When it comes to unique destinations, Michigan can’t be beat. Every season brings somewhere new to explore! As an expansive forested region of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula is the place to go for outdoor recreation. During winter, it becomes a wonderland of fresh snow and ice formations. Rock River Canyon Ice Caves, more commonly referred to as the Eben Ice Caves, located in the central Upper Peninsula, is one of those places. These stunning natural formations are spectacular and a must-see winter thing to do in Michigan.
About the Eben Ice Caves in the Rock River Canyon Wilderness
Located in Hiawatha National Forest, the Rock River Canyon Wilderness is a 4,700-acre designated wilderness. Congress only designates natural lands with unique or special qualities as wilderness areas. The purpose of this high-level designation is to preserve the land, so you can’t leave a single trace of your trip.
Part of the beautiful landscape are the Silver Creek and Rock River canyons, which are about 150 feet deep, with other elevations within the area ranging from 600 – 1,000 ft. When it gets cold, the water that seeps through the sandstone and flows over the edge of the canyon cliffs freezes, creating gorgeous ice curtains and stalactites over the bedrock undercuts.
These are the Eben Ice Caves, which are named such because of their proximity to Eben Junction. They’re officially called the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves. The ice walls can stand up to 50 feet high, and the sandstone and cedar trees nearby contribute to the yellow hue of the ice.
How to Get to the Eben Ice Caves
Before setting out, be sure to have an emergency kit in your car that includes blankets, water, flashlights, jumper cables, and other winter necessities. Michigan weather can be unpredictable and snowstorms can spring up suddenly, so it’s good to be prepared.
The caves are located about 15 miles west of Munising and 25 miles east of Marquette. From Munising, M-94 West leads you straight to Eben Junction in about 20 minutes. From Marquette, you take US-41 South to M-94 East, which is about a 30-minute trip to Eben Junction.
Once you arrive in the town, you’ll see the yellow signs that guide you to a parking area just off Frey Road, which is on private property. When parking, be considerate of others by not blocking the road. Getting to the trailhead to the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves involves crossing a private field.
If you’ve never been to the Eben Ice Caves, your experience will likely go something like this: You drive far out into the Upper Peninsula countryside, down a sometimes-muddy road, and park at the edge of a farmer’s field. Yellow signs labeled “Ice Caves” help point the way. After arriving, a parking area with portable bathrooms will be available.
Finding the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves Trailhead
It’s very easy to find the trailhead that leads to the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves. Since cell and internet service can be spotty in the area, though, you’ll want to write down directions to Eben Junction just in case.
The Eben Ice Caves are very easy to find. However, both the internet and GPS service in this area is limited. Before leaving, write down directions. When doing a directions search, search “how to get to Eben Ice Caves“ in order to pinpoint the location you want to visit.
The owners of the private land maintain portable toilets in the parking area at no extra charge. It’s awfully nice of them to allow visitors to cross their land for free, so you want to be respectful. You can even show your thanks by purchasing a snack or hot beverage from the concession stand.
Hiking to the Eben Ice Caves
From the trailhead, it’s a moderate 1.4-mile trek to the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves. You’ll see a giant sign for the Rock River wilderness area, which marks the main trail to the caves. The terrain is flat at the beginning of the trail, but you’ll eventually go up and down some slopes through the forest.
When you come to the river, the trail might not be clearly marked, but you want to stay to the right. Shortly after, you’ll see a trail to follow up to the caves. Although the climb isn’t extreme, it’s somewhat steep. Generally, it takes about 25 minutes to follow the main 1-mile trail up to the caves.
A lot of people visit the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves, so the snow is almost always packed down. Despite that, it can be easy to lose the trail along the way if there’s fresh snow on the ground and no footprints to follow. Fortunately, all of the paths in the area are close to each other, so you shouldn’t get lost.
Unless the area has just recently received some snowfall, the trail will be packed down by the many visitors who came before you. The hike to the ice caves is about a half-mile from where you park, and though the first section is pretty flat, as you get closer to the caves there are some pretty steep ups and downs. And as you may imagine, once you get there, the ice caves are, well… icy.
While you’re here, you could take the trail that goes above the Eben Ice Caves, which is an easier trek. You can find the path about halfway through the main trail unless it’s covered by fresh snow. From above the caves, you get a different perspective of the forest and ice curtain.
