This winter, everyone was talking about the Lake Superior ice caves up in Bayfield, Wisconsin. I thought about going, even tentatively planned to go, and then it got so popular that they were seeing crowds of 10,000 or more on the weekends! I visited the Apostle Islands last summer, and had had the opportunity to kayak out to those “sea caves” in a small group. I thought that it would be pretty neat to see them frozen, but that the huge crowds might detract from my enjoyment of wild nature. Of course, if this weather keeps up, the big lake will stay frozen all summer and I’ll get to go see them in July… just kidding!
Instead of making the three-hour drive to Bayfield, I took a 1.5-hour trip to Eben, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, south of Munising. There is a rock overhang there surrounded by seeps which turns into an “ice cave” of its own every winter. On the day we visited (slightly warmer than average for this winter), there were maybe 150 other people there while we were, including the half-mile hike in and out. It was quite windy and lightly snowing, which meant that this 3/4 mile through the woods was infinitely more pleasant that a half mile out on the open ice of Lake Superior would have been! The cave itself included spectacular formations, and was well worth the visit!
The cave is on public land, but within a federally-designated wilderness area, which means no motorized use is allowed. The access is on private land, thanks to a generous landowner. From the tiny town of Eben, small signs point the way to the parking lot. Someone, perhaps the landowner or perhaps the Forest Service, had set up portable toilets for the crowds to use, and a donation box for them, and there was a small private concession stand in the parking area as well. The first part of the walk parallels the snowmobile trail across an open farm field, and after that it enters the Hiawatha National Forest, Rock River Wilderness.
National Forest Wilderness Areas are intended to be managed free of human input, so no vegetation management (eg: timber harvest, trail clearing) is allowed, and there are no facilities for those recreating in the area. For me, this makes for an ideal adventure. There were plenty of down trees for my dog to jump over and under, side trails to explore (if the snow weren’t so deep…), steep ravines, and old-growth trees. It is a beautiful hike, but will take some effort! Snowshoes are likely to be unnecessary, since the trail is so well-packed, especially on weekends. Ice cleats (or commercial ice-walking grips) are highly recommended… but we didn’t have them and didn’t feel that we needed them, either. [Note to readers: three weeks ago I slipped on ice and broke my leg, so I advise that you do as I say, not as I do!]