Sometimes a pile of rocks is just a pile of rocks. But sometimes, if those rocks are big enough and they’re heaped together just so, they become cool caves we can climb around in.
The Debsconeag Ice Caves are like that. Stationed inside the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area, just south of Baxter State Park, these caves were made by glaciers during the Ice Age.
Maybe the glaciers were in a rush (as much as any glacier can rush), elbowing their way through a crowd of boulders, not realizing the caves they were creating along the way. Maybe the glaciers thought caves were neat and built them on purpose, thoughtfully stacking gigantic rocks on top of one another in the same way we humans build houses of cards. It’s tough to tell. Either way, caves like these are known as talus caves, and they’re different than caves that are formed by crashing waves, wind, ground water, lava, etc.
“Debsconeag means ‘carrying place,’ and was named by native people for the portage sites where they carried their birch bark canoes around rapids and waterfalls,” according to The Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages the area.
While the glaciers that created the Debsconeag Ice Caves melted long ago, you can still find plenty o’ ice inside them, even well into summer. In fact, the caves are sometimes so icy, it’s tough to even get inside.
That wasn’t a problem when my friend Melanie and I visited this August. There was some ice on the ground inside the main cave (and it was still quite cold inside), but nothing like photos I’ve seen before, where ice crowds the opening. (In fact, Melanie was here in June and took some of those photos – more on that below.)
The hike in (about 1.5 miles) is moderate – some ups and downs and lots of rocks and exposed roots. Aside from the uneven footing, the trail is generally doable for families and beginner hikers. It’s also not terrible to look at.
Additional evidence of Previous Glacial Presence can been seen in the abundance of glacial erratics along the trail. Draped in moss, they’re massive and magical.
At the caves (really, there’s one main cave, but I did scoot into another small cave to look around. Claustrophobics would not like it) you’ll spot a nice hole in the ground (aka, gap in the boulders). That hole is your entrance.
There are iron rungs to help you climb down, as well as a rope that I imagine is very helpful when the cave is full of ice. (Maybe it goes without saying, but between the moisture on the iron rungs and the ice inside, it’s slippery inside the cave. So be careful. Maybe bring microspikes if you’ve got ’em, especially in spring and early summer. Definitely being a headlamp or flashlight.)
There wasn’t much ice left in the cave in late August, but in the spring and early summer, expect plenty of it. Melanie visited in June and the ice was abundant. She was kind enough to share some photos from that visit, and you can also read her Ice Caves Trail story on visitmainehighlands.com.
After climbing inside, Melanie and I explored some of the nooks and crannies. The space isn’t huge – it’s one big family room with a vaulted ceiling – but a headlamp made looking around significantly easier.
It feels cool – in every sense of the word – and there’s a strong sense of “might discover skeletal remains” inside. Or monsters. Maybe that’s because this popular and well-trafficked spot still feels remote and undiscovered (if you’re willing to ignore the signs, the trail, all the other people). But you know what I mean, right?
Even if your visit doesn’t include solving a cold case, the Debsconeag Ice Caves are worth visiting. Bring your headlamp, watch your step, and give a nod to the glaciers of yore for making caves we can explore.
Debsconeag Ice Caves
1.5 miles (3 miles round trip)
Trailhead: At the end of the Hurd Pond Road. From Millinocket, take the Golden Road approximately 18 miles to Abol Bridge. Immediately after crossing the bridge take a left turn and keep left at the fork. Drive about four miles to reach the parking area and trailhead.