As the snow melted and the apple trees began to bloom, my attention turned toward a hiking trip I had wanted to make for years. I talked my mother, Mary, son, Ian, and nieces Ayda and Violet into packing a lunch for a hike to the Debsconeag Ice Caves.
The trail is in and out, and I knew the kids (ages 6, 7, and 12) could easily do the 2-mile trip. While the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area takes some effort to get to, it’s worth the trip!
How to Get There
We drove north on I-95 to the Katahdin region, taking the Medway/Millinocket exit #244. We hooked a left on to 11/157 west toward Millinocket. Once you drive through town you’ll take a slight left on to Bates Street, which turns into Millinocket Lake Road. Follow signs to the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC) and Abol Bridge Campground.
About 8 miles later, you’ll find NEOC and the North Woods Trading Post on your Right. Veer left onto the dirt road—this is the Golden Road! The speed limit is posted at 45, but we went much slower in my mother’s Kia. Pick up trucks blew by us, anxious to get into the woods, leaving us coated in their dust.
You’ll be on The Golden Road for about 18 miles until you reach Abol Bridge Campground. Drive over Abol Bridge (it’s only one lane, so take turns). You might want to stop here and take a photo from the bridge of Katahdin. It’s one of the most photographed view in Maine! On your left past the bride is the entrance to the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area. From here it’s about 4 miles of moderately bumpy dirt road to the parking area.
The Ice Caves Trail
I wanted to hike this trail before the black flies of June were too pesky. We were lucky…only the mosquitoes were out and they weren’t terrible. Nothing some bug spray couldn’t handle!
The meandering trail was well maintained. Other than the sound of the rushing West Branch of the Penobscot River, all we heard were bird songs. The Ice Caves Trail is one of the prettiest trails I’ve hiked on in Maine. Huge boulders were peppered throughout the forest, left behind by long-ago glaciers. They looked slightly out of place among the tall pines. Covered in moss and ferns, the boulders beckoned us to climb them, but we were good stewards and stayed on the trail.
The trail is fraught with stretches of tricky exposed roots, so be sure to pay attention to where you put your feet. It’ll be hard to look down on this trail, as there’s so much to admire up ahead!
When we got to the Ice Caves we realized for the first time that we weren’t the only people on the trail! Three young men were down exploring the caves, and we could hear their voices from above.
The ice was packed into the cave, and the three explorers could only shimmy down into the second of the three chambers. The Katahdin region had a cold winter, and it still felt like it in the ice cave!
I decided to carefully climb down the metal rungs to the first chamber. The floor was icy, and I didn’t dare go down any further as it was slippery. I was shocked to feel how cold the air was in the cave, just a few feet below the forest floor. There were huge crystal icicles hanging from the cave ceiling. My brave nieces wanted to see for themselves, so I helped lower them down into the cave to take a peek. It was pitch black beyond the opening.
Since we couldn’t explore far into the cave, we vowed we’d return in August or September to try again. This time we’d bring headlamps, pants, and wear sturdier shoes (we were hiking in sneakers).
Exploring Beyond the Caves
We decided to take the short trek up the trail to the scenic overlook. While the kids complained on the way up, they were glad mom and I pushed them. The view was spectacular! We sat on a cliff and had a snack while watching eagles soaring below. We could see a canoe on First Debsconeag Lake and some camps far, far below.
On the ride out of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area we stopped at a sandbar to watch some whitewater rafters float down the river over some small rapids. There were some men trying their luck with their fly fishing poles and Violet found and captured a huge frog. We collected rocks, waded in the freezing cold water, and left feeling happy and excited to return later in the summer.
I’ll update this blog post with more photos later on in the season.
Story and photos by Melanie Brooks