EBEN JUNCTION - For decades, hundreds of people each winter have visited the Eben Ice Caves that are in the Rock River Canyon Wilderness north of Eben Junction in Alger County.
Over the past two winters, owners of adjacent property have added amenities to their land, making the hiking trip to the glistening ice formations that much more enjoyable.
To reach the place where water trickles over a concave sandstone cliff face and freezes, creating the captivating attraction, hikers walk about three-quarters of a mile, beginning with a trek across an open field where two 40-acre parcels come together along a two-track road.
The Eben Ice Caves have been drawing visitors for years during the winter to see the magnificent ice formations, such as the ones shown above. (Journal file photo)
That land is owned by Tim and Heidi Swajanen and their family members. For years, the family has granted access across the field to the public. Last year, the family worked with a private contractor and the Alger County Road Commission to create a 30-vehicle parking area off the North Eben Road.
"We paid for the gravel," Heidi Swajanen said.
This winter, the Swajanen's have provided portable toilets near the parking area and a concession stand.
"People don't know it's there, (but) they're starting to find out," Swajanen said.
Since Jan. 5, the stand has been open from noon until dark Saturdays and Sundays. The stand has hot dogs, coffee, hot chocolate, soda pop and chips available.
Money raised at the concession stand will be used to offset the cost of providing the toilets.
"If I can pay for them this year, we'll continue this," Swajanen said. "So far, this is coming out of our pockets."
The stand will be open each weekend until at least St. Patrick's Day, and after that if the weather contributes to keeping the ice cave formations in good shape.
Swajanen said larger numbers of visitors have been coming to the ice caves over the past few weeks, with February typically the best month to experience the trip because it is usually the coldest.
"It (visitation) is starting to increase a lot, even with the crazy weather," Swajanen said this week. "There was over 300 on Saturday."
Once hikers cross the Swajanens' field, a pathway leads through a hardwood forest, past a U.S. Forest Service gate and then descends down along the face of a river canyon under towering hemlocks. Along the right side of the trail, trickling rivulets flow over the sandstone and snake through the snow toward the river.
A climb back up the side of the canyon from the trail reaches the base of the ice caves. On one side, a rope helps hikers climb to the top of the formations. Water is heard dripping, even in the coldest temperatures, from the roof of the ice curtains, which can be walked behind and are often whitish, greenish, bluish or yellowish in color.
Swajanen said the current trail to the ice caves is the shortest, compared to other routes available in the past that have since been closed. A two-track access route from the Rock River Road was blocked more than 20 years ago and another two-track road, which gave hikers a roughly 2-mile walk, also closed about two decades ago.
The Rock River Canyon Wilderness, which encompasses 4,460 acres, is located about 15 miles west of Munising within the Hiawatha National Forest. Other natural features in the wilderness include the Rock River Falls, Ginpole Lake and Silver Creek.
The wilderness was created in 1987 as part of the Michigan Wilderness Act. Two years later, the Land and Resource Management Plan for the Hiawatha National Forest was amended to add the wilderness area into the National Wilderness Preservation System.
To reach the Swajanen parking area, take M-94 to Eben Junction and then head north along the North Eben Road.
Rangers estimate about 1,700 people visit the area each year.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.