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 where we can climb around.
The Debsconeag Ice Caves are like that. Located inside the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area, just south of Baxter State Park, these caves were created by Ice Age glaciers.
Maybe the glaciers were in a rush (as much as any glacier can rush), elbowing their way through a crowd of boulders, oblivious to the caves they were creating along the way. Maybe the glaciers thought caves were neat and built them on purpose, thoughtfully stacking gigantic rocks one on top of 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 – open spaces created when large rocks and boulders decide to pile on each other, perhaps after a game-winning touchdown – and they’re different from caves that are formed by crashing waves, wind, groundwater, or lava.
The word “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 now owns and manages the area.
While the glaciers that dropped the rocks that created the Debsconeag Ice Caves melted long ago, you can still find plenty of ice inside the ice caves, even well into summer. In late spring the caves are sometimes so icy, it’s tough to even get inside.
That’s generally not a problem in August when summer heat melts most of the accumulated ice, but it’s still a cool spot to explore, in every sense of the word. Even on a sweltering day, the caves provide some natural air conditioning.
But first, you’ll have to hike there.
The trail to the ice caves is a well-marked and moderate 1.5 miles featuring 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.
Evidence of previous glacial presence can be seen in the abundance of glacial erratics along the way. Draped in moss, they’re massive and magical.
At the caves (really, there’s one main cave, but you can scoot into another small cave to look around; claustrophobics would not like it) you’ll spot a nice hole in the ground (i.e, a gap in the boulders). That hole is your entrance.
There are iron rungs to help you climb down, as well as a rope that 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 bring a headlamp or flashlight.
In those early warmish days, expect a tighter entrance crowded by icicles and a cave mostly full of frozen water.
But in August, you can marvel over the sparkle in the cave walls, forever damp but free of ice for a few refreshing months. There’ll likely be a still-impressive layer of ice on the cave floor and a pile of rocks for you to clamber down should you wish to explore the cave’s dark nooks and crannies. And you should.
The space isn’t huge – it’s one big family room with a vaulted ceiling – but a headlamp makes poking around significantly easier. It’s delightfully chilly down there, 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 once you lower yourself below the green and sunny surface.
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.
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.