Did you know that there are more than 200 waterfalls in Michigan? Many of these are located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and are a beautiful sight to behold in any season. When the temperature drops during the deep winter months, the free-flowing falls freeze over and transform into magnificent winter wonders.
Michigan visitors and residents alike venture out to feast their eyes on these natural beauties (and if you’re feeling adventurous, you can even learn how to ice climb one!). Some of these spectacular sights are relatively easy to access. Others require snowshoes, skis or a snowmobile. Find out how to access the frozen waterfall nearest you here.
In Michigan, you’re never more than six miles away from a natural water source. Why not take a day trip to marvel at Michigan’s frozen falls? For inspiration, here are eight fantastic photos of frozen Michigan waterfalls captured by our fans and other talented photographers around the state.
In advance of the Michigan Ice Fest in Munising this January 30th – February 1st, festival organizer and ice climbing enthusiast Bill Thompson lets us in on some of his tips for ice climbing a frozen waterfall in Pure Michigan.
In casual conversation when it comes up that I enjoy the sport of ice climbing, the usual response is, “there’s ice to climb in Michigan?” followed closely by “you guys must be crazy”. The fact of the matter is that Michigan has some of the highest concentration of ice climbs in the country, and no we are not crazy!
Ice Climbing in Michigan has changed a great deal over the years. Back in the “olden days”, only a handful of climbers danced up routes that seldom saw two ascents in a single year. Now with the popularity of ice climbing it is common to see climbers “up here” every weekend.
Nestled on the shores of Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore offers some of the country’s most outstanding ice climbing. The area is predominately sandstone which rises magnificently up to 200 feet above the shores of Lake Superior which has been shaped over the decades by wind, ice and pounding waves. These cliffs, colored in shades of brown, tan, and green by the iron, manganese, limenite and copper in the water, give the area its name sake. During the cold winter months, these sandstone cliffs seep water that forms spectacular ice curtains and pillars which ice climbers are drawn to. Add dozens of true water falls to the mix and suitable climbing conditions December through April and Munising becomes an ice climber’s paradise!
For me the attraction of ice climbing is part location and part sounds. Image being on the shores of one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world, snow lightly falling and not a sole around for miles. The sound of your ice axe sinks into to the pillar with a confident “THUNK”. Moving your feet slowly up, crampons biting into the ice, you ascend to a place where few people are privileged to visit. The sounds, sites and movement are truly addicting.
Now ice climbing isn’t a sport where you run down to your local outdoor store, purchase the gear, and head on out to climb…….now that WOULD be crazy! The best way to experience the sport to see if you like it is to head on out to the Michigan Ice Fest. Traditionally held the first weekend in February in Munising Michigan, this grass roots event has been taking place since the early 1990’s, making it one of the oldest Ice Fests in the country. During Ice Fest there are opportunities to try out the latest climbing gear and clothing, take instructional courses and clinics on a variety of ice climbing-related subjects, as well as interesting and inspiring slide shows from world-class climbers. If you are an aspiring ice climber- the Michigan Ice Fest should be on your calendar!
With the right training, just about everybody can ice climb. Many are driven by the challenge, others to the opportunity to experience the unique landscape and beauty of the Upper Peninsula in winter. Whatever their reasons are, I can assure you that there are thousands of ice climbs in Michigan, a unique opportunity to learn how to do it, and you really don’t need to be crazy to try!
Have you tried ice climbing in Pure Michigan? Tell us about it!
Bill Thompson is co-author of An Ice Climber’s Guide to Munising, Michigan. For the last 28 years, Bill has lived and climbed in the beautiful Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He is co-owner of Down Wind Sports in Marquette and is also the organizer of the Michigan Ice Festival, which draws 400+ climbers to the region annually. Bill enjoys traveling to different climbing destinations nationally or internationally, but can be just as happy cragging locally with his son, Blake.
By now, you probably know about a number of activities that can be done in Michigan during the wintertime – skiing, snowboarding, tubing, etc. Another lesser known activity to add to the list is ice climbing. With ice climbing being one of the activities featured in the Pure Michigan winter video series, we spoke with adventurer Lisa Nowak on what ice climbing in Michigan is all about.
Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into ice climbing? A: During my freshman year at Michigan State University I joined the Outdoors Club and it changed my life. Not only did the organization help me discover a passion for outdoor adventure, it’s where I made lasting friendships and met my husband. To afford gear, lodging, and gas for the many trips I took in college I flyered campus weekly and rounded up as many beginners as I could find to join me for the weekend adventures. Twelve years later, ice climbing ranks at the top of my list of favorite sports.
