Guide to Ice Climbing in the Keweenaw

Posted on January 5th, 2022

Step outside her cozy towns, and it doesn’t take long for the Keweenaw to remind you that she is an untamed land, locked in a 500-million-year battle with Lake Superior and the elements. Tall, sandstone cliff-faces, cut from glacial movement and altered by eons of weather, drop starkly into Lake Superior. Sheer cliffs within the horn of the Keweenaw jut out into the sky. Powerful, churning waterfalls cut into the land… and once the depth of winter falls, chart-topping snowfall and the long chill transform any trickle of water into massive columns of climbable ice.

Climbers looking to test their mettle against the Keweenaw ice will be part of an exclusive set, as these wildlands are often overlooked as ice-climbing destinations. Whether you’re new to the sport, or you’re an experienced climber looking for a new route to crush, you’ll not only find frozen climbs for every skill set, but a welcoming outdoor sports community ready to help you traverse the ice.

FIND A GUIDE

The ice climbing community is rapidly growing throughout the Upper Peninsula. Beginner climbers and those new to the area might find a wealth of benefits in hiring an experienced guide. Aside from mentorship, the guides found through Down Wind Sports and the Michigan Ice Fest can direct your excursions with intimate local intel on the best routes, and even some hot local tips on where to sip a beer afterward!

Not looking to book a guide? Make sure you still connect with the good folks at Down Wind Sports in downtown Houghton to get current conditions/accessibility information: (906) 482-2500.

BEST ICE CLIMBS IN THE KEWEENAW

With 125 miles of craggy Lake Superior shoreline and varied Keweenaw landscapes, ice climbers who get out in the wild and search will discover new and constantly changing climbs. Climbers should be aware of private property and should consult with property owners or apps like OnX before venturing on.

Luckily, the climbing community has identified several go-to locations for accessible climbing:

HUNGARIAN FALLS

Directions: Head towards Hubbell, MI. Turn left on 6th/Golf Course Road. Park on the shoulder and trek the seasonal road into the Hungarian Falls Nature Area.

When the deep freeze sets in, grab your snowshoes and pank your way up the seasonal road to the popular Hungarian Falls. The rushing cascades of the Dover Creek are set to pause, as winter has transformed them into sloping, climbable walls of ice. This area is great for novice climbers, or those looking to get more than one climb in, as the climbs are typically short, with easy set-ups. Here you’ll find 5 different climbs:

  • Main Falls: 10 meters of relaxed climbing, accessed via trails to top/bottom
  • Hidden Hungarian: steeper climb with vertical ice, find it by crossing the snowmobile bridge
  • Under the Bridge: short and steep, this spot is easily accessible for a quick set-up under the south side of the snowmobile bridge
  • Middle Falls: great late season climb upstream of the Main Falls
  • Upper Falls: easy climb for beginners upstream of the Middle Falls

Even if you’re not a climber, a winter trek to Hungarian Falls is a must-do if you’re looking to expand your experience in the Keweenaw.

HOUGHTON-DOUGLASS FALLS

Directions: Head towards Lake Linden, MI. Turn left on 10th St./M-26. Right on Sm26C by Hammell Creek. Follow the creek upstream.

Houghton-Douglass Falls holds the honor of being Michigan’s tallest waterfall. At a lofty 110 feet, the Hammell Creek flows in webbing tendrils down a deep gorge. Climbers will find this to be a fun, yet challenging climb. The Keweenaw’s typically heavy snowfall creates a thick base around the bottom of the falls due to its low angle – so accessing the steeper ice can be a bit of a hike. This beautiful area is owned by the State of Michigan and may experience various closures due to safety and renovation. (Call Down Wind for current conditions: 906-482-2500)

CLIFF DRIVE

Directions: Head north on US-41. Turn left onto Cliff Drive, or stay along US-41 as needed. Park on the shoulder.

An unmistakable landmark of the Keweenaw, the sheer faces of Cliff Drive along US-41 have drawn many climbers. Those looking to ice climb these cliffs will have to be particularly adventurous, as the ice formations down these rocks are seasonal and sparse. If the conditions are right, climbs here are worth the effort. Have a drone? Popping a camera up past the tree line towards the cliffs could expedite your search! NOTE: If you’re looking to climb Cliff Drive, this location is prime for a call with Down Wind to access known routes.

A fun snowshoe hike, this area holds intense beauty with the juxtaposition of the cliff sides with sloping forests and marshland. This cliffside trek also is deeply historical, as it was once the home of the Cliff Mine. While you’re searching for ice, you may find these ruins along the way!

GETTING STARTED

Before you hit the ice, you’ll want to ensure that you’re properly geared up with both the hardware essentials AND the proper beta on conditions and property access. (For newbies, beta is a term meaning tips and advice on navigating a route!) Located right in downtown Houghton, make sure your first stop is at Down Wind Sports. Down Wind not only is well known for their outfitting, but as the creators of the Michigan Ice Fest, you’ll access a wealth of local insight and sport guidance.

Essential Gear:
  • Helmet
  • Harness
  • Boots (crampon-compatible)
  • Crampons (steel points with vertical orientation)
  • Tools
    • Ice Tool (picks with a shorter, curved handle)
    • Ice Screws
    • Ice Screw Clipper (non-locking carabiner)
    • Quickdraws
    • Locking Carabiner
  • Rope (dry-treated)
  • Belay Device
  • Headlamp (short days in the winter!)
  • Cordelette
  • Winter Outer Gear and Pack

AN ICE CLIMBER’S GUIDE TO MICHIGAN’S UPPER PENINSULA

Climbers of any skill level, and those who simply love the U.P., will find a great resource of information and descriptive beauty within the pages of “An Ice Climber’s Guide to the Upper Peninsula.” From a loving ode to UP ice climbing from celebrated rock climber Conrad Anker, to the insightful and gorgeous details written by resident experts, you will find a surprisingly engaging read. This article was supported in part by the information illuminated in the guide, and insight from co-author Matt Abotts. Readers can find even more in-depth information on some of the climbs listed above (and many more).

Want to buy your own copy? Visit Down Wind in downtown Houghton on Shelden Avenue, or purchase online!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amanda Makela is a filmmaker and the fearless leader of 2nd Sandbar Productions. Through visual media and writing, she hopes to uplift and support the creative and professional community around her. While a native Michigander, she’s a Keweenite-come-lately. Years spent living in the South only made her love and passion for Michigan and its people only more acute. In the summer, you’ll find her with her daughter and partner swimming at Misery Bay, and in the winter, building tunnels through the snow for their basset hounds.

 

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