Leelanau ice caves —magnificent! here’s how to enjoy them

PLEASE NOTE: Tom Skowronski, of Leelanau County’s Office of Emergency Management, has announced that as of Friday, February 21st, wind has moved some surface ice away from beach, and open water is visible within feet of the caves.  There are now large cracks in the arches and they are expected to start collapsing soon.  The melting and ice shifts have rendered the area unsafe.  Please do not enter onto the ice; instead, enjoy this video from the comfort of the great indoors.

When I first stepped over the hill to see the lines of people crossing the ice to the white peaks, I felt like I was part of something big. I said out loud, “It looks like a refugee camp.” The streams of people looked to be headed to tents. Or maybe it was more like the trip to Mecca. We were all expecting miracles. And we found them. Young. Old. George Lucas could find inspiration here.

We headed straight to the peaks. We crossed over the first row and on top of the second to see cliffs. The view can’t be estimated, even looking at the photos. We slid down 30-foot slopes. We picked our way over ice bowling balls. We went left and found an easy way to cross to the front of the second tier to see those caves from the floor. We trekked quite a ways along that front line, the crowd of people thinning as we went.

We plan on going back and heading to the right, where friends have photographed a heart shaped skylight over a cave.

Getting There

It’s a loop. And if you follow these tips, getting there is pretty easy. From Leland, travel north on M-22, a little more than 6.5 miles. You’ll see a restaurant on the right, Fischer’s Happy Hour. Just past, turn left onto Gills Pier Rd. The road to the beach is 2.2 miles long, narrow, snowy and people will park as far back as M-22. Park only on the right and don’t attempt to turn around and go back. It’s a loop and you will be able to get out by continuing forward. Again, park on the right.

Gill’s Pier Rd. meets Onomonee Rd. There you’ll find the path to the ice caves.

To Leave

From your parking space (on the right, yes), pull into the flow and continue moving forward. You’ll turn right on Onomonee Rd. and follow it to Carlson Rd. Turn right on Carlson and you’ll find yourself back on M-22. Another right and you’re headed towards Leland.

What to Take

  • Ice grippers for your boots. We found YakTrax to work the best.
  • Ski poles. Especially helpful for extra stability stepping down or pulling oneself up.
  • Your camera, load up the battery since the cold will really sap the flow.
  • Warm clothing, the wind was really cold on Lake Michigan, even in the bright sun. We dressed like we were going skiing, snow pants, hats, layers. My daughter was glad she had her face mask.
  • Sleds to pull little ones who’ll certainly leave all their energy at the caves.
  • Sunscreen, for bright sun, snow.
  • Your patience, the road in is slow, and take your time traversing the slippery ice.

Staying Safe

I wasn’t comfortable with my daughter and her friend climbing into all the caves. If that ice should settle, split or crack, they’d quickly be buried. There were places where thinner ice sheets had been broken, and a few times my pole made a hollow sound. One could slide off the top of a precipice and fall 30 feet. Even a purposeful slide down the face of some of these ledges delivers some wicked bruises.

The formations are made of those fascinating ice balls. Where the snow has been worn away they are very slippery. Many people (without cleats) were falling. As there are more folks touring, the slick spots will get slicker.

And one of our friends hiked in from much farther south, crossing an area of the lake where a running brook entered and falling thigh-high into water where the ice deceived her. Her boot got wet and she suffered the cold.

Where to Eat After

Fischer’s Happy Hour is great. Being that it is so close, it may be very busy. Great burgers, fried chicken and popover dessert that will ease your ice cave induced bruises.

There are a couple places in Northport, just a few miles north on M-22. Soggy Dollar has pasta. The Garage has a killer pulled pork sandwich—made the cover of the Food Finds issue of Traverse Magazine one year.

Bluebird in Leland. Just off M-22 in Leland. Only the Tavern is open this time of year. Great pizza.

There are three great places in Suttons Bay. North Country has great fried pickles and a London Broil that is really good. My daughter likes their soups. Boone’s Prime Time Pub is a perennial favorite of ours with great burgers, steak sandwiches, perch and fried clams (not on the menu, but ask for them). The Village Inn is famous for Mexican food, especially the wet burrito.

Please Mind Your Manners

A note of gratitude to the Leelanau County Sheriff’s department for helping with traffic control. An even bigger thanks to the residents of Gills Pier Rd. for their patience and for sharing their magnificent view with the public. These folks weren’t able to dash out to the grocery store on Sunday with any efficiency and we all owe them for that inconvenience. So while you are guests of their lane, please pick up your trash, don’t block their driveways, be respectful of the children, dogs and others trying to walk around your moving car, and generally be a good sport.

Below are my photos. Check out my friend Jeff Smith’s sunset ice cave photos on his blog.

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