Q: What are some of your favorite winter activities? A: I enjoy downhill skiing, but if I can get away for a weekend, I’m usually going ice climbing. Sometimes this means I get to enjoy snowshoeing and/or winter camping as part of the ice climbing adventure. It’s been awhile, but I also have fond memories of sledding, skating, and ice fishing.
Q: What do you love about the Michigan outdoors in the winter? A: I love the variety of activities that are available to us in Michigan. Fresh air and the scent of pine is invigorating. Picking out animal tracks in the snow is fun. It’s easy to enjoy the outdoors when you’re dressed for the weather.
Q: For those who don’t know, what is ice climbing and who might like this sport? A: Ice climbing is similar to rock climbing. Climbers wear the same harness and use the same rope skills for setting anchors and belaying their partners. Instead of climbing rock, ice climbers ascend frozen waterfalls with specialized equipment. If you seek adventure and like winter, you will love ice climbing.
Q: Where in Michigan can you ice climb? Do you have some favorite places to ice climb? A: The Upper Peninsula has fantastic ice. Some climbs are located a couple hundred feet from where you parked the car. Others are nestled miles into the backcountry. Personally, I love climbing in the Munising area. The waterfalls tourists hike to in the spring become our playground in the winter. If I don’t have a weekend to commit to a trip up north, I head over to Peabody Ice Climbing Club in Fenton where there is a 45ft and a72ft tower of ice that offers many interesting climbs within an hour from my house in Lansing.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who may be interested in trying ice climbing for the first time? A: Attend the Michigan Ice Festival (takes place the first weekend in February each year) in Munising. This three day festival is beginner friendly with tons of demo gear available to rent. They have beginner climbs safely rigged with the necessary ropes and staffed with belayers so you can walk up and climb. World class ice climbers teach dozens of clinics for those looking to develop technique.
If you can’t make it to the festival, hands on guidance can also be found at Peabody Ice Climbing Club in Fenton, MI where they offer rental and ice climbing instruction.
For experienced rock climbers looking to get into ice climbing, Downwind Sports is the go-to gear store in the U.P. They rent axes, boots, and crampons and sell an ice guide book to help you locate the climbs.
Q: What equipment is needed to start ice climbing? A: For starters, you need proper winter attire. The technical gear (ice axes, ice climbing boots, crampons, helmet, climbing harness, and sometimes snowshoes) can all be rented, but if you are cold and wet, you will be miserable. This means NO COTTON. Bulky gloves are not ideal for holding onto the axes so bring a second pair and swap back and forth. If the temperature is above freezing, a rain jacket is ideal. For cold weather, a down jacket is indispensable when you are waiting for your turn to climb.
Q: The sport looks like it could require some strength; do you recommend anyone try the sport?
A: If you have the endurance to jog a ½ mile and do 20 pushups, you are probably physically fit enough to try ice climbing. Ice climbs vary in difficulty; most beginners will start on a climb with a low incline until they are prepared for the challenge of vertical ice. Picture yourself swinging the axes into the ice and using the handles to hold onto for balance. They are not pull up bars. You use your feet to kick little steps into the ice and inch your way up like climbing a ladder.
Q: What is your favorite thing about ice climbing? A: I love the challenge. Each time I rope up for a climb, I am laser focused on the present. I have to carefully push my limits to grow and improve, and know when to back off to stay safe. There is no room for mindless chatter to creep into my thoughts like upcoming deadlines or wondering if I said the right things at my last work presentation. Ice climbing also takes me to breathtaking scenery that few people see.
Q: Does one particular ice climbing adventure stand out to you? Why? A: Two words: Agawa Canyon. While this place isn’t in Michigan, us Michiganders should be boasting about how close we are to this natural wonderland. In Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, fifteen friends and I hopped on a train heading north. Two hours past civilization, the train made a stop at a trestle nestled 600 ft deep inside a wide canyon lined with dozens of enormous ice climbs. Traveling by train means you can practically bring the kitchen sink. We were camping in sub-zero temps, but we filled our bellies with gourmet dinners, laughed while we sang songs around the campfire, and smiled thinking about the epic ice routes we had climbed. It was an incredible four days.
Q: What is your favorite thing to do after going ice climbing? A: Hanging out with friends around a hot fire with a bowl of chili in one hand and a microbrew in the other, makes the perfect ending to a day of ice climbing.
Lisa and Chris are Michigan natives who love to travel and play outdoors. Their passion for sports like ice climbing, rock climbing, kayaking, and backpacking has taken them all the way around the world, but they always find their way back home to Michigan. In their days of organizing trips for the Outdoors Club at MSU, Lisa estimates they have introduced more than 200 people to these adventure sports that are such an important part of their life.