People & Places

Spook Cave and more: Weekend camping trip to far northeastern Iowa hits many charming spots

"I promise to explore, learn about and protect special places"

Space is limited in parts of Spook Cave in McGregor, Iowa. Passengers Eva Jordan, left, Claire Miner and Franny Jordan, right, duck and squeeze while in a narrow passage on August 12, 2017. (Mary Willie/Freelance)
Space is limited in parts of Spook Cave in McGregor, Iowa. Passengers Eva Jordan, left, Claire Miner and Franny Jordan, right, duck and squeeze while in a narrow passage on August 12, 2017. (Mary Willie/Freelance)
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As the 16-foot aluminum boat entered the mouth of the cave, the summer sunlight was replaced by a temperature drop and a delightful sense of foreboding.

The boat tour of Spook Cave was the reason we planned a family camping trip to far northeastern Iowa. It was a bonus to discover two other attractions — Pikes Peak State Park and Effigy Mounds National Monument — within a 10-mile radius of McGregor, a town of 840 in Clayton County.

As guide Kira Rieck steered the boat into the flooded cave, I imagined what Gerald Mielke might have thought in 1953 when he first entered the cave after dynamiting the entrance. Clayton County residents had dubbed the area Spook Hole because of the strange noises coming from inside, but Mielke discovered it was just water from a natural spring splashing onto rock formations, Rieck said.

“Bats are mating now, but single bats will be back down here in a couple of weeks,” she said, responding to a question from my 9-year-old daughter, Franny, about whether we’d see any of the flying critters.

Our group of 10, including my family and our friends from the Des Moines area, ducked through a 100-foot bottleneck in the cave, emerging into an open cavern just in time to avoid claustrophobia.

Spook Cave is full of natural wonders, including drooping stalactites that grow less than an inch every 100 years and a few stalagmites, bottom-up formations that take even longer to form. Rieck called our attention to soda straw stalactites, a “hairy” stalactite rumored to banish one’s hair if it drips on your head and a band of rock that looks like bacon if you put a flashlight behind it.

Rieck warned us to not touch the stalactites and stalagmites, because oils from our fingers can keep dripping water from adhering, stopping the formations’ growth.

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The Spook Cave tour has its share of haunted house moments, like the rubber alligator with glowing eyes resting beside the water and the “remains” of Old Joe Smiley, who went into the cave to change the light bulbs and never returned.

There also is the wishing well, into which the kids were thrilled to toss a few coins. Rieck told them if their wishes didn’t come true, they were welcome to get their money back as long as they did so at night, without a boat, in the dark.

Our plan for the night was to tent out at the Spook Cave Campground, nestled in the bends of Bloody Run, a creek that got its name from hunters who washed their hides there, Rieck said. The majority of campers were in RVs, which probably helped when three trains roared through the campground over the course of the night. But who expects to sleep well during a camping trip?

Camping is all about the food. We cooked food on sticks in the evening, lofting hot dogs, marshmallows and pudgy pies (buttered bread with fillings jammed into a square iron) over open flames. In the morning, we had foil breakfasts and banana boats, bananas sliced lengthwise and stuffed with dark chocolate chips and peanut butter before being rolled in foil and placed in the coals.

Thus fortified, we took two side trips from the campground. On Saturday afternoon, we drove to Pikes Peak State Park, one of the highest points on the Mississippi River. Along with a spectacular view of boats on the river and Wisconsin across the water, we hiked a half mile to the Bridal Veil Falls, which were sparse due to the dry summer, but still pretty.

On Sunday we packed up, parted ways with our Des Moines friends, and went to Effigy Mounds, just north of McGregor. Designated a national monument site in 1949, the park protects more than 200 mounds, including dozens shaped like animals or birds. The mounds, built as burial or ceremonial sites, are considered sacred by members of many Native American tribes.

Our family enjoyed a two-mile hike that included Little Bear mound as well as several compound and conical mounds, all visible because the grass around them is mowed short. The hush of the park was broken only by bird song and my children’s chatter.

Effigy Mounds participates in the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program, which allows children to complete educational activities to earn a neat wooden badge. Franny and I looked for bird’s nests, ferns, fungus, maple trees and dogs on leashes as part of a bingo game included in the packet. The “bingo” came when we finally found a piece of garbage, a Bud Light sticker, and deposited it in the trash bin at the visitor center.

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As Franny turned in her packet, she was asked to raise her right hand and repeat: “I promise to explore, learn about and protect special places.”

Visiting special places and finding joy outdoors were the goals of our trip to Iowa’s upper Mississippi. As we drove home, we stopped in Dyersville for pizza and saw the sign for the Field of Dreams. Maybe that’s our next special place. 

Plan Your Trip: Spook Cave

Much of the joy of the Spook Cave & Campground near McGregor is that it seems little has changed from the quirky roadside attraction that opened on Labor Day 1955. From the cave tour on one of the original aluminum boats to the game room stocked with 1980s-era video games, Spook Cave knows if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Boat tours through the privately-owned attraction are offered daily May to October, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Most days you’ll get on a boat in less than 20 minutes, but you may wait more than an hour on the weekend. You can pass the time at the waterfall, playground or feeding the ducks.

The cave, estimated at 750,000 years old, has a variety of underground formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, and a 90-foot chimney soaring from one of the larger caverns. Guides point out geologic features, share lore about the caves and throw in a few tall tales to increase the spookiness of the 35-minute tour.

The tour costs $12 for adults, $8 for children ages 4 to 12 and is free for kids 3 and under. Campsites range in price from $30 to $43 depending on services offered. The campground also has cabins for rent nightly or weekly. Firewood and ice can be purchased at the camp store, and an employee on a utility vehicle will deliver it to your site. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring.

The campground has Wi-Fi for posting spooky pictures of your getaway.

• Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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