Ice Climbing in Michigan: The Midwest’s best kept climbing and winter sports secret
When most people think of ice climbing, they don’t immediately think of Michigan. However, ice climbing in Michigan presents opportunities as difficult, big, and remote as some of the well-known areas in less-flatter parts of the country. Michigan ice climbing occurs along the shores of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where hundred, and in some cases 150-foot waterfalls cascade down overhung sandstone cliffs to form difficult, three-dimensional ice columns at grades of WI3 and higher. This place is a mecca for midwestern ice climbers and ice climbing travelers who migrate here from all around the country to try their hand at the biggest and most challenging climbs in the Midwest. The Michigan Ice climbing festival, running for more than three decades without too much national attention has become an annual event drawing tons of ice climbing tourism to the town of Munising, MI, and hosts professional athlete guest speakers and climbing guide clinics, along with professional gear sponsors and demos.
Ice Climbing Michigan: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Besides a handful of waterfall and seep features spread over the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore hosts almost 100 unique formations of ice to climb, from easily accessible, front country climbs to remote backcountry climbs that can take from 1 – 4 hours of snowshoeing in waist-deep snow to get to, or cross country skiing, and require careful planning of supplies, water, food, shelter, and warming supplies. This part of the country has none or limited cell phone service.
Front Country Michigan Ice Climbing: Sand Point Road to Miners Falls
Not all ice climbing in Michigan is difficult to get to: there are several popular “front country” ice climbing opportunities literally within a 30-minute hike from the parking lot. Many of the popular front-country are climbs accessed with relative ease from the Sand Point Road Parking lot. Many classics, including the Dryer Hose, Curtains, and the Amphitheater are West of the parking and will require some doubling back as there is no parking along the road right where it’s easiest to access the climbs.
West of Sand Point Parking Lot
The Twin Pillars are the furthest West climbs that still allow ice climbing. These are actually best approached from the main park lodge/gift shop parking lot. There are a few minor waterfalls in this area that used to be open for climbing but are technically on private property, including Memorial Falls, Window Walts, and Munising falls. It is important to stay off of these and not jeopardize access to the several other much bigger and better climbs in the park. The Twin Pillars are great for beginner groups and can see some crowds and be a little more “worn out” from all of the action. They are easily accessed from up above via a top-rope setup.
Prelude and Opening Curtains, Curtains
Prelude and Opening Curtains, as well as the Curtains proper are a great place to take new climbers and also challenge a beginning leader. Even though they are pretty short climbs, you may find that the hard, brittle Michigan ice will be very challenging still and command proper attention and form to minimize pump in the forearms. Simple enough to lead for an intermediate climber guiding a party or there are a few access gullies to scramble up and set a top rope just as well.
The Amphitheater climbs are unique relative to formations in this part of the park. There are a lot more layers of seeping ice deeper in the canyon, and when the ice is thick enough to allow for some top-rope shenanigans of attempting to move from one pillar to another. Be cautious when hanging out under these Volkswagen-size ice daggers, especially when people are climbing and always wear a helmet.
The Dryer Hose is the classic climb and right of passage for all visiting ice climbers. A large, freestanding pillar looms tall at the center of an overhung canyon and offers a great test piece to gauge your abilities on top-rope or lead for several other climbs within the park. Also known as “Life’s a Pitch”
Additional climbs to explore here:
Sand Point Curtains
Sand Point Through Sweet Mother Moses
The section from the end of Sand Point through “Sweet Mother Moses” features several classic climbs everyone who comes to ice climb should try at least once. These climbs typically form in their own ravine / drainage so finding them from the top is not extremely difficult. It is important to note, that you should remain tethered from your harness to a solid object like a tree or built anchor before exploring close to the cliff edge. This is also when you want to put your crampons on. It is a sheer dropoff, with a slippery, icy edge after all.
Big Pine Pillar
“Big Pine” is most notable for the large fat pine tree at the top. An anchor can be built off this tree, being careful not to damage the bark, or crampon on “Big Pines” toes. Big Pine will punish you!
The climb typically forms as a curtain to the left, with an overhanging section to the right that creates a non-commital opportunity to practice some overhung ice moves on top-rope.
Intersection Falls Through Sweet Mother Moses
This stretch includes a series of shorter climbs that make for great beginning lead climb practice. Be aware of how you plan to get out of this lower spot before pulling the rope, if you are not sure!