After arriving in the woods, continue to follow the trail for a short distance until you see a welcome sign for the “Rock River Canyon Ice Caves” and “Rock River Canyon Wilderness” area. Turn left at the sign and follow this trail to the caves.
Exploring the Eben Ice Caves
Once you arrive at the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves, it’s easy to spend 20 or 30 minutes looking around. Usually, there’s enough room to get behind the icy stalactites, which is a cool point of view for photos. You can climb up the curtains of ice and stand above the caves as well. From there, you can trek the top section of trail back to the parking area.
Practical Tips for Visiting Rock River Canyon Ice Caves
This destination might be difficult for smaller children, people with infants, anyone who has trouble walking/climbing, or is unstable on slippery surfaces.
- Be sure to dress warmly! Temperatures in this area are often below zero with wind chill factors at -20 to -30 below. This is typical Upper Peninsula winter weather, so be sure to bundle up!
- Invest in some ice cleats. The area around the caves is extremely slippery and cleats will help provide extra traction. Inexpensive rubber slip-on cleats are available through Amazon or at almost any sporting goods store.
- The trails to and from the caves can be steep and slippery, especially if there’s been a lot of foot traffic. Be sure to plan enough time to take it slow.
- Use extreme caution when climbing or going inside the caves. Watch for unstable areas and be aware of where any children in your group are at all times.
- Before heading in, take a minute to read the safety information posted on the Rock River Canyon Wilderness sign.
Keep in mind that fluctuations in temperature can make the ice weak, causing some of the large icicles to fall unexpectedly. This can make exploring the inside and climbing the outside of the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves risky. Stay alert to avoid injuries.
For the most up-to-date information on cave conditions, visit the Eben Ice Caves Facebook page.
Visiting the Eben Ice Caves
A group of friends and I recently embarked on a little afternoon trip to the Eben Ice Caves and really enjoyed it. After a slight wrong turn, we found our way, parked by the field, and hiked in. There were probably ten or fifteen other cars there when we pulled in. It was early afternoon.
I’d guess it took our group about fifteen minutes or so to get to the caves, as we were taking it slow and enjoying the scenery. And the way the sunlight cast the bare birch tree’s shadows over fluffy mounds of snow made me want to stop to photograph everything, but I eventually made my way to the caves. Gorgeous area though.
Let me pause here to note – once again – that you’ll probably enjoy the experience a little more if you do have some sort of cleats on your shoes or boots. I didn’t, and it was slippery as all hell in some spots on the trail. (Note to self for next year – buy ice cleats.)
At any rate, once we got there the group dispersed to explore behind the giant walls of ice, take photos, or just stand back and observe one of the Upper Peninsula’s many natural wonders.
I walked/slipped/slid behind the ice to get some photos and could have hung out there for a while. It’s really something to see, much like the ice curtains off Sand Point Road in Pictured Rocks (link). The difference is that here there’s enough room to get behind the ice.
We probably spent a half hour or so playing around the caves, then climbed up above the ice and made our way back along another section of the trail. This part of the trail was a much easier hike than the way we took in. (If you want to take this way in, go right when the trail forks at the “Rock River Canyon Ice Caves” sign.Jesse Land, Awesome Mitten’s Resident Yooper
Things to Do Near the Eben Ice Caves Michigan
The Upper Peninsula has tons of prime winter attractions, especially around Alger County and Marquette County. For instance, the Valley Spur Cross Country Ski Trail offers 27 miles of trails through meadows, hardwood forest, hemlock groves, and alongside small lakes.
You can visit the ice curtains at Sand Point as well. Located in Munising, the ice stands 20 to 50 feet high along Sand Point Road. Thousands of ice climbers and spectators gather here for Michigan Ice Fest, which is held the second week of February. Typically, the ice doesn’t melt until early April, so you have plenty of time to plan a visit.
This part of the Upper Peninsula has several frozen waterfalls too. Wagner Falls is just south of Munising. You can reach the observation deck that overlooks the falls via a very short trail from a small parking area. Munising Falls is located within city limits where Washington Street turns into Sand Point Road. An 800-foot trail leads to the base of the falls, and two sets of stairs lead to higher platforms for a better viewpoint.
On the Marquette side, Dead River Falls is accessible via a less than 1-mile trail, which starts as an access road. A short walk later, you’ll see a footpath on the left that leads down to the river and the lowest falls. The river drops more than 90 feet, and several waterfalls in it drop more than 15 feet. You can follow the trail upstream to see these other falls.
