Eben Ice Caves
ByMikel B. Classen
Dog sleds, skis, snowshoes, and hiking, I’ve seen all methods used to get to the Eben Ice Caves in Eben Junction, Michigan. Though the trail is not long, it’s far enough to make a fun winter jaunt any method you use. This is one of the best prescriptions for cabin fever there is. After the Eben Ice Caves, one of the highlights of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula natural winter wonders, you feel awed by winter’s artistry. If you get out at all in the snow, this should be one of your mandatory destinations.
Nineteen miles southwest of Munising on M-94 or 29 miles southeast of Marquette in Alger County is Eben Junction. As the name implies, it is little more than a crossroads with a few homes clustered nearby. The attraction of the caves is known by all of the locals and they are willing to give directions to the exact location. There is both a bar and a store on the corner and the people in each place are friendly and informative. To get there, turn north from this corner and go about a mile and a half to where the road turns 90ø right. Go around this and follow the road another half-mile until the next 90ø turn and park. You will be facing an open pasture.
Walk through an open old wooden gateway into the field. This is the beginning of the footpath and all modes of cross-country winter travel are used on this trail which packs it hard enough for easy walking. I’ve gone several times and was always able to walk it on foot with never any struggle or sinking.
The trail goes straight across the pasture and enters a woods of virtually all maple. An occasional Yellow Birch or Elm can be seen but they’re very few and far apart. The walking path slopes gently as the trail meanders between the tall straight hardwoods. It is easy to picture the dense foliage this must have in the summer, but still it wouldn’t have the ever present feeling of freshness and clarity that comes only from a winter day.
Continuing its downward trend, the trail turns and reveals an old log cabin on the left. It is an old hunting shack which looks as if it is still sometimes used. The door is locked and not open to the public but it makes for a bonus sight along the way. The log work is hand-hewn and in a traditional one room style. A small example of the “old” U.P. This is the landmark for the halfway point to the main attraction.
Past the cabin, the trail dips again and enters a lush cedar thicket. It winds among the greenery adding new colors and wonderful smells into the winter air. The forest floor is covered with Snowshoe Hare tracks. Walk quietly and chances are good that, with an observant eye, you’ll see several. Their white coat makes excellent camouflage, but they’re there.
As you walk farther you emerge from this collection of cedars and on the left is a steep ridge while the trail leads to some large trees. They’re some of the largest I’ve seen in the U.P. The trail skirts the ridge for a few yards and then suddenly you’re standing on the edge. Looking down, a panorama of ice is spread below your feet. We’re here.
There, in a rock grotto, is the ice caves. The long thick icicles have taken on mineralic colors. The trail descends sharply from here. A long thick rope for handhold is strung between the trees to the bottom. The trail stops in front of the ice formations that hang twenty feet long or more.
They’re formed, hundreds of them clustered together, brown, tan, beige, blue, and white. The sight is breathtaking. Water can be heard running over and through them which doesn’t seem possible this time of year, but the spring water’s flow is the required ingredient for this spectacle of Mother Nature’s finest winter artistry.
Some pieces that have fallen lay like broken Roman columns at a ruined city. Some of the spectators try to see shapes in the ice like some people do with clouds. Walking inside the cave is like stepping into a wonderland. Nooks and crannies exhibit intricate formations highlighted by freshly blown snow. Some ice is newly born, still forming while old ones dangle broken and lay shattered.
The grotto that all of this is continually created in, is situated halfway up on a ridge that descends 200 yards into a stream that runs below. The location is utterly picturesque in every aspect. The sandstone and shale wall that makes up the rear half of the caves, curves inward in a concave fashion while the spring water trickles from the top, so that while tons of ice is building down the front, the concave wall makes it possible to walk behind the ice like it’s possible to walk behind some waterfalls. Walking between the ice and rock wall is an unusual if not a slightly eerie experience, but this is what creates the cave effect, one side ice and the other rock.
Upon entering the cave, I notice a definite temperature drop. Though everything is water and stone, there is no musty smell; it’s fresh and clean. Constantly water can be heard running and splashing over the ice. Small tunnels of ice run in random directions. The formations are shaped just like limestone stalactites and stalagmites. Countless tiny ones make up the whole of the large ones. The natural intricacies are wonderfully beautiful, especially in the sunlight though beauty is always there and breathtaking no matter what type of weather. One of the things that struck me the most was the realization that in non-winter months, the water flow is a small stream less than a foot wide.
This is a fascinating and satisfying sight for anyone looking for something different to do during the long cold winter months. Because the water is always flowing, the ice is always building and changing throughout the year so more than one trip a year can bring new things each time. This is one of the U.P.’s winter wonders so go see it. Don’t forget the camera!
Content copyright . Mikel Classen. All rights reserved.