Find Thrills and Chills at These 7 Cool U.S. Ice Caves

by | Mar 1, 2024 | Family Adventures, USA

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Adventure-loving families need not limit their travels to ski resorts during winter months. There is a whole other kind of adrenaline waiting to be discovered when visiting U.S. ice caves. 

When the mercury in thermometers plummets to cold temperatures, water cascading over rocky outcroppings freezes into solid sheets of ice. It is the best time to visit glacier ice caves. Mother Nature sculpts her ice sheets and ice caps into scenes borrowed from movies like Frozen and Ice Age. Families looking for thrills with their chills this winter must visit these seven cool ice caves.

 

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Ice Caves in the USA

 

Big 4 Ice Caves, Washington

A visit to the Big Four Ice Caves in Washington is a magical journey into the stunning landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Washington is actually home to several ice and glacier caves, but Big Four Ice Cave is our favorite. 

Big Four Mountain, nestled in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, towers over 6,000 feet. The peak is covered with year-round ice and snow. Rocks and debris from occasional avalanches have collected to form a shelf on the north face of the mountain, near the bottom.

Melting snow and rain runoff flow over this shelf and freeze into an icy curtain. The ice is thick, and the area is shaded, so most of the ice remains frozen throughout the year. Depending on the lighting, the ice caves can have an eerie golden glow or an icy-blue vibe.

 

Getting To Big 4 Ice Caves

There is a well-marked trailhead from the parking area, also near a picnic area, that takes families along a paved path. The trek is just over two miles round trip but not strenuous at all. When it does start its uphill climb, it is a gentle incline that switches to gravel or boardwalk.

The Washington State Parks Department strongly advises visitors to remain outside the cave and not climb on top of the ice. People have been killed by falling ice and avalanches. In fact, an 11-year-old girl died there in 2011 when an ice bridge collapsed. Unfortunately, many people do not heed the warnings, so have your “just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you should too” speech ready to deliver to your kids (and spouse!). Better yet, warn the whole family beforehand so they know what to expect once you get there.

 

Glacier Cave in Washington - Ice Caves

Glacier cave in Washington is one very unique U.S. ice cave. @Shutterstock

 

Where to Stay by Big 4 Ice Caves

The closest city of any size to Big Four Ice Cave is Granite Falls, Washington. We actually stayed in Marysville, just outside Granite Falls … I guess you would call it a suburb of the city. Our hotel of choice was the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Maryville. You can’t go wrong with a Holiday Inn, and we really like having the extra space that a suite offers. As an added bonus, the Tulalip Casino was just down the road. 

 

Crystal Ice Cave, California

True confession … I have not personally visited the Crystal Ice Cave in California. It is only open from January through March, and last year, it was closed for the whole season because a wildfire damaged the road. I haven’t yet been able to determine if it will be open for the 2024 season. I am putting this U.S. ice cave on the back burner (this isn’t a climate change pun) for now, but it is still on my bucket list.

Why? It is one of the most unusual features of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. This marble cavern is technically called a karst – cavities created when solid stone weathers away. The end result is usually sculpted curves and spires that look like they were carved by a master artist.

 

Getting to Crystal Ice Cave

Getting to Crystal Ice Cave seems easy – just a half-mile loop – but I hear that it is a steep half-mile, so it’ll feel like a leg-day workout. Visitors are only allowed to the cave as part of a guided ice cave tour. It is set up that way to protect the fragile cave and the safety of park guests. According to the website, tickets for the guided tours are not sold at the park but by tour companies on their websites. Plan ahead because you can only get them online in advance. In fact, it is recommended that you get your tickets a month or two in advance.

 

Where to Stay By Crystal Ice Cave

When we do finally make it there, we have our eye on Buckeye Tree Lodge and Cabins as a nearby place to stay. They have both traditional hotel rooms and individual cabins, so we will have plenty of options. 

 

Hotel Room Picture -Ice Caves

For the beary tired ice cave explorers, the perfect Do Not Disturb sign. @BuckTreeLodge

 

Eben Ice Caves, Michigan

We may not have been able to visit Crystal Ice Cave, but we have been to Eben Ice Caves in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) multiple times. Located in the small town of Eben Junction, not far from Marquette, these Michigan ice caves are one of the biggest wintertime attractions in the UP.

