For all of our travels to the Upper Peninsula over the years, with our three kids and sometimes just the two of us, we somehow missed a pretty spectacular attraction: the Eben Ice Caves, just outside of Marquette. During a recent weekend north, however, we made sure to include a stop at the small town of Eben Junction, where we could hike into the woods and discover vertical walls of ice formed by water seeping through the sandstone bedrock cliff edge.
We definitely weren’t alone in wanting to check out this natural wonder.
Driving toward the parking area, we encountered a string of vehicles and people lining the side of the snow-covered gravel road that leads to the private farmland we’d walk through to enter Hiawatha National Forest and Rock River Canyon Wilderness, home to the ice caves. (More on the private land walk-through below.) Because of the crowds—it was a stunning sunny Saturday afternoon—we had to walk about a mile from our car to get to the farmland path. Tip: If you’re looking for a slightly quieter experience, you may want to try going mid-week.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning a trip to the Eben Ice Caves in the next few weeks (there’s still time to catch ‘em!):
A winter wonder
The Eben Ice Caves aren’t true “caves,” but rather curtain-like walls of ice you can walk alongside and behind. They form as the temperature drops and intermittent leaks create ice stalactites over the entrance to the bedrock undercuts. It was interesting to learn that while ice caves are a phenomenon in the winter, a summer visit would reveal algae-covered rocks and dense foliage in the same spot.
Finding the caves
The caves are located 25 miles east of Marquette and 15 miles west of Munising. From Munising, take Highway M-94 west about 17 miles to Eben Junction. At the New Moon Bar, turn right and travel north about two miles on the narrow gravel road. Turn right onto Frey Street and that will lead you to a parking area.
The route to the ice caves requires visitors to park on private land and cross over a private field before entering the wilderness area, or public land. The landowners have generously allowed portable bathrooms for visitor use, and they also have a concession stand onsite.
The hike (bring your shoe traction!)
The hike from the parking lot to the caves is just under a mile. The first section is flat, through a field, but then you’re in the woods—it’s a lovely, meandering hike through towering trees. We were grateful to have worn shoe traction, though—a tip from a friend—especially as we got closer to the caves and found the ground ice-covered and quite slippery at times. It made the experience way more enjoyable. We like our Kahtoola NANOspikes, but use your favorite kind.
A fair amount of people, including families with happy and excited young kids, milled about the ice caves the day we visited. Seeing the ice caves up close meant climbing a fairly steep slope. But we took our time, made sure our footing was good, and we eventually made our way to the top. It was worth the climb! We spent some time checking out the waterfall-like ice and took lots of pictures. By the time we left, walked back to the parking lot and then on to our car, we had logged four miles—a just-right wintry workout of a hike featuring a memorable Michigan natural experience to boot.
Capturing the Beauty of the Caves
Headed out to the caves to take pictures? Here are a few tips from photographer Liam Kaiser:
First and foremost, always be prepared for the weather. Michigan winters are fierce and temperatures can become dangerously cold if not properly equipped. Make sure to check the weather before heading out. A good tip and saying I’ve learned from adventuring outside is: “start cool and end warm” (this’ll help to prevent you from overheating). Also, wear layers! If you get too hot, you can always shed a layer. The hike is just over three miles round trip, so be prepared to cover some distance.
Second: traction. Given the high traffic the ice caves get, it’s not uncommon for the trail to get icy and slick. Pro tip: Invest in a pair of Yack Tracks. These adjustable ice cleats will be a lifesaver for getting up and down the steep slopes on the way to the caves. You can find a pair at your local outdoors outfitter for around $20. Seriously, you won’t be disappointed, and it could very well save you from taking a nasty fall.
Third: the camera! The ice caves are a breathtaking sight and a perfect place to snap some pictures. My tip? Have fun! They say the best camera is the one that you have on you. You don’t need a professional camera to take stunning pictures, especially when shooting something as cool as the caves. Try playing around with different camera angles, high, low or somewhere in between. Take lots of pictures. You’d be surprised what you can get after just a few minutes of shooting. And if you are a photography nerd like me, a wide-angle lens is a great tool for capturing an entire scene.
Last, always remember to pick up after yourself. Take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. Places like the ice caves aren’t to be taken for granted—having access to outdoor places like this is a privilege. Take care of them. No one likes seeing trash on the trail; don’t be the person that leaves it behind.