Eben Ice Caves
Eben Ice Caves make breathtaking winter excursion
It’s a bright and sunny winter day. The sun is high in the clear baby blue sky and glistens off the snow. You putt down a dirt road with two intimidating ice covered hills and turn right just before the dead end. Another 300 feet and you arrive at a small parking lot on the side of a snow-covered field, imprinted with a trail of footprints leading towards the Eben Ice Caves – a local hidden gem.
“We’re so lucky to have a beautiful day to walk out here,” said Russ LaBeau of Petoskey, who visited the caves on a crisp and sunny Thursday in late March. “The caves are spectacular.”
The LaBeau’s are visiting the breathtaking ice caves for the second time. Suzanne LaBeau, an amateur photographer, has brought along her tripod and snaps pictures in front of the caves. The couple’s German shorthaired pointer Greta wanders around casually sniffing the snow. The surroundings are serene as the sound of dripping water soothes the ears and fresh, pristine air fills the nose.
“We heard about the caves from somebody in the U.P.,” Russ LaBeau said, “We were here before 10 years ago. I’m sure we’ll be back again.”
The LaBeaus are among hundreds of tourists who come to view the Eben Ice Caves located in Alger County each winter. Nestled a mile and a half down North Eben Road in the small town of Eben Junction, from which the caves get their well known nickname, the formations are actually part of the Rock River Canyon Wilderness in the Hiawatha National Forest and are formally known as the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves. The approximately 150-foot deep canyon that the ice caves are found in is a unique land formation in the Upper Peninsula. In the summer there is water seepage down the face of a sandstone cliff that in the winter months freezes to create spectacular ice formations. They are much like the stalactites on the ceiling of a cave as long spheres of ice, resembling oversized icicles, reach down from the ridge of the cliff with some extending 60 feet to the ground and creating a wall of ice. Many tourists enjoy walking behind this wall and into the cave where the floor is covered in ice, resembling a miniature ice rink. This must be done with extreme caution, however, as some of the hanging ice could be broken if touched.
Visitors must approach the caves on foot; because the caves are part of a protected wilderness area where snowmobiles and other mechanized vehicles are prohibited. The mile round-trip begins on a packed trail that meanders through the forest with several steep inclines and a small footbridge crossing. Surrounded by pure white snow and towering hardwoods, the hike is almost as beautiful and serene as the caves themselves. The best month to view the caves is in February when it is coldest, although people often visit all winter long. The Forest Service advises tourists who visit after the weather has begun to warm to use cleats or poles to assist in walking because the trail becomes extremely icy and treacherous.
The caves are not publicized by the National Forest Service because they are in a wilderness area, although travel information can still be obtained through the Munising Ranger District Office. An abundance of information can also be found online, published by Michigan travel sites and other tourists. The Eben Ice Caves even have their own Facebook page run by locals.
“I would say that tourism to the ice caves is definitely increasing,” said Mark Bender who is the Trails and Wilderness Technician for the west side of the Hiawatha National Forest. “They get a lot of advertisement in Marquette which attracts a lot of college students and other residents.”
As word of the ice caves spreads, new amenities have been added by Jim and Heidi Swajanen, who own the field that must be crossed to reach the caves. The Swajanen’s have installed a 30-car parking lot on their property for visitors, along with six porta potties. The latrines sit atop the snow near a plywood hot dog stand, which Heidi Swajanen runs on weekends from the beginning of January to mid-March. Here you can get a warm cup of coffee or cocoa, hot dogs, soda, and chips while mingling with other tourists. There are also several local bars and restaurants to warm up in after exploring the caves.
“It’s obviously a pretty nice place to go,” Mark Bender said, “just a nice half day excursion to spend out in the forest.”