Michigan's Upper Peninsula is known for its year-round beauty but in the winter months its snowy landscapes rank No. 1 in the U.S.A. One of the most unique and breathtaking experiences in the U.P. is touring its ice caves. These natural formations near Lake Superior let you enter a magical world of ice and snow. In this article, we'll explore the best ice caves to visit in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and how to make the most of your winter adventure.
WHAT ARE ICE CAVES?
HOW THEY FORM
Ice caves are not true caves. They are walls of stalactite ice that form on small and large cliffs. As water seeps through the cliff’s cracks, it freezes as it flows to the ground below. As more water flows and freezes, the ice wall thickens into intricate formations in clear, white, blue and mineral-stained colors. The ice caves are never the same each year.
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT
The best time to tour the ice caves is from January through March after weeks of freezing temperatures form the ice walls and the caves are stable enough to explore. The thawing and freezing of these caves can be dangerous, so check the weather and ice conditions before planning your trip.
WHERE TO FIND ICE CAVES IN MICHIGAN'S UPPER PENINSULA
EBEN ICE CAVES
The "Rock River Canyon Wilderness Ice Caves," better known as the Eben Ice Caves, are one of the U.P.’s premier winter destinations. They are in the Hiawatha National Forest near the small town of Eben Junction, about 25 miles east of Marquette and 15 miles west of Munising.
The route to these ice caves is nearly two miles round trip. It requires parking on and crossing private land before entering the Wilderness public land. Please consider leaving a donation to thank the landowners.
TRAIL CONDITIONS & CAUTIONS
The trail and interior of the caves are hard-packed, slippery and treacherously steep in some sections. For your safety, wear traction cleats, crampons or snowshoes with metal teeth.
Watch your small children closely along the trail. There is a creek and ravines that they could easily fall into and get injured.
You will enter the ice caves at your own risk. Temperature changes can make the ice columns unstable. Beware of large chunks of ice falling unexpectedly.
PICTURED ROCKS NATIONAL LAKESHORE
The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is home to some of the most stunning sandstone cliffs and ice caves in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This ancient, geological masterpiece stretches 42 miles along the pristine, southern coast of Lake Superior between Munising and Grand Marais.
An easy place to view ice curtains is along the inland cliff escarpment between Munising Falls and Sand Point. Park in the Sand Point Beach parking lot (no parking is allowed on the road) and walk a ¼ to a ½ mile to see the base of the ice. For a top-down view, snowmobile to the Munising Falls parking lot and snowshoe or hike to the overlook. Please do not walk or snowshoe on the groomed cross-country ski trail.
You can also test your brawn and grit while ice-climbing these curtains. Please check the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Facebook page for park closures and ice conditions before coming. Not into chopping axes into ice? It’s fun to watch!
Grand Island National Recreation Area
Just off the coast of Munising, Grand Island National Recreation Area is another popular spot for ice cave adventurers. You can only access the island in the winter by snowmobile, cross-country skis or snowshoes. You must travel across the ice from Munising at your own risk, as there are no guarantees that Lake Superior is solid or safe. The most popular ice cave is Grand Island Ice Cave, which is known for its crystal-clear ice.
TIPS FOR TOURING ICE CAVES
Touring ice caves in Michigan's Upper Peninsula can be a chilly experience. Wear warm, waterproof boots or snowshoes with good traction, as the trails and caves are very slippery. Layer with warm, waterproof clothing, and don't forget gloves, a hat and a scarf to protect your extremities from the cold.
BRING THE RIGHT GEAR
Wear a headlamp or bring a flashlight for navigating in the caves, as they can be dark and narrow in some areas. Carrying a cell phone, compass, water and snacks is especially important when exploring Grand Island or the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. You will want to have a camera ready to capture the ice formations and your winter adventure.
Ice caves can be dangerous. Never enter a cave if it looks unstable. Be aware of weather and ice conditions before you go ice-caving. The Lake Superior coastal area in the U.P. is renowned for its sudden snow squalls and storms. Be extra cautious when temperatures are over 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). Before setting out on your adventure, let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
When at the ice cave site, be mindful of ice climbers in the area. Stay clear of where they are climbing and keep children and pets away from their ropes. Ice axes can break loose chunks of ice that can fly 20 feet or more.
BOOK A GUIDED TOUR
Lake Superior Ice Cave Tours is a one-of-a-kind transportation service that will chauffeur you to and from the spectacular ice caves close to Grand Island. Towed behind a snowmobile, there’s plenty of room to carry camera gear, soft drinks, snacks and ice climbing gear. It’s one of the best ways for the whole family, photographers and ice climbers to see the ice caves. Full and half-day tours are available by appointment seven days a week.
MORE WINTER WONDERS IN MICHIGAN'S UPPER PENINSULA
When your backyard is nationally known for its snow, there are lots more ways to have fun in the U.P. We rightfully boast the Best Winter Activities in All of Michigan … the Midwest and beyond. Here are three must-considers to add to your stay while touring the ice caves.
With hundreds of inches of annual snowfall and over 3,000 miles of groomed trails, the Upper Peninsula is repeatedly voted the best place to snowmobile in America. These trails wind through forests, over frozen lakes, past frozen-in-time waterfalls and historic lighthouses and some of the most serene winter landscapes you will ever traverse. Every adventure is unforgettable.
MESMERIZING NORTHERN LIGHTS
The Upper Peninsula is one of the best places in the United States to see the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. These swirling light displays are caused by solar winds interacting with the Earth's atmosphere and can be seen on clear nights when the atmospheric conditions are just right. The best time to see them is from September to March.
Thrilling Dog Sledding
For a unique and exhilarating experience, go dog sledding in the Upper Peninsula. Several companies offer dog sledding tours through the snowy forests, giving you a taste of what it's like to be a musher.
PLAN YOUR ICE CAVE TRIP TODAY
Touring ice caves in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a vacation you won’t want to miss. From stellar ice curtains to peaceful scenes, this winter wonderland will leave you in awe. So bundle up, grab your camera and get ready to discover the magic of Michigan's ice caves before the spring thaw.