Art of Seduction
Sweet Mother Moses to Miner’s Point
Sweet Mother Moses
Sweet Mother Moses is one of the star climbs of front-country ice in Pictured Rocks. It forms a tall, fat pillar and is usually “in” earlier in the season. Best to get on it before it is pounded out by other climbers, or enjoy the cakewalk it becomes later in the season!
Giddy Up / Hi-Ho Silver
Giddy-Up is a similar column climb to SMM, however, it has a sinister cousin climb that forms as a series of thinly-connected daggers to the right of itself. Quite the fun top-rope! Not sure it has ever had a lead on it.
Further Front Country
These climbs are accessible just as the preceding front country climbs, however at this point the landscape and character start to change, the shelf of land below the cliffs starts to receded to water, and eventually all of these climbs drop right into frozen, or slushy Lake Superior. The sheer drop-offs can mean anything from steeper, harder feeling ice (such as Midnight Rambler) or cascading curtains over sandstone rock (curtain climbs). Most of these climbs can take 45 minutes to an hour to hike to from the Sand point trailhead. The crown jewel of this area is the midwest’s tallest ice climb, Dairyland at a staggering ~150ft of climbing wildly-formed and wind-sculpted ice features. Climbs the furthest east (past Dairyland) can technically be closer via Miner’s point, however getting into Miner’s point is a long ski, 1.5 – 2 hr hike or snowmobile in the first place.
Additional Climbs Here:
Suck It Up
The Curtain Climb
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Left Soda Straw
Midnight Rambler can be trickier to find the first time, it is a ways down the ravine. Tread carefully and secure yourself with a rope. The top of this climb can form very steeply and have a hard section at the top to pull through, be warned!
Dairyland. It is one of the star climbs of the park, if not the Midwest. A towering 150′ plus of climbing (~200′ cliff height). Take a regular size ice climb and put it on steroids: while the formation of this climb varies year-to-year, some characteristics are common: Large, windswept “bat wings” glower threateningly. A large cone forms the base, and in some years a separate, school bus-size dagger hangs left and may form into the climb. The climb requires a full length of 60m rope to lower in and climb – and you must climb out! Do not put beginners on this one, if you can’t get them out. Depending on how it forms, anchor building can require rapping down a bit to the start of the climb, and there aren’t too many solid trees at the top. Here, this stretch of cliff transforms into a more bleak, sandstone, and ice landscape as opposed to the tree-lined ravines and gullies of the climbs towards sand point. Windy days and bad weather may make this more difficult (or fun, if you are a glutton for punishment). The hike to, and from the climb is about an hour once the lakefront trail packs down. Plan accordingly.
The next series of climbs follow the lakefront amongst the sheer cliffs of Pictured rocks, dropping straight into frigid Lake Superior:
Miner’s Falls Ravine / Inland Climbs
The Miner’s falls and inland climb areas have their own unique charm, feel, and character. While the hike to get in can be long as you will not be able to drive all the way in on the access road, they are worth seeing and see much less traffic. Miner’s falls proper is a winter Narnia landscape, with spray ice streaking from the walls of the roaring waterfall and forming several small climbs as it’s own ice playground around the main attraction. Since many of the inland climbs see less sun exposure, they may hold shape later in the season as opposed to the climbs hanging over the lake which will develop a “baked out” crust of rotted ice as opposed to the inland climbs available near Miner’s.
Potato Patch Falls
Potato patch falls is a fun, solid beginner climb. There are two small falls here, reminiscent of the Sand point climbing – blue ice and tree-lined ravines, small sandstone canyons make for a fun, casual setting. These climbs last longer during warm spells as long as heavy rain, or warm water running hasn’t eroded their cores hollow.
AGF is the larger of the small falls in this area. It is reminiscent of a slightly shorter “Dryer Hose” and a fun inland climb.
Sugar Bush Falls
Past here, the going gets rough. Less traveled land means bushwacking the trees and low shrubs on the upper cliff, or navigating the running river at the base (carefully)
Miners Lake Falls
Miner’s Falls – “Narnia”. A sight to behold – and a feeling of remoteness in the thick backcountry woods. Getting to this climb is a bit shorter than the others. On the approach/snowmobile road to Miner’s falls, take the right turn to “Miner’s Falls” and follow the trail down to the waterfall. This does not freeze completely (if at all) until late in the season, however, there are plenty of seeps and spray ice making unique formations to try climbing on. Definitely a nice escape from the more congested climbing areas.