In the summer, there is not much to see at the location of the Eben Ice Caves, although the surrounding area – including Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – is breathtaking. All you will see is a cliff edge and, if you are lucky, a few drops of water. But the freezing-melting cycle in the winter sends water tumbling over the cliff, where it freezes into a solid sheet. The overhanging cliff is transformed into an ice cave.

 

Getting To Eben Ice Caves

The Eben Ice Cave is in a rural, remote area, but your GPS should get you to Eben Junction. Head north on Eben Road for about a mile and a half, then turn right on Frey Road. You can park at the end of this road … or as close as you can get to it. The hike to the ice cave is only about three-fourths of a mile, and the first section of it is flat. I highly recommend wearing crampons or ice cleats over your boots. The last portion of the trek to the ice cave gets a little dicey, thanks to the large rocks. (I fell … twice!) And you’ll be glad to have the traction once you arrive at the ice caves. After all, it is made of ice.

Visitors are able to go inside the Eben Ice Caves for a truly spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list view. It reminds me of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, except there were other visitors there.

 

Frozen Pictured Rocks Hike -Ice Caves

The Pictured Rocks of Michigan are beautiful no matter what time of year! @Shutterstock

 

Where to Stay By Eben Ice Caves

Often, when I’ve gone to Eben Ice Caves, I have been fortunate to stay for free at a friend’s rustic vacation cabin (without running water!). While it is a beautiful cabin on a peaceful and scenic piece of property (and the price is right!), there’s just something about a hot shower. Fortunately, there are several hotels just a short drive away in Munising. Try the Comfort Inn and Suites Munising-Lakefront for some awe-inspiring views of Lake Superior in the winter. 

 

DON’T MISS! Ultimate Ice Skating Adventures

 

Giant Ice Cave, New Mexico

Ice caves in New Mexico? It’s true! In fact, it is possible to see an ice cave and a volcano in the same location! This must be why New Mexico is called the “Land of Enchantment.”

The Bandera Volcano and Perpetual Ice Cave is located in Grants, New Mexico. A geological wonder, this U.S. ice cave is a lava tube that collapsed thousands of years ago. The temperature inside the cave always stays below freezing, so the water and moisture that collects on the cave walls freeze to form layers of ice that are more than twenty feet thick. The cave has become a natural ice box … a self-contained system that uses its ice to generate more ice.

After exploring, check out the gift shop, Ice Caves Trading Post, for a geologic souvenir to take home. (It’s hard to take an icicle home.)

 

Getting To the Giant Ice Cave

The Ice Cave is accessible year-round. It is an easy quarter-mile walk to the viewing platform, although there are a lot of steps to reach the viewing platform from the landing. Don’t worry if you or your little ones are claustrophobic. Even though you are technically inside the ice cave when you are on the viewing platform, you can still see the sky.  

After taking the self-guided tour of the Perpetual Ice Cave, stroll over to the Bandera volcano, an inactive volcano that last erupted more than 10,000 years ago.  

 

Where to Stay By The Giant Ice Cave

In Grants, New Mexico, you will find several chain hotels, most of them clustered together along a portion of Historic Route 66 (be sure to stop for pics at the famous Route 66 sign!). A great one with a pool and hot tub is the Best Western Grants Inn. It’s clean and conveniently located too, but really, we’re just thinking about the hot tub.

 

New Mexico's glowing ice cave -ice caves

New Mexico’s ice caves glow with golden light. @Shutterstock

 

Minnehaha Falls Ice Cave, Minnesota

Minnehaha Falls, a 53-foot waterfall in the middle of Minneapolis, Minnesota, freezes, sometimes completely, in winter to create a cool (pun intended) cold-weather attraction. The curtain of ice transforms the space behind the falls into a dramatic ice castle. A breathtaking multi-colored light show dances behind the ice falls; its vibrant hues are ignited by the sun’s low arc across the sky. 

 

 

Getting To Minnehaha Ice Caves

Visiting the Minnehaha Falls Ice Cave doesn’t require a lengthy hike; however, it can be a treacherous one. From the parking lot, just follow the walkway across the bridge toward the falls. You then need to go down three sets of steps to reach the base of the waterfall. The path and the stairs can get really slippery. (I fell here, too!) Wear crampons on your boots to give yourself traction.

The parks department, in fact, closes the stairs in the winter because they pose such a hazard to visitors. When you go to the Minnehaha Ice Cave, you accept the risk.

