Great Hikes for Kids: Debsconeag Ice Caves

Location: Penobscot County
Distance: Approximately 2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Ages: 5+ for hiking, 7+ for ice caves

We did surprisingly little hiking on our trip to Baxter State Park. Because we were only there for the weekend, we wanted to make sure we really took the time to soak in where we were, which meant a lot of canoeing, wading, exploring, fishing, and wildlife searching. While we did do one canoe/hike combo that we really enjoyed (canoe across Kidney Pond, hike over to Lily Pad Pond, pick up another canoe and canoe across that pond, then hike over to Big and Little Niagara Falls), that felt too specific for this series. However, prior to our trip I searched Aislinn ‘s 1-minute Adventures series for something in the area and came up with the Debsconeag Ice Caves. In her review, Aislinn pointed out that while the trail is easy enough for kids, the caves may not be. So, of course, my first thought was “Hmmmm…we should check that out for her.” So after we left Baxter, instead of heading straight home, that’s what we did.

To get to the trailhead, take the Golden Road from Millinocket to about 18 miles to Abol Bridge (look for the Abol Bridge store and campground on the right). Since we were coming from Baxter, we cut across on Old State Road to get to the Golden Road. Turn left after the bridge onto a dirt road, and follow the road for a little less than 3 miles to a fork in the road. Bear left, then drive about a mile to the marked parking area on the right. Go through the gate and across the bridge and you’ll see the trailhead on your left. The trail is in the Nature Conservancy’s Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area and is well maintained. Signs of erosion are showing in spots, so do keep to the trail.

The first stretch has some pretty erratic footing due to roots and boulders scattered across the path. At points it is less hiking and more clambering, but none of it is too hard and kids always enjoy a little footwork challenge, I find. One of the things we like to work on with our kids while hiking is the idea of choosing your own best path down a tricky trail–not necessarily following in the footsteps of the person in front of you–and this trail offers ample opportunity for practice. (This is yet another of those wonderful life lessons you can learn from the outdoors.)

After a short climb uphill you’ll enter a truly lovely section full of large glacial erratics covered not just with thick moss, but also ferns. “It’s like a giant fairy house,” said my daughter of one of them. “Well, maybe more like fairy apartments.”

fairy apartments

I will take the fairy penthouse, please.

This loveliness carries on for a while, and then the trail gradually smooths out but gets a bit hillier. In a short section of grassiness we saw some moose poop, but no moose, alas. The hike is listed everywhere as only a mile one way, but everyone in our group felt that it was a very long mile. However, eventually you head through some sun-dappled spruce and then a sign directs you left for the caves or right for an overlook. My husband and I were interested in the overlook but we didn’t want to extend what was already feeling long and the smaller folk were pretty laser-focused on those caves, so we went left.

After the sign, we found that the trail seemed a bit jumbled and hard to follow. The light blue trail blazes were difficult to see, but we were able to find our way and soon came upon a final sign directing us right. The actual entrance to the cave is pretty subtle; we probably would have hunted a bit more for it if some other hikers hadn’t been standing right there. What you are looking for is, well, an ominous-looking hole in the ground with cold air wafting up and, if it is a hot day like it was when we did it, there will be some fog floating around where the hot and cold air meet.

cave view down

This is not particularly welcoming.

Iron rungs and rope lead down into the black hole, I mean cave, and all the surfaces were pretty wet from condensation. I am naturally a pretty brave person, but I am not particularly fond of either tight spaces or being underground and the sight of this made me–the grown-up–a bit nervous. (The kids were fine.)

Here’s the skinny on the cave: getting down those rungs is a bit tricky, especially the second set of them. It is probably about 10-15 feet from that opening to the bottom of the cave. The rungs get you down the first 6-8 feet and then you have to climb down boulders the rest of the way. We were hiking with two adults, so we decided the safest thing to do was to bookend the kids with the adults. If you are alone with kids, you definitely want the adult to go first; most kids will need help with the transition from the rungs to the boulders.

Somehow, against all sense, I was elected to go first. After descending, I found myself as secure a spot as I could to stand on at the top of the rock fall and assisted my daughter and then son down the ladder. Both kids had some trouble transitioning from the ladder and then getting down the rocks, but we were able to guide them through it. We all clicked on our flashlights and, well. It’s a cave with ice on the floor. Another guy who was in there the same time as us told us it was the lowest he’d seen the ice, so there was plenty of room to stand and walk around. There isn’t a lot of exploring beyond the main room unless you are interested in some real spelunking. I was not, especially once my husband made me look up and I realized it wasn’t a solid ceiling so much as a bunch of boulders just kind of piled up to create a cave. (Sure, it hasn’t moved in a few millennia, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.)

cave view up

It was at this point that I began gazing longingly back at the opening.

Although it was very hot the day we hiked, I was glad I had bothered to haul everyone’s fleeces around in my pack, because we definitely needed them. Having them extended our stay long enough for even a nervous person like me, but I gratefully took my son back up into the heat when he was ready and left my daughter and husband to explore a little more on their own.

So what is the verdict? Is this easy enough for kids? Yes, but I would keep the abilities of your specific kid in mind. My son is five, but a very tall five, and getting him down into the cave was tricky. I think anyone shorter than four feet tall would have some serious problems. I definitely would not try this with a child who is afraid of the dark or who has problems with claustrophobia. In addition, the wet rock and ice make for very slippery surfaces and a fall could turn nasty pretty quickly in there, so make sure everyone uses caution.

But if your gang is game: sure. Try it! It’s a nice twist on a plain old hike and will make your kids feel like brave adventurers. Remember fleeces, shoes with good traction, and flashlights, and bring a down payment for the fairy apartment.

Kid rating: One thumb up, one thumb middling for the hike but up for the cave.

Kid review: “I really liked the cave. That was super cool.” “Yeah! The cave!”

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.