Train, about six miles from Lake Superior. Nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore also has many icefalls and formations.

For more about the area, see Michigan's Pictured Rocks.

In Minnesota, hike to Wolf Creek Falls in Banning State Park, right off I-35 north of Sandstone. There aren't caves, but you can walk behind an impressive icefall.

Last updated on January 17, 2017