Backbone, Iowa's first state park, celebrates 100 years

'Never been a better time' to explore state parks, Gov. Kim Reynolds says

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds laughs at a  funny memory spoken by Mike Carr of Manchester, Iowa, the grandson of EM Carr the or
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds laughs at a funny memory spoken by Mike Carr of Manchester, Iowa, the grandson of EM Carr the original owner of the Backbone parkland during the 100th Anniversary Re-Dedication Ceremony of Backbone State Park near Dundee, Iowa, on Friday, July 24, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DUNDEE, Ia. — Mike Carr has fond memories from Backbone State Park, built 100 years ago on land donated by his grandfather, E.M. Carr, for Iowa’s first state park.

One of his favorite stories involves the beach lodge, one of many stone structures at the park built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

“The CCC boys, when they constructed this, didn’t put any roofs on the dressing rooms,” said Mike Carr, in his 70s, of Manchester. “I can still personally hear shrieks from girls in the dressing room as low-flying planes flew over.”

Backbone celebrated its centennial Friday with a gathering of about 50 elected officials, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff, Backbone supporters and park users.

It was a smaller party than the DNR had planned before COVID-19 made large gatherings unsafe, but still made Roger Helmrichs, a member of the Backbone State Park Friends Group, choke up when he talked about preserving the beloved spot for future generations.

“Who knows what this area may look like in 100 years,” he said.

The 2,001-acre park 60 miles north of Cedar Rapids is heavily wooded with oak, maple and other tree species, but is best known for the narrow ridge of limestone — called the Devil’s Backbone — cut by a loop of the Maquoketa River. The park has a 50-acre man-made lake, a campground, cabins, 21 miles of hiking and biking trails, natural climbing wall and a trout stream.

The park’s iconic structures got a major face-lift last year in preparation for Backbone’s 100th birthday, aided by a $650,000 grant from the trust of Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley, the New York hoteliers.


Crews cleaned, tuckpointed and replaced capstones, as well as replaced rotten wood doors and re-roofed the beach lodge, boathouse and west shelter. Windows at the beach lodge and boathouse were restored and new concrete footings were poured at several buildings, the DNR reported.

On Friday, Reynolds signed a proclamation rededicating the park and revealed a new Backbone sign.

“At a time we’re all looking for the right place to get away and recharge, there’s never been a better time for Iowans to explore the network of state parks,” Reynolds said of Iowa’s 68-park system. After the ceremony, she said she planned to kayak at Backbone Lake with the “First Dude,” her husband, Kevin, and two of her grandchildren.

DNR Director Kayla Lyon, who said she’s visited 46 of Iowa’s state parks since she was appointed to lead the state agency in June 2019, camped at Backbone Thursday night with several of her staff.

“One of my favorite things to do is outdoor cooking,” Lyon said earlier in the day at her campsite. She said she cooked Sprite chicken, which includes chicken, bacon and vegetables cooked in a Dutch oven over a campfire.

Iowa’s state parks have seen a boost in attendance this summer as COVID-19 has canceled other vacations. To learn more about the parks or reserve campsites at the state parks, go to:

Comments: (319) 339-3157;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.