When it comes to the Eben Ice Caves, two things immediately spring to my mind: (1) you should definitely go, and (2) you should definitely wear ice cleats.
These ice caves in Michigan are well worth a visit because, seriously, why wouldn’t you want to check out spectacular ice formations in the middle of a beautiful Upper Peninsula wilderness? The ice cleats or spikes are essential because the caves are, well, made of ice.
Each winter, the ice caves form in Rock River Canyon Wilderness, located within Hiawatha National Forest.
Tips for Driving to the Eben Ice Caves Trailhead
The Ice Caves are centrally located and would make a very manageable jaunt from Munising, Marquette, or Escanaba.
Wherever you’re starting out, I would recommend jotting down the directions or setting your GPS before leaving, as you likely won’t have cell reception by the time you get there. I never have.
I was coming from Marquette. In less than forty minutes and a total of three turns, I was there.
If you’re unaccustomed to winter driving, I would recommend proceeding with caution and giving yourself more room to stop than you think you need.
Eben Junction consists of a small assemblage of buildings clustered around a crossroads—a school, a post office, a diner, a couple of churches, and a bar.
I turned left onto North Eben Road. In the summer, this section of the road is unpaved. In the winter, the dirt becomes paved with a layer of hard-packed snow.
The rolling white hills on either side were dotted here and there with dark brown cattle.
When I turned left at Frey Rd., I could see that the parking lot was getting crowded. Cars had started parking along the shoulder of the road. Thankfully, I found a parking space in the lot without too much trouble.
New in 2023: brothers Jim and Matt Rondeau, who own land right next to the trailhead, decided to build a parking lot on their property and open it to the public to help with the parking situation. The parking lots include plenty of space for visitors and emergency responders as well as public restrooms.
While the ice caves themselves are within the Hiawatha National Forest, the trailhead that gets you to them is on private land. The owner has granted the public access to their land for this purpose.
Although there is no fee for visiting the ice caves, donations are accepted to cover the cost of maintaining the facilities.
Need more detailed directions? Check out How to Get to the Eben Ice Caves (updated in 2023).
Most Saturdays and Sundays, visitors can buy refreshments and rent ice cleats out of a trailer next to the parking area.
Weekends are the busiest days at the ice caves. Even early-ish on a Sunday morning, the place was already pretty lively.
Whenever large numbers of people get out into the natural world, they have the potential to do a lot of damage. That’s why the U.S. Forest Service encourages visitors to practice the Leave No Trace principles.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Visiting the Eben Ice Caves
- Do wear ice cleats.
- Don’t leave anything other than footprints behind.
- Do bring water and snacks.
- Don’t use any glass containers. Plastic and metal containers are encouraged–just be sure to take them with you when you leave.
- Do respect the wildlife and your fellow visitors.
- Don’t mess with plants, animals, rocks, or trees and definitely don’t take any of them with you.
- Do make sure you have space on your phone or memory card to take lots of pictures.
Hiking Through Rock River Canyon Wilderness
I crossed over a treeless expanse of snow. To my left, an old wooden barn crouched in the distance, weathered and grey. In all directions, a wall of bare trees obscured the horizon. The sunlight that filtered through the low-lying clouds was cold and diffuse.
This first part of the trail is private land. As I reached the tree line, I came upon a colorful collection of parked snowmobiles, which marked the beginning of the Rock River Canyon Wilderness.
After entering the Rock River Canyon Wilderness, the ice caves are about a half-mile walk through the woods.
I encountered a few groups of people headed back up from the ice caves. Usually, there was an exchange of greetings.
Scraggly bare trees poked out of the smooth, undulating surface of the snow. As a strong gust of wind came through, the trees swayed and creaked. The sound was weighty and resonant and reminded me of being on an old wooden ship in a storm.
I crossed the gently rolling terrain and began to descend.
The trees switched from bare and deciduous to green and coniferous. The trail became increasingly rugged.
I came to a place where the path dropped down into a gorge. To my right, the ground slanted upward toward the ice caves.
The Winter Beauty of the Eben Ice Caves
Pale, greenish-yellow stalactites of ice hung from a sandstone ledge while dark green cedar trees erupted from the snow above.
The site is less impressive in the warmer months. The sheets of icicles are not formed by a rushing waterfall but rather by a slow and constant trickle. Like the stalactites and stalagmites of limestone caves, these ice formations come about through gradual deposition.
Footprints in the snow indicated what were probably the most efficient ways to get closer.
It was here that the ice cleats really came in handy. Most of the other hikers appeared to be wearing them. The few who were not were easily identified by their tendency to end up on the ground.
The jagged opening of the ice caves somewhat resembles the mouth of some kind of large, carnivorous animal, but that didn’t stop most people, me included, from going inside and snapping some pictures.
The people milling about on the ice in their different colored parkas reminded me of the painting Winter Landscape with Skaters by Hendrick Avercamp—the one with all the 17th-century Dutch people skating on a frozen river.
I usually like my wilderness areas to be less crowded, but I found something comforting about the communal experience that morning. There we were, a group of people and one dog, all brought together by the Eben Ice Caves and the childlike wonder they inspire.
Article contributed by Alastar Dimitrie