Into the Ice Caves: Exploring The Unexpected in North Dakota

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my High Plains Reader colleague Jack Dura on Twitter (he’s @JackFromNoDak — you should follow him for sure) when he mentioned he’d explored the Ice Caves in western North Dakota.

My extremely visceral reaction happened three distinct stages: 1.) Eeeeeeee! That sounds awesome! I wanna do that! When am I free? (I react this way to almost everything that pleases me greatly. Travel writers are basically children with credit cards and reliable transportation.) 2.) Wait, what?!?! Ice caves? 3.) Jack must tell me all about that, like, immediately.

So now I’ll shut up and let him do exactly that.


All photos and non-italicized words are Jack’s. For more stories like this, follow his blog, It’s a great read.

A high sandstone ridge rises above the grassy landscape home to the Ice Caves.

Under a high sandstone ridge lined with trees and brush at the bottom is something unexpected on a North Dakota prairie.

A cave.

One of several chambers in the immediate area, the deepest of these Ice Caves extends 30 feet into the earth, well insulated enough to freeze meltwater year-round.

On a 90-degree day in July, the temperature inside this chamber was easily in the low 40s, and a trace of ice clung to the cave ceiling.

The largest of the Ice Caves extends about 30 feet horizontially into the earth, created by fallen sandstone blocks.

Created by toppled sandstone that rested conveniently enough to form such chambers, the Ice Caves are an adventure that awaits a rare few near Grassy Butte, N.D.

Just driving to get there takes time, from scoria backroads to a prairie trail to hiking the mixed grass prairie and sandstone-strewn landscape.

I needed three maps just to get there, and it took a bit of searching to find the largest cave, even though it was along the well-traveled Maah Daah Hey Trail.

The Ice Caves’ history dates back at least a century, the state’s department of mineral resources found. The place was popular with picnickers years ago, and one rancher even hung his dressed beeves* in the caves to cool them throughout summer (though animals getting in were a problem).

The entrance to the largest cave is a slanted shape that requires any spelunkers to bend or duck low to enter the high-ceilinged chamber.

If the ice was plentiful enough, early visitors would even make ice cream. Ice can be found in the cave long after a winter’s snow and a spring’s meltwater are long gone (i.e. July 9, 2016).

Upon finding the cave’s entrance, one must bend down quite low to enter, where a musty smell hits your nose and a bright light is needed. The cave varies in height is tall enough for most people to stand in and see the etchings and markings people have made throughout the years.

The-Interior-Chamber-of-the-Ice-CaveA slippery trace of ice, a coating of mossy green and a century of etchings cover the interior of the largest ice chamber.

A light green moss covers areas on the cave walls and you half-expect to see a rattlesnake cooling itself on the floor. Touching a corner of the cave, a silvery trace of ice is barely visible but its slippery feel to the fingers proves it’s there.

This odd location is compounded by the unexpected sandstone ridge towering over the area to the north. A sheer wall looks plausible for rock climbing, and if they’re in season, there are juneberries to be had.

The sandstone ridge over the Ice Caves affords a fine view to the south and a steep drop to the brush below.

Walking the sandstone ridge offers a commanding view of the countryside clear to the southwest where Two Top Mesa is visible on the horizon. Rolling hills, colorful badlands and rich grasses are all visible too.

Two or three other chambers in the immediate area are tiny yet offer cool escapes from the hot sun over the badlands.

Few caves exist in North Dakota. The DMR counts Medicine Hole as another, though this historic spot is mainly a large crack in a big butte. Other caves have too been reported in North Dakota, though these have mostly toppled or eroded away. Such locations include other sandstone chambers, erosional pipes in the badlands, abandoned (and dangerous) lignite mines and other rumored caves deep in southwestern North Dakota’s rarely seen reaches.

* This is Alicia again. Beeves is the plural of beef, so “dressed beeves” means dressed carcasses of cows killed for their meat. (Don’t feel bad, I didn’t know what that meant either.) Sometimes Jack likes to use words just for fun. I do this too, so I can’t even tease him about it. Ah, when writer nerds unite…

What about you?
Does this post fascinate you half as much as it fascinates me?
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve uncovered in North Dakota or on your travels?
What’s your favorite outdoor adventure?
What kind of outdoor activities and locations are on your bucket list?

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4 Replies to “Into the Ice Caves: Exploring The Unexpected in North Dakota”

  1. On your email pointing to this post, did you actually say these ice caves are really “cool”??!! Yes! Yes, you did! Bet you didn’t even realize you’d done it either, did you?! 🙂 But seriously, yes, this IS very cool, and something I never knew existed. Thanks for posting this!

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