Sunday, January 8, 2017

Eben Ice Caves

Ice Stalactites - Eben Ice Caves, MichiganThe Eben Ice Cave take center stage in this inaugural post on the Macro Michigan blog.  This unique winter spectacle occurs north of the Upper Peninsula hamlet of Eben Junction.  Eben Junction lies about twenty-two miles southwest of Munising or about thirty-three miles southeast of Marquette on M-94.  When you arrive at the four corners of Eben Junction on M-94, you will need to turn north on Eben Road.  There will be (or has been in the past) a yellow hand-painted sign attached to the street sign pointing in the direction of the "Ice Caves".  Follow Eben Road about 1 1/2 miles to the north until it intersects with Frey Road onto which you will turn right (east) and follow about another 1/2 mile.  Frey Road leads to the residence of a generous neighbor whose property abuts the federal land on which the Eben Ice Caves reside.  Please respect the private property owners that have opened their field for people to cross and have created a parking area for the adventurers that wish to visit the caves.  Also, please consider dropping a few dollars into the donation tube to offset the cost of the porta-potties and keeping the parking lot cleared.

National Forest Service Sign - Eben Ice Caves, MichiganFrom the parking area, you walk east about 1,200 feet across the private field until you and enter into the wooded federal land of the Hiawatha National Forest.  You will continue eastward for a few hundred more feet until you reach a sign for the ice caves erected by the National Forest Service.  The sign states that it is about a one mile round trip to the ice caves from the sign.  While it may be a mile trip, as you will quickly learn, the terrain makes it feel longer.  From this sign you will turn northward and walk along a relatively flat trail through a pleasant maple forest.  Eventually, the trail starts to angle to the northeast and then to the east, as you start to gradually descend along the south canyon wall.

Canyon Wall - Eben Ice Caves, Michigan
The descent along the canyon is relatively easy most of the way, but a few steeper areas add to the difficulty.  These areas can be fairly slippery depending on how much foot traffic has packed down the snow and if the temperatures have allowed for thawing and refreezing into slicker terrain.  Eventually, the trail will come to an area that has a steep incline to the right (south) that leads up to the canyon wall or straight ahead (east) and down to a small stream.  You have a choice to make of either going up the incline to the right to reach the ice caves or to go further down an walk up the stream to the ice caves.  Either route can be slippery depending on the previous traffic and weather.  The day we visited in January 2016, the trail had been well packed and was very slippery coupled with the previous few days being warmer than usual.  There were several families with small children and the kids were having a difficult time climbing the icy slopes.  The final section of the path is more difficult than you would expect given the easy hike up to that point and anyone planning on visiting should be aware of that before making the trek.  It is highly advisable that visitors use ice treads like Yaktrax to give added traction on the slippery hills and the ice around the ice caves themselves.  We used the coil style Yaktrax on our boots and had no problem traversing the packed snow and thick ice.

The ice caves are actually on long section of the canyon wall, about 150 feet, where water seeps through the rock face and freezes in the beautiful columns of ice.  There is a small stream that trickles over the middle section of the cliff, but otherwise this is not a waterfall that creates the ice formation.

Taking care not to slip on the icy "cave" floor (this is where the luxury of ice treads become very evident), you may pass behind the ice columns to see the back side of the ice formations and the translucent green, yellow, and brown colors in the ice that shine as they are lit from the outside light.  The canyon wall faces north and the sun does not shine directly on the ice columns, but the ice is transparent enough that even on an overcast day it is bright behind the wall of ice.

You may hike back to the parking lot along the same route you came or, if you are surefooted enough, you may climb up the canyon wall to the east of the ice caves.  There are several trees on which you may brace yourself and thick roots you may grip to pull yourself up the wall.  This is not the most ideal route to take especially if it is icy, but it will give you a few different, albeit restricted, views of the ice from above the canyon wall.  The benefit to climbing up to this level is that you may walk back to the starting point on a level trail without the ups and downs along the inbound trail.