If you’re looking for a place to escape the summer heat, don’t head to the beach. Think about this: Head underground.
Specifically, hike to the Debsconeag Ice Caves, located in the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area managed by The Nature Conservancy. The cave is a cool place, deep in the woods, that contains snow and ice year-round.
The hiking is moderately difficult, with uneven, rocky ground underfoot. At only a mile in length, it’s still easy enough for young children and family groups to undertake. Last week I ventured into the caves and discovered just the perfect spot to cool off on a hot summer day.
The trail starts off easy enough as it winds through a young forest of mostly hardwoods. For the first third of a mile you pass through the young growth until you reach an old logging road. Once at the road, the trail follows it for about 30 feet to where you enter the forest on the other side.
After crossing the road, the forest becomes mature growth of spruce and fir that towers overhead. The footing is rough as you climb a small hill for the next half-mile. While the climb is gentle, the rocks underfoot slow the pace enough that you are able to watch your feet.
The boulders are huge along the way. They are so large that communities of ferns and mosses cover them, giving them the look of small islands of life in the woods. On the way in, I met a woman with two young girls who were on their way out. I asked how the caves were and one of the little girls spoke up: “Cold … and dark.” That was good, I thought, because it had to be 80 degrees that afternoon.
Soon, I arrived at the intersection for the caves and a scenic outlook. Turning right, I took the trail up to the top of a rock outcrop and was met with a great view of First Debsconeag Lake and, farther beyond, the Debsconeag Deadwater on the West Branch of the Penobscot River.
After a snack and taking in the view I hiked back down to the intersection with the trail to the caves. A family group was just climbing the trail up from the caves and we chatted for a while as they took a break. For some reason I didn’t get their names, but they told me they were from Maine and the people with them were visiting from Maryland.
We parted ways and I headed downhill to the caves. Soon I was at the sign pointing out the entrance and peering into the dark space punched into the ground under the rocks. The cave is a common type of cave in Maine: a boulder cave. Boulder caves like this are formed by two or more huge boulders colliding with each other to form a hollow space underneath.
This one has a set of iron rungs that make it possible to climb into the cave. The 12-to-14-foot-long cavern was dark, cool and, at the bottom, lined with ice and snow. The bottom was rocky but stable, and I groped around with my headlamp on, climbing over some rocks to explore the inside until it was time to head back out.
Cooled off by the experience of climbing beneath the ground, the hike out went by way too quickly. I thought as I walked along the trail that the cave was definitely no day at the beach — it was better.
To find the Debsconeag Ice Caves: Take the Golden Road from Millinocket to Abol Bridge, a little over 18 miles. After crossing the one-lane bridge, look for a dirt road on the left. Follow that road for a little less than 3 miles. Bear left at the sign for the ice caves. Follow that road for about a mile to a sign for the parking area on the right. The trail starts a short distance from the parking area on the other side of a steel gate. Look for the sign at the start of the trail. The trail is blue-blazed and well-signed at each intersection with other trails in the area. Wilderness area rules are available on The Nature Conservancy website at www.nature.org. The area is located on Delorme Atlas Map 50, grid E-5.