One of the benefits of the kids getting older is the ability to take longer hikes. With this thought in mind, MP decided the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC), an adventure resort located on Millinocket Lake, would be an ideal home base while we explored the Katahdin region.
While researching different trails, MP was surprised to find a variety of hikes in Baxter State Park that are kid-friendly, each ranging 3-4 miles round trip. She had a few trails on her wish list, but friends from Millinocket suggested we check out the Debsconeag Ice Caves. Part of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness area, the caves are located located just south of Baxter and Mount Katahdin. The caves are made up of heavy boulders that were pushed together by glaciers during the last ice age, and brave hikers can explore inside. Our family couldn’t wait to experience these uncommon ice caves for ourselves.
We stopped at the Northwoods Trading Post for sandwiches to make sure everyone had full bellies before our hike. All of us had fun perusing the shop’s wide range of books, Maine made gifts and camping gear while we waited for our order. Once we had our brown bag of sandwiches in hand, we piled back into the car and headed to our destination.
To get to the trailhead for the ice caves, your car has to manage the Golden Road for a few miles. If you’ve never been to the Northern Maine Woods, this mostly unpaved dirt road is rough and bumpy. We found ourselves wishing we’d brought our Subaru rather than our black sedan (which was dust-covered by the time we left). Despite the rough terrain, we were treated to views of Mount Katahdin at the Abol Bridge, a one-lane bridge that crosses the Penobscot River.
We arrived at the trailhead around 1:00 p.m., and were surprised to find the narrow parking area was nearly full. While Dad Potato parked the car and filled our backpacks with supplies, MP and the kids covered ourselves with sunscreen and bug spray from head-to-toe.
The terrain during this hike was rocky and heavily rooted. A larger group hiked in front of us, and MP noticed a few little ones, ages 3-4, were being carried by their parents. Our two, at ages 9 and 10, were doing a great job navigating the trail. All around us, there were tall pines and large boulders covered in ferns and moss.
When we reached the final part of our hike, the kids were growing tired. Thankfully, a sign that read .1 of a mile to the caves buoyed their spirits. “Not much farther!” MP and DP promised.
The first cave has a very narrow opening, so each of us had to climb down separately. DP led the charge, followed by CP#2, MP and CP#1. MP foolishly kept her backpack on and carried her camera, making it difficult to navigate the dark interior of the cave. Inside, it felt like nature’s wine cellar — cool and damp. When we reached the exit, the kids were thrilled to explore the next cave. MP scraped her leg exiting and wasn’t feeling the same enthusiasm.
As it turned out, there was a long line of hikers waiting to enter the second cave. This one seemed a bit more challenging to navigate. There are about six steel rungs to climb down and a rope to hold. MP began to think maybe she’d overestimated the ease of this hike, but as the little ones we spotted earlier were climbing up with their parents, she stopped worrying.
“Is it cold down there?” CP#2 asked one of the hikers. She nodded, “Yes, I’d put a sweatshirt on. There’s a lot of ice, too.” We dutifully put a warmer layer on and CP#1 grabbed a headlamp from her bag. Then the four of us prepared to make our way down.
Inside, the temperature dropped considerably. One of the cave walls was covered with thick ice. Two hikers, who had ventured farther into the cave, warned us that the floor was quite slippery. We decided to play it safe and sit on a ledge as the hikers made their way back up the steel ladder. MP could see they were being extra careful with their footing. “I guess we all should have brought crampons for our shoes,” she said, half-jokingly. The hikers agreed.
Once the ladder was clear, we made our way back up and out of the cave. MP was relieved we’d all made it out safely. Before hiking back to the parking lot, we decided to walk toward a scenic lookout. The kids weren’t so sure they wanted to add on to their hike, but MP told them the view would be worth the short climb. And boy, was it ever!
On the way home, CP#2 said he’d write about the experience in a small moment story at school. “Those caves were so cool! I can’t wait to share the story with my new class.” This momma’s heart filled up just then. There is no better feeling than knowing the adventures we share with our kids last in their memories long after they’re over.
For more on the Debsconeag Ice Caves, visit here.
Next up: More on our stay at NEOC.