Winter In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: A Beginner’s Guide To The Eben Ice Caves

Frozen Lake Superior | Winter In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: A Beginner’s Guide To The Eben Ice Caves | (Wading in Big Shoes)

I’ve learned that there are two main ways to respond to winter in Michigan:

1. Put on every item of clothing you own and stay inside your house for five to seven months.
2. Put on every item of clothing you own, go outside, and play.

While I’ll admit that I am very much that first person most of the time, I’m thankful for an adventurous husband and friends who enjoy going on adventures (and who graciously bring an outdoor novice like me along for the ride). Last winter, Brad and I joined a group of friends for a cabin getaway in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, just off the shore of Lake Superior in Marquette. It was the second time Brad and I had ever been to the UP, and the first time we’d gone during the winter. I was a tiny bit skeptical of how cold and frozen everything would be, but as it turns out, that’s exactly what made the visit so awesome.

Frozen Lake Superior | Winter In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: A Beginner’s Guide To The Eben Ice Caves | (Wading in Big Shoes)
Frozen Lake Superior - So amazing!

In all honesty, even though we journeyed up north in mid-February, Michigan was in the middle of a very unseasonable heat wave. While many Midwestern cities would see close to 80 degrees that weekend, the UP was looking at a cool high of 60. So, no—I did not freeze my boots off during our trip, but there was plenty of snow piled up from previous weeks and Lake Superior was completely frozen over (and gorgeous). So, in reality, we were able to enjoy the best of both worlds: wintertime activities with springtime temperatures.

The Eben Ice Caves

One of our main group activities that weekend was a hike to the Rock River Canyon Ice Caves, or as they’re more commonly referred to, the Eben Ice Caves. Prior to our trip, I didn’t know much about the ice caves, including what they were or what they would look like. If you’re new to this phenomenon, too, here's the gist:

Located in Hiawatha National Forest’s Rock River Wilderness, the Eben Ice Caves are formed when melting snow and slow-dripping water freeze into giant icicles, forming narrow, cave-like openings between the icicles and surrounding rock formations. To see these natural wonders in person, visitors must hike a two-mile round trip on slippery, ice and snow-covered trails. The sight is an awesome one, but fair warning—it’s not a walk in the park.

Winter In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: A Beginner’s Guide To The Eben Ice Caves | (Wading in Big Shoes)

If you’re intrigued by the Eben Ice Caves and considering a trip to the Marquette/Munising area this winter, check out these tips to decide if a winter hike is right for you.

[Note: the following sections include affiliate links, meaning any purchases you make as a result of clicking through the links will generate a small commission for me (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for helping support this blog!]

Tip #1: Don’t go if you’re not physically able.

If you’ve got a bad hip, or knee, or can’t handle a fall (or five), you might not want to take on the Eben Ice Caves hike. Sure, the beginning is a piece of cake: an easy walk across a snowy field, followed by a trail that’s got a few inconvenient tree roots and elevation changes. Not too long into the journey, however, I remember sliding down a few steep, narrow hills and hoping I didn’t shoot right off the side (falling is one of my biggest fears). Excited that I had conquered the icy luge tracks, I was told by everyone returning from the other direction that those hills were a piece of cake compared to what lay ahead (cue nervous laughter here).

I’ll chalk up my survival to the fact that I’m still a fairly-young adult (and thus able to bear a few bumps and bruises). For comparison, there were a couple of ladies behind us who were talking about their bad knees and having a little trouble keeping up near the beginning of the hike. I didn’t see them make it to the first big hill, and expect that they turned around once they saw the path getting more challenging. Moral of the story: listen to your body and do what’s best for you.

Tip #2: Ice cleats can improve your experience IMMENSELY.

Prior to our Eben Ice Caves hike, my friends and I stopped by a store in downtown Marquette to price ice cleats. Looking at the prices (about $30 for the least expensive pair), Brad and I decided it probably wasn’t worth it for something we might not use more than once. Plus, since we didn’t really know what we were in for, we figured we’d just wing it . . . ya know, slide out onto an open expanse of ice and take a few photos of whatever was waiting in the distance (or something like that). We obviously had no idea what we were getting into.

While it’s true that I wouldn’t use a pair of ice cleats in my normal, everyday life, they definitely would have made the hike a whole lot easier and probably would’ve boosted my ego (and decreased my stress level) about a thousand notches. Looking for a pair of your own? Yaktrax traction cleats are a popular favorite among outdoor enthusiasts. Metal crampons (sharp spikes you wrap around your boots) are also popular for winter activities and are designed to grab onto ice for an even sturdier grip. Whatever you choose, I suggest doing your research and purchasing ahead of time to avoid missing out last-minute like we did!

Tip #3: When in doubt, crouch down low and try to keep your balance.

If you’re without the appropriate traction tools, just do your best and exercise a little extra caution. I hiked to the ice caves in a regular pair of winter boots, and while they still slid on the ice, I practiced a few work-arounds to help me along. My best advice? Don’t go too fast, crouch low when you’re sliding down hills (it helps with balance and you don’t have as far to fall), and look for areas where you can kick your boots into snow and ice for better footholds. This can really bring out your inner adventurer as you brainstorm the best ways to problem-solve and conquer slippery terrain!

Tip #4: Put your pride aside.

Many of my repressed childhood memories involve falling (hey, maybe that’s why I hate it so much!). Falling in roller skates, falling in ice skates, falling down steep hills—it’s never fun, and can be as much of a pride bruiser as it is a literal bruiser.

If you hike to the Eben Ice Caves while wearing ice cleats, you might still slip. If you hike without ice cleats, you will slip a lot and possibly fall a time or two. If you’re a complete klutz, you’re going to fall over and over again. That’s just the way it is, my friend. But if you open your eyes and glance from side to side, you’ll see that many people are doing the same thing. Climbing up and down slick hills isn’t part of our daily requirement list, so don’t be too hard on yourself if and when you stumble. After all, there’s something really cool to look forward to at the end of your hike!

Tip #5: Wear gloves.

It’s winter. It’s cold. Wear gloves—duh, right? In addition to keeping your digits warm, however, a good pair of gloves can protect your hands from sudden falls on the ice (ouch!), help you grip onto tree branches for stability during panic-induced flailings, and keep your hands dry (much more comfortable than damp, frozen fingers!). Consider waterproof gloves to avoid the discomfort of sopping wet knits against your skin, look for a pair with added grip material, and try not to wear anything too bulky. You’ll need to use your hands, so keep them happy and agile!

Tip #6: Enjoy the view!

The Eben Ice Caves are a beautiful sight to behold, so once you arrive at your destination, make sure to take it all in! While I didn’t go inside the frozen “cave” myself (I decided to stand outside where I could keep my balance), the outside view was simply majestic. The caves were crowded that day, so people spread out all around the area, taking photos and even climbing the caves (basically like climbing a frozen waterfall)! Of course, ice cave climbing is a story for another day (to be told by another person with a much higher skill level than me). ;-)

Winter In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: A Beginner’s Guide To The Eben Ice Caves | (Wading in Big Shoes)

Have you visited the Eben Ice Caves (or any other ice caves) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? What was your experience like?

Winter In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: A Beginner’s Guide To The Eben Ice Caves [ via Wading in Big Shoes] // The Eben Ice Caves, located just outside Munising and Marquette in Michigan's upper peninsula, are a picturesque natural wonder. Use these tips to learn what you should do during your first hike to the frozen ice caves!