The 20-foot-tall columns of ice at the Eben Ice Caves take on an ephemeral glow, surrounded by snow-laden woods and nestled into a rock face in the Rock River Canyon Wilderness area of the Hiawatha National Forest.
Mark Bender, recreation technician at the U.S. Forest Service Munising Ranger District Office, is responsible for the trails in the Rock River Canyon.
“On weekends it gets a lot of use,” Bender said. “Tour buses drop people off. Two winters ago we were counting one day and we had over 350 people on one Saturday afternoon.” He said he estimates about 5,000 people visit the caves every winter.
“We don’t advertise it because it is a wilderness area, so we don’t encourage people to go there,” Bender said. “But it is public land so folks certainly can visit.”
He explained that the caves are formed by seeping ground water.
“It drips in the summer, but there’s no waterfall,” Bender said. “But in winter, it’s all moving downhill and gradually freezes to create these ice caves.”
District Ranger Charles Marsh said visitors do need to take caution; wear layers and cover skin in cold weather, and when it warms up, be careful of unstable ice.
“It usually starts freezing in December and begins to melt in March or almost anytime,” Marsh said. “If we get 40-degree temperatures in January, the ice is going to start melting. As it warms up, they’re less stable and begin to break and fall off.”
He said the giant ice formations can be dangerous.
“What we don’t want to have happen is people knocking these things down,” Marsh said. “They could get hurt, or worse. And if ice climbers are there, keep a safe distance.”
He also recommended suitable footwear. Cross country skis and snowshoes make travel easier, he said, and Bender recommended anti-slip footwear.
“The main safety issue is the trail going down because it gets so much use and so packed down,” Bender said. “The trail can get icy and it’s pretty hilly, so I recommend folks either bring clamp-ons or some kind of things for your boots; they’re rubber. Yaktrax.”
Yaktrax walker traction cleats are available at local sports stores and on Amazon for between $8 and $30.
Bender said the parking lot and field one crosses to reach the trail are private property. The only other access would be on the east end of the wilderness, which would necessitate a four mile hike from Rock River Road to get to the caves, he said, as opposed to just one mile currently.
“We’re very fortunate that they let folks park on their property,” Bender said. “It’s a unique situation. When you walk across the field and you come to the woods, the left side is national forest property and the right is private property.”
Keeping the area litter-free is very important to maintain the access and beauty of the caves, he said.
Eben Ice Caves’ Facebook page, administrated by Patricia Nesberg and Heidi Swajanen, posted a thank you yesterday to all those keeping the trail clean, as well as a caution in light of the frigid weather.
“The law enforcement officer from Hiawatha National Forest was in Rock River Café today for lunch and says the trail is slippery, so please be cautious and wear anti-slip gear,” the post said. “He also said there’s no sign of litter in the area. We all appreciate care be given to the Wilderness Area you’re walking into. Thanks for keeping it beautiful.”
Bender said the park rangers do minimal clean-up in winter, but collect litter in the summer that was buried under the snow.
“I’ve been here about five years and I’ve been out there maybe 15, 20 times,” he said. “It’s a neat place, but I would avoid going on the weekends when there are so many people. I recommend going early on weekdays to get the real wilderness experience, but that’s just me.”
Senior environmental science major Kris Weirenga said he visited the caves Saturday, Jan. 25 in the early evening.
“Other than the drive, it’s easy to get to,” he said. “They make it really accessible. There are [porta-] johns out there and a concession stand.”
He said the caves were breathtaking.
“The hike in is really easy,” he said. “Even if you don’t really have a lot hiking experience, you’ll certainly enjoy your time.”
Neil Poglese, senior biology major and three-year president of the South Superior Climbing Club, said while people do climb at Eben Ice Caves, it’s not as popular as other climbing destinations like Hogback Mountain, Hidden Beach (both on CR-550) and in Munising along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
“As far as the club goes, we try to herd people away from it so [the caves] don’t get damaged,” he said. “With people playing and walking around underneath, ice falling would not be a good thing.”
He said he has enjoyed visiting them though.
“They’re really amazing,” he said. “You don’t really get to see a formation like that even in Munising on a regular basis, where you can actually walk in behind them. They’re kind of a gem in the middle of nowhere.”
How Do You Get There?
Starting from Marquette, head south on US-41 (toward Escanaba) for about twelve miles, and then turn left on M-94.
After turning left onto M-94, travel east (toward Chatham) for about 12 miles. You will then find yourself in the small town of Eben.
Take a left turn onto Eben Road and then travel north for about one mile, then take a right onto Frey Road. Head straight on Frey Road for about one mile until you come across a small parking lot. There are some outhouses, a blue building and a white concession stand.
You will begin walking straight (east) across a big field to a trail in the woods. This trail is easy to follow in the winter and about one mile to the ice caves. There are a few steep declines and inclines to the trail, so boots with grippy soles are a good choice.