Lately I’ve been spending time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a place home to wolves, moose, and other wildlife, with very few inhabited towns, and lots of densely forested parks and nature preserves. Because the lands “up north” are largely untouched and undeveloped, it’s the wildest region of the state. Last week, we drove 7.5 hours north of where we live to hike to, climb into, and explore the Eben Ice Caves, a series of frozen caves near Lake Superior inside the canyon at Rock River Wilderness Area of Hiawatha National Forest. To reach them, we not only had a long, snowy drive to the UP, but we also enjoyed a gorgeous, snowy hike of about 4 hours round trip to reach them. Read on to learn what we packed, how we got there, what there is to do at the caves, and the experience level required to successfully navigated the ice caves.
What to Wear
There’s no possible way we could have made it to the ice caves without ice cleats (we used these and they literally saved our lives, but more on that later). Both the hike to and the areas inside and around the caves are very icy, with steep slopes, and 20+ foot steeply sloping drops, making the journey very treacherous. These ice cleats allowed us to stick our feet into the ice and walk down the slick, icy surfaces without any trouble at all. It was a very strange sensation, because my brain knew I should have been slipping and sliding, as a few other hikers who weren’t prepared were and were then forced to turn back. Yet, with ice cleats, we were able to walk on angled sheets of ice with no issues whatsoever.
I slipped my ice cleats over my favorite L.L. Bean Bean Boots, which are the perfect blend of a hiking boot and waterproof shoe. On there own, they weren’t warm enough for the below freezing temperatures (it was -4º F when we arrived), so I wore two pairs of thermal socks, knit leg warmers, as well as a fleece lined, water resistant leggings over my usual hiking pants, and along with other standard winter wear (long down coat, hat, gloves, and a wool/cashmere scarf), I was the perfect temperature all throughout the four hour hike. Although the hiking paths to reach the caves are generally covered in snow, I don’t recommend snow shoes, since they won’t give you any additional traction, and will cause you to slip even more. We saw several people attempting the icy hike into the caves in snow shoes and they didn’t make it in very far without falling and they then required assistance to get back out.
The Trailhead address is Frey Rd, Deerton, MI 49822. Once there, park along the roadside and walk across the field to the trailhead.
There isn’t much information about the hike that I could find online other than the fact that there is a family who owns some farm land who opens it in the winter as a shortcut, cutting the total hike just to reach the first cave from 6+ hours down to just over an hour and a half to reach the first cave. Thanks to their generosity the hike to the ice caves is made much more accessible. They don’t charge anything to park on or access their land during daylight hours, however they do offer restrooms, and a concession stand, plus there is a donation jar, where you can give the family a bit of money to thank them for providing such great amenities to everyone. I suggest donating $10 per person and picking up a drink on your way out, to thank them for keeping the paths to the trailhead cleared, and making the trek to the ice caves much safer by allowing us to use their shortcut.
Once we parked and hiked up to the trailhead, we were surprised to see it was somewhat crowded. There were probably 100 other people around us at the trailhead, and most were not properly outfitted with ice spikes, proper winter gear, and many people were pregnant or carrying small children. The hike was quite dangerous, so the number of other people rapidly dropped off as they gave up and turned back. Once we passed the first ice cave, we didn’t see many people. In fact, when we reached the third ice cave, we didn’t see anyone else around us for about half an hour, meaning that only about 5% of people actually went to the end of the chain of ice caves.
Difficulty & Dangers
If you’re in decent physical shape and have some hiking experience, the hike is simple and straightforward, and the path is clearly marked as it is packed down from other hikers. However, I don’t recommend attempting the hike if you are pregnant, have any injuries, lack the proper gear, or if you have small children, because it can be quite dangerous. Past the first ice cave we didn’t see a single child, as parts of the trail make for a grueling hike in deep snow, over fallen log bridges across running rivers below, and icy drops into deep snow. I also do not recommend bringing a dog unless it is on a leash and very well behaved, because we witnessed someone get knocked off a steep drop, who then fell about six feet straight onto ice after someone else’s dog ran into them and knocked them over the edge. Thankfully it was a tough teenage guy who, despite having the wind knocked out of him, was otherwise unharmed. Had that been someone else, like a young child or an older person, they could have been seriously injured in the fall.
On our way back out of the ice caves, we witnessed an ambulance and emergency rescue team rushing in to help someone, but we never saw what had happened or who was brought out. There is a lot of potential for injury since the hike is steep, sharply curving, and very icy. Plus, at the first and second ice caves, we saw areas where people had pushed on the massive ice spikes, some of which were as wide as 3-4 people standing together, and caused them to fall, which is dangerous for obvious reasons. If you wear the proper equipment, which is really just ice spikes and winter wear, stay on the path, and don’t touch anything (also known as basic hiking 101) you will have a wonderful, safe time.
We remarked several times how absolutely gorgeous the hike was, especially as we went deeper into the forest and got farther away from others. The trail itself leads to a series of absolutely stunning ice caves, which you can walk into and through, although they are not very deep, they are very otherworldly, and surprisingly romantic. Despite how incredible these 50’+ high ice caves and icy waterfalls were, I think my favorite part was being in such a pristine tundra, enjoying fresh air unlike anything in metro-Detroit where we currently live.
The snow was so white and pure that it glowed in the early morning sun, and the beautiful variety of conifers meant that the forest, despite it being the middle of winter, was a beautiful, vibrant green color, dusted perfectly with snow, almost like a scene out of a snow globe. Little patches of exposed limestone stuck out here and there from the cliff faces and presented themselves in a menagerie of striking colors, many covered partially with soft, green moss. Many of the tree limbs had cute little lichen in shades of blue, browns, and greens clinging to them, waiting for warmer weather.
They dynamic scenery of Northern Michigan was perfectly summed up in this one hike. We passed by beautiful, icy lakes to reach the trailhead, and the hike lead us up and down a wondrously winding walkway alongside a quickly flowing river, that while treacherous, was simply breathtaking in its natural beauty due to the variety of unique plants and wildlife it sustained. We spotted a few uncommon birds flying overhead, we saw a bald eagle, and we even saw a pair of foxes running in the small valley below the third ice cave. It was truly a magical experience.
If you have a free weekend this winter, I couldn’t recommend visiting one of Michigan’s finest natural treasures more. Make a weekend of it and stay in nearby Munising, and spend a beautiful, wintery weekend exploring Hiawatha National Forest just like we did. If you love hiking and the outdoors as much as my husband and I do, you will positively adore this wintery wonderland.
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