But there are secret places, away from the corny seas of the glacier-flattened plains of the state’s midsection, where adventurous types can leave the world behind and forget they are in the home of such folksy heroes as John Wayne, Donna Reed, and Andy Williams.
In Eastern Iowa’s Jackson County, I never pass up a trip to Maquoketa Caves State Park. The name—“ma-KO-keh-tah” to you and me—comes from a Sauk word meaning “there are bears,” and it applies not just to the caves, but the small, neighborly city and the picturesque river flowing through this idyllic part of Iowa.
[RELATED: The Perfect Weekend in Maquoketa, also by Cory Hanson on Travel Iowa]
The limestone bluffs and valleys of the park are cut with cracks, caves, and passages formed by millennia of slow erosion—this part of the Midwest was spared the crush of the glaciers in the last ice age, unlike the relatively young land of the nearby flattened plains.
My first visit to the caves was with a day camp group as a child, when my love of the outdoors was in its malleable infancy. Upon venturing into these green hills and diving into that first black hole in the rock, I knew that the woods—and these caves—would be an important part of my life.
As an adult living back in Eastern Iowa, a visit to the caves became an annual summertime tradition for me. I wanted to share the magic of this park with my wife, and I gushed about the cramped passage of Hernando’s Hideaway and Match Cave, hoping not to oversell before our first visit.
— Cory Hanson (@HansonCory1) October 23, 2015
We often overlook the fantastic camping facilities of our local county and state parks in America. Tents and RVs are equally at home in the forested hills of most of our local public lands, yet we spend so many summers crammed into the flat lawns of commercial campgrounds with dirty swimming pools and cracked concrete putt-putt golf courses.
Maquoketa Caves is one such park with great facilities, but by necessity, there are relatively few spaces to be claimed. During the summer of my first adult visit, the caves were closed, and thus, campsites were plentiful. In subsequent years, anyone arriving after 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon wasn’t getting a spot—not even the hike-ins that my wife and I so favor for their quiet privacy.
Hiking and Caving
Thirteen accessible caves are cut into the limestone bedrock of the park. The largest and most central is Dancehall Cave—a massive cavern so named for formal dances once held in its large, dry(ish) main chamber. Today, it is the easiest cave to explore; dry(ish) stairs and walkways lead down into and through the passage, and the main route is lit during the day.
From the central hub near Dancehall, two looped trails cover the entrances to the other caves of the park, varying in size and difficulty from the wide-mouthed Ice Cave to the very tight, curving squeezes of Wye Cave. Popular legend has it that Hernando’s Hideaway was once used as a cache and a hideout for thieves and fugitives operating in Eastern Iowa. Either for its criminal record or for its tight-but-doable crawl leading to a comfortably-large chamber with natural bench-like rock formations, it is one of the most popular caves in the park.
The eroding effects of water on limestone are not only seen underground in Maquoketa Caves. The hiking trails wind through and around a number of striking rock features throughout the valley, like the balanced rock and the showstopping natural bridge.
History and Conservation
It’s easy to get caught up in our own enjoyment of the natural world—heck, that’s one reason parks exist, we love visiting them and supporting them—but equally important is learning about the land, its history, and its care. Any visitor to Maquoketa Caves (or any other public park) should take time to visit the interpretive center to learn about the park’s natural and human-made history, and how we can preserve what we love so much for future generations.
In 2011—the year of my first adult visit—all caves of the park were closed to slow the spread of a devastating fungal infection to the large bat populations of the caves. White Nose Syndrome has since been confirmed in Iowa, and the caves are open again—with precautions taken to prevent its spread. It is important that we educate ourselves so we can responsibly enjoy our fragile natural treasures and, in the case of bats, the helpful animals that eat insect pests in scientific notation numbers.
Get Out There!
Now that you know how to be a responsible park visitor, get out and enjoy Maquoketa Caves! You’ll find the park just northwest of the city of the same name, with its own fun summer attractions like one of America’s few remaining drive-in movie theaters. Grab a campsite early, see the movies, explore the caves, hose off at a handy wash station, and enjoy a summer evening around the campfire.