Additionally, you can go to Pictured Rocks in the winter, which has many more frozen waterfalls and miles of picturesque Lake Superior shoreline to explore. With an average snowfall of about 140 inches every year, you can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice climbing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, and more.
A unique winter activity that isn’t available everywhere is dog sledding. Husky Haven Kennels has been established in the Upper Peninsula since 2014, offering tours on double-driver sleds. The tours give you a chance to take the reins with a professional guiding you along the way. Tours are even available in the summer.
Restaurants Near the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves
Eben Junction doesn’t have a ton of restaurants, but The Snack Bar Restaurant serves breakfast, homemade soups, burgers, seafood, and awesome desserts. In nearby Chatham, The Pub is popular for its great flavor and atmosphere. The restaurant was built as a pool hall in 1926 (during Prohibition) and has become a local hangout.
Chatham is also home to Mama Cow’s, which serves hand-dipped ice cream and more from The Chocolate Shoppe. The menu includes quick burgers and hot dogs. In Au Train to the north, The Brownstone Inn offers fine dining that features a range of sandwich options, burgers, and dinners, such as steak, chicken, and seafood.
For more restaurants, we recommend heading to Munising or Marquette. These cities certainly have plenty of eateries to satiate any appetite:
- Gallery Coffee Company is a unique roastery with delicious brews. In addition to the coffee shop, the 8,000-square-foot building features a gallery and entertainment venue.
- Pictured Rocks Pizza creates gourmet, wood-oven pizzas, and you can build your own with specialty ingredients, such as gluten-free crust. If you’re not in the mood for pizza, the menu includes fresh salads and pastas.
- Driftwood Deli makes delicious sandwiches — pastrami club, Italian grinder, U.P. muffuletta. After you grab a bite, you can get craft beer, cider beer, and wine from ByGeorge Brewing Co. next door.
- Dead River Coffee Roasters is a small-town coffee roaster that serves locally made pastries alongside its brews. Chai tea and tart lemonade are on the menu for non-coffee drinkers.
- Aloha Grill makes Hawaiian barbecue in the “plate lunch” style.
- Lagniappe Cajun Creole Eatery prepares authentic Southern cuisine with creative flair.
Places to Stay Near the Eben Ice Caves
If you’re looking for hotels near the Eben Ice Caves, the Village Inn Motel in Chatham is rated the top hotel in Alger County. It has eight large guest rooms with queen beds and a guest suite with two bathrooms for up to six people. Aside from that, you’ll find well-known hotel brands in Au Train, Munising, and Marquette.
The area has plenty of vacation rentals as well. In Au Train, this Lake Superior Waterfront Cabin is a 3-bed, 2-bath cabin just steps from Lake Superior. It’s a great place to call home and relax when you’re not adventuring around the Upper Peninsula.
In Christmas, Santa’s Shack is a 3-bed, 2-bath home. It’s actually two apartments that are connected by a laundry room, so it has two living rooms and two kitchens. You can find even more vacation rentals in nearby Munising and Marquette.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Eben Ice Caves
Where are the ice caves in Michigan?
The Rock River Canyon Ice Caves are located near Silver Creek just north of Chatham, which is located in the central region of the Upper Peninsula. Marquette is to the northwest, and Munising is to the northeast.
When should I visit the Eben Ice Caves?
The best times to visit the ice caves are in January and February, when it’s cold enough for the ice to form.
How long do the Eben Ice Caves last?
The ice caves usually stay frozen through March and begin to melt in April as temperatures warm up for the spring.
Can I visit the Eben Ice Caves during summer?
You can certainly visit the ice caves in the summer, but you won’t see the icy phenomenon. Instead, there will only be dense foliage and algae-covered bedrock.
Are Michigan ice caves dangerous?
Hiking to the ice caves Michigan features can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared for the icy ground. Exploring the caves could also be dangerous when the ice formations begin to melt. It’s important to keep an eye on the weather before you go.
More Things to Do in Winter in Michigan
There are many more things to do in Michigan in winter. For instance, you could visit family-friendly winter vacation destinations in Michigan or explore one of Michigan’s frozen waterfalls. And if you like outdoor adventures in winter, be sure to try winter camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and plan to visit at least one of the best Michigan ski resorts throughout the state.
Thanks to Christine Snow & Jesse Land for contributing to this article on the Eben Ice Caves near Marquette, Michigan.