When you arrive at the bottom of the falls, you will be able to enter the ice cave for an otherworldly viewpoint … jagged icicles reaching to the ground and the peculiar blue glow of light filtered through the ice. Mist from the waterfall freezes inside the ice cave and all around the outside, so again, watch your footing.

 

Where to Stay By The Minnehaha Ice Caves

A fun and thriving city, Minneapolis has plenty of top-notch hotels. On my last visit there, we stayed at the Radisson RED Minneapolis Downtown. This hotel is close to many of Minneapolis’s biggest attractions, like the U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings.  

 

A frozen Lake Superior. -Ice Caves

Shelf ice on the shore of Lake Superior. While beautiful to look at, it must be done from a distance. It is dangerous to walk upon. @Shutterstock

 

Big Ice Cave, Montana

Big Ice Cave in Montana, about an hour’s drive south of Billings in the Pryor Mountains, is another oddity of nature. This U.S. ice cave is uniquely oriented so that the frigid air becomes trapped in the rocky chamber, and the ice stays frozen throughout the year. Even in the summertime, there will be ice and icicles inside the cave.

In recent years, I have heard people describe Big Ice Cave as an icy cellar cold enough to store ice cream, and, to me, that perfectly describes this magical place. The cave’s entrance slopes downward like you are going into a basement cellar. Once inside, the cave is a single chamber with a solid layer of slippery ice forming the floor. (You guessed it … I fell!)

 

Getting To Big Ice Cave

Getting to the Big Ice Cave requires a short walk along a wooden boardwalk trail. There are no formal guided tours to this U.S. ice cave. Nor is there electricity. The cave is rather dark, so pack a flashlight or two. I didn’t. Instead, I tried to use the flashlight on my phone, which, honestly, could be brighter.

 

Where To Stay By Big Ice Cave

I love Billings, Montana! It is such a vibrant and energetic city that, I think, flies under the radar. If you want to see why Montana is called “Big Sky Country,” book your stay at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Billings. The front desk staff greets you with a warm chocolate chip cookie when you check in (bonus!) but plan to have dinner at the hotel’s Montana Sky restaurant on the 20th floor. The views are spectacular! 

 

 

Apostle Island National Lakeshore Ice Cave, Wisconsin

For the truly adventurous family, the mainland ice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield, Wisconsin, promise to deliver a winter experience like none other. In fact, for many winter lovers, the Apostle Island ice caves are a bucket list destination among U.S. ice caves.

Apostle Island National Lakeshore is a breathtaking place in the warmer months. Still, when the gales of November come calling (if you know, you know!), the icy water of Lake Superior coats the area with a blanket of ice. Dirt roads become ice tracks. The driving wind carves the ice into spectacular formations.

 

Getting To Lakeshore Ice Cave

Getting to the mainland ice caves requires visitors to take a two-mile, rough trip hike with steep sections across the south coast of Lake Superior. Surprisingly, I didn’t fall … but the trek was a lot more physically demanding than I anticipated. The caves are only accessible if the ice along the Great Lake is thick enough for people to walk across it safely. The National Park Service’s visitor center and the folks at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore keep tabs on the weather conditions and will warn visitors if the ice caves are inaccessible.

 

Where To Stay By Lakeshore Ice Cave

One of the best bed-and-breakfasts I have ever stayed in is in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The Old Rittenhouse Inn is an umbrella name for two Victorian houses that have been converted into bed-and-breakfasts. I truly felt like I stepped back in time because I was surrounded by antique furnishings, Victorian architecture, romantic fireplaces … and whirlpool tubs, which I am fairly confident were not part of the original Victorian splendor. However, those whirlpool tubs make this a great place for ice climbers to thaw.

 

Snowy Ice Cave on Apostle Island -Ice Cave

Apostle Island’s icicles don’t mess around. @Shutterstock

 

If your kids wish they were Elsa from Frozen or that mammoth from Ice Age, consider a cold-weather adventure to a crystal cave made of ice. Natural ice caves, as well as the temporary ones created from frozen waterfalls, are one of nature’s most underappreciated spectacles. When the cold air blows, plug in one of these seven U.S. ice caves right into Google Maps! It may require some slipping and sliding to visit, but that just adds to the ice cave experience. Before you know it, you will load the whole family in a super jeep to explore Iceland’s glacier caves. 

 

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USA Ice Caves