Backcountry Climbs (Miners Lake to Chapel Beach)
The true “backcountry” climbs in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are the backdrop for some of the most stunning, visually appealing, and physically challenging ice formations. Getting to, and successfully navigating these climbs is no joke, and not for the inexperienced or uninitiated ice climber! Knowing safety techniques and self-rescue could get you out of a lot of potential trouble here. This is also no place for inferior equipment and personal gear/clothing: the exposed cliffs over the lake get blasted with crashing waves and bone-chilling winds – without proper waterproof, insulated clothing one could get into a lot of trouble here. However, these climbs are definitely worth pursuing for the capable. Access to these areas is typically by skiing in with your gear dragging behind you on a sled, or by renting a snowmobile or hiring a snowmobile rider to give you a ride. Access can be gained via the Miner’s Castle snowmobile trail or the Chapel Beach trails, or, if you approach via the lake ice (where it is safe). In recent years some have even rented an airboat, to maneuver via broken lake ice and water unobstructed.
Burr on a Boat
HMR is a tall, steep climb requiring a full 70M rope to lower. This is a star, hard, exposed backcountry climb and is not to be messed around with. Do not come here without a plan for emergencies, extra warming gear, and supplies. There is no cell phone reception and reaching rescue services can take hours. Getting here can take a few hours of snowshoeing in each direction, additionally, so start early to ensure you have enough time to complete the climb and return to camp.
Past Chapel Beach:
Some Other Day
Grand Island is truly unique and an escape from the mainland climbs. Access can be gained by skiing across the ice, or arranging a ride with a snowmobile. Access here can be tricky as certain parts of the lake ice freeze differently. What would appear to be an obvious approach, the East side channel can be the most treacherous as the ice is usually thinnest there due to an underwater current (which you wouldn’t want to end up in). Crossing the ice is a serious matter, as there is no cell phone reception to the island and you will not be able to call for help via regular channels. Assess the conditions in person and be ready with an alternate plan for climbing you want to do, rather than take a chance on crossing the ice when it is unsafe to do so. It helps to seek out information on the lake ice by contacting the local gear shop, and one of the snowmobile tour companies
East Side Climbs
West Side Climbs and Trout Bay
Ice Climbing Festival Michigan
The Michigan Ice climbing festival has been introducing new ice climbers to the beauty of Michigan Ice climbing for decades, and providing opportunities for intermediate and seasoned climbers to demo new gear, give presentations about epic adventures and meet potential new climbing partners. Each year around February, the town of Munising is flooded with ice climbers for the festival. The festival has secured top climbing athletes as guest speakers over the years, as well as demo gear from top equipment manufacturers. The fest creates an opportunity for anyone to easily try ice climbing – with pre-set belay anchors at the most popular climbs and plenty of demo gear to try. Further, there are several different types of clinics and training sessions that can be signed up for, including beginner and intermediate sessions, as well as women’s only sessions, too. Most proudly, the festival has gained a reputation for being “The Festival with the Most Beer!” including selections from top local craft breweries. If this sounds like something that might interest you, I highly encourage you sign up and join in on the fun! You won’t regret it!
Michigan Ice Fest
Michigan Ice Climbing Guidebook
You can order a copy of the official latest guidebook at www.michiganicefest.com
Lodging, Places to Eat and Gear Shop in Munising, MI
Munising is a charming small town that has a few industries fueling the economy, including tourism. In the summertime, finding a place to stay can be expensive as tourists from across the Midwest flock to the Upper Peninsula for hiking, backpacking, fishing and sightseeing tours of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, as well as the glass-bottom boat tours of the many shipwrecks Lake Superior has claimed over the years. There are quite a few places in the area to refuel, stock up on granola bars and grab a bite or a beer after a day of ice climbing.
Much of the “dining out” options close early in Munising in the winter, however, Foggy’s always has a crowd – if you are getting back a little late from a farther climb you might still be able to catch a bite here. Located in nearby Christmas, Michigan.
Bear Trap Inn
Stuffed bears – everywhere! Quite the scene of taxidermy black bears and other hunted animals, a true “UP” experience. This is not exactly in the town of Munising but worth the drive to check out. A closer option for climbers in the Mosquito, Miner’s Falls and climbing areas on the east side of the park
Down Wind Sports Munising
The climbers’ outdoor shop. You can pick up last-minute climbing gear here for your trip, and you can rent gear here if you have a gearless friend. If you plan to do so, be aware the store doesn’t open until 10/11am.
I would also check out their Marquette location!
More Ice Climbing Guides
Check out our guides to other ice climbing areas in the Midwest: