Monday, January 30, 2017

Up North Winter Getaway

Viewing the Caves

Getting through the winter "up north" means learning to enjoy winter outings. It can be skiing, snowshoeing or some other way of getting out of the house for fresh air and welcome exercise which has the added benefit of keeping you warm. After watching through the windows as the winter snows swirled down, I saw the weather reports that a January thaw was promising a break in the  relentless rounds of snow. That is when I knew that I could not resist the siren song of a winter trip and outing any longer.

So, I loaded the truck and headed off to the Upper Peninsula (UP ) for a winter getaway. I had my sights set for the Eben Ice Caves with a couple of added side trips. While most "Yoopers" know about the Eben Ice Caves, also known as the Rock River Canyon Wilderness on the Hiawatha National Forest, many non-locals may not have experienced this spectacle.

In winter, water seeping from a rock bluff freezes into a magical curtain of ice about 50 feet tall and several hundred feet across.  As the water percolates through the rock layers it dissolves minerals which gives distinctive colors to the ice formations.  This other worldly sight beckons thousands of visitors every year who make the short hike through a beautiful yellow birch forest and into the riparian area leading to the caves.

Behind the Curtain

I have been here several times and made the three quarter-mile hike to the caves on good days when the trail was easy and on other days when it was a challenge just to stay upright. The sign at the entrance to the wilderness area advises of the treacherous nature of trail, and this is quite true. During times when the trail has been packed down by the many visitors into an icy path, hiking the short-steep hills is quite daunting.  I have seen some people resort to sliding down the hills on their bottoms, only to find that they could not stop at the bottom of the hill. It is highly advisable to wear ice cleats, not only for the hike in, but also for the even icier area around the caves.

When you finally reach the caves, the best part is that if you have your cleats, and otherwise, only if you are extremely careful, you can walk behind the ice to see why these formations are called ice caves. In the narrow chamber behind the ice there is space to explore further this unique natural phenomena. Be careful though, as it is still slippery even with cleats and the super-sized icicles can be very easily dislodged onto people below. While exploring the caves, listen closely for the constant drips of water echoing throughout the cave and look out through the translucent ice to experience the amazing colors. 

If you go on a weekend between January and March, when the ice formations are normally at their best, you will probably have plenty of company. There is limited parking, so get there early. To get there, start at the small town of Eben Junction, MI (about a half hour west of Munising). From M-94 in Eben Junction, turn north onto Eben Road and drive about 1.5 miles to Frey Road. Turn right on Frey Road and drive to the end where there is a small parking area, or find a space along the road. Also, Eben Road and Frey Road have small hand-made yellow wooden signs on them that say "Ice Caves".  Parking and the first part of the trail is on private property, and the family there has been nice enough to allow access across their property. They have even provided portable toilets and only ask for a contribution. There is another much longer way in to the caves, so please be respectful of the privilege when crossing private property.

Tahquamenon Falls

Side trips to Tahquamenon Fall State Park north of Newberry, MI and Wagner Falls were also included on my getaway.  The Upper Falls at Tahquamenon only requires a short hike and there is a nice lodge with food and beverages at the parking area. Beautiful in any season, the falls here are even more amazing when surrounded by ice and snow.  The Lower Falls requires more hiking and snowshoes may come in quite handy. Wagner Falls, just south of Munising,  is just a hundred yards from M-94 and the parking area is not plowed, leaving only parking along the road shoulder. If the normally deep snow on trail along the boardwalk into the falls  has been packed by previous visitors it is worth the stop.

There are  many other winter outings awaiting in this area of the UP.  There are even a few local hotels with an indoor hot tub to soak in later.  So, make your plans, get your reservations, pack the car and head over the bridge and through the woods to a unique winter adventure.