Rock River Canyon Ice Caves, commonly known as Eben Ice Caves are tucked away in Hiawatha National Forest near…well, they’re not really near anything. You must navigate a series of backroads, park in an unmarked lot, trek across a farmers field, traverse a frozen trail through the woods and try not to slip on ice hills before eventually arriving at Eben Ice Caves. It’s basically a scene from Frozen but you actually feel the cold and there is no popcorn…but is it worth the effort you ask? You bet!
I realize I got a little ahead of myself, so let’s rewind a bit. Although Eben Ice Caves are not off the main road, they are still very accessible and are relatively well marked. I learned of the Ice Caves from Jackie, one of the owners of Snowy Plains Kennel after an exhilarating dog sled ride, which you can read about here: Michigan Dog Sledding with Snowy Plains Kennel. She offered to write down some quick directions and what we ended up with was an incredibly detailed map with play-by-play directions. It would have been impossible to get lost! I believe the effort put into this map is a testament to some of the folks you meet in the UP.
For those of you not fortunate enough to be provided with an incredibly detailed, handwritten map – there are handmade signs that are consistently placed and easy to follow once you get closer to the Ice Caves.
Upon arrival to the trailhead parking lot, you will know you are in the right place because there are likely a few other cars, portable toilets, and a small building. From the parking lot, you walk straight back toward the woods and unless there has been fresh snow and no visitors, it will be pretty well matted down. As you arrive to the edge of the woods you’ll find a sign from the Hiawatha National Forest giving a little synopsis of the area. I found it very interesting that the large field you must cross between the parking lot and this sign is private land and the owner has been kind enough to allow people to use it. As the sign highlights, the route to the Ice Caves would be a lot longer than 1.1 miles roundtrip without the use of this land.
The trail leading to the Ice Caves winds through the wooded forest seen below. The ground is flat for a while but becomes steeper and a little more challenging as you get closer to the caves. For that reason, I would HIGHLY recommend purchasing a pair of Yak Trax – as mentioned in my Winter Van Camping in Iceland post, I completely forgot to put these on and sincerely regretted it…again.
The closer you get to the caves the trail begins to slope downward. During our visit, and I’m guessing more often than not, the hill basically becomes an ice luge. Now I’m not referring to the ice luge seen during the Olympics, where two dudes in spandex onesies sit on each others lap and race down a walled icy labyrinth which guides them safely to the bottom. I’m also not talking about the kind at your neighbor’s house during a mid-summer cul-de-sac party full of cheap liquor and diseases from the random dude that showed up. I’m talking about the kind where you fall really hard on your back in front of a bunch of strangers, slide out of control down a large hill while hoping to avoid colliding with trees, rocks, protruding branches and/or other people. When I go back, I will be removing the Yak Trax from my vehicle and putting them on my feet like a responsible Ice Cave visitor.
Now that you’ve heard my Smokey the Bear-esque safety briefing, let’s get back to the main event. Our first view of the Eben Ice Caves was pretty spectacular but we still had to make our way down so we could explore the inside. It wasn’t easy but we made the treacherous hike down by slowly moving from tree to tree. Once we survived the trek down we finally had the opportunity to take a look at these incredible caves.
After taking a few photos and roaming around the outside of the cave (where the ground is also icy), I decided it was time to explore the inside. As we walked beneath the entrance to the cave, I looked up and saw some murderous looking icicles hanging from the ceiling. I noticed other people hanging around at the entrance, posing for photos and such…not me, being impaled by a 4-foot icicle doesn’t sound like a great way to die. I mean, it’s probably up there with the better stories of ways to go, but I’m not quite ready for that.
As I headed into the cave, I struck a balance between moving quickly past the danger zone, but slowly enough to not fall on the sheet of ice below my feet. Upon entering the cave, the lighting changed as it was filtered through thick layers of ice with blue, yellow and green hues. There was plenty of room to walk from one side of the cave to the other, I was surprised at how spacious it was. I thought, “It would be awesome to camp in here,” but figured it’s frowned upon by park rangers.
After hanging out at the ice caves for a while, we decided it was time to head back as it was already late and the sun was going down. After making our way down to the caves, we thought the hard part was over but it turns out we had to go back up the hill we just came down. It is possible to take a lower trail that provides a gradual incline back to the parking lot. Or, you can scale a hill on the left side of the ice cave and get the uphill part over with. From the bottom, we could tell it was super slippery because people were falling constantly, which was highly entertaining but definitely sketchy, to say the least. We opted to take our chances and after a lot of slipping and sliding, we made it to the top with our body’s mostly intact and headed for the car.
I definitely recommend visiting the Eben Ice Caves if you find yourself in the UP during the long winter months. This said, make sure you pick up some Yak Trax to ensure you’re able to grip the snow and ice while exploring the caves and the area around them. When you have the proper equipment, you can spend more time enjoying the caves and less time worrying about injuring and/or publicly embarrassing yourself.
For those of you who prefer straight lines, color, and more detailed road markings I have included a map I borrowed from the Internet below.
Let me know if you’ve had a chance to visit the Eben Ice Caves below. If you have, how was your experience? Did you stay on your feet the whole time?