116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A Day Away: Surprises, serenity await at Iowa’s Backbone State Park
Park great for bicycling, boating, camping, rock climbing, fishing and, of course, hiking
DUNDEE — “Will I find good places to hike?”
That was one of the biggest questions that taunted my brain three years ago when I decided to move to Eastern Iowa. Like most non-Iowans, I was imagining endless miles of flat land and cornfields, with nary a hill or forest in sight.
But, then I found Backbone State Park near Dundee in Delaware County, and my heart soared.
Backbone State Park
Where: 1347 129th St., Dundee, about 90 minutes northeast of Cedar Rapids
Features: Hiking, rock climbing, fishing, boating (only electric motors on the lake), camping, cabins, picnicking, Stone Lodge to rent for large gatherings
Established in 1920, Backbone State Park was Iowa’s first state park, and it remains one of the state’s most geographically unique, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The park was named for the steep and narrow ridge of bedrock cut by a loop of the Maquoketa River and forming the highest point in northeast Iowa — the Devil’s Backbone — and plays host to a range of activities including bicycling, boating, camping, rock climbing, fishing, and of course, hiking.
In case you couldn’t tell yet, I am an avid hiker. It is by far one of my favorite activities. At the same time, hiking is vital for my emotional well-being and mental health.
There’s something special about stepping away from the noise and stress of the daily churn and stepping into the lush green quiet of the woods, hiking a few miles, then cooling off in a creek.
For me, hiking is solace, and Backbone State Park offers 21 miles of rugged, wooded trails that range in difficulty from easy to challenging.
My favorite loop
My favorite hike is a roughly 8-mile loop that starts at the West Lake Trail Head, connects to the East Lake Trail and finishes with the Six Pines Trail.
Spanning roughly three miles, the West Lake Trail cuts through beautiful woods until it eventually meets up with the Maquoketa River and stretches along the river’s bank. The terrain varies a bit, starting as a mostly flat mowed grass trail and evolving into a winding rocky path that traverses many steep hills.
The West Lake Trail ends at Backbone Lake on the park’s south edge, which features a beach, a playground, some picnic areas and a concession stand on its east bank.
From there, you can link up with the East Lake Trail, a roughly 2.5-mile trail that stretches along the river’s opposite bank. The trail is moderately challenging with lots of hills, some of which are very steep, and enormous, smooth-faced rocks line much of the trail’s edge opposite the river.
The East Lake Trail was the first trail I hiked at Backbone, and that was the moment I knew I would be OK in Iowa.
Side note: In case you’re wondering, I am originally from Los Angeles, Calif., but I moved to Iowa three years ago by way of Stamford, Conn. I’ve lived in four cities and three states in the past eight years, and the first thing I always do when I find myself in a new place is seek out local hiking spots.
The Six Pines Trail is only a half-mile or so, but it’s pretty tough. A mostly steep uphill climb, the trail takes you up and over the large rock cliff faces that are a favorite climbing spot among local rock climbers.
Random note: The last time I hiked that trail, lots of climbers were out and it was kind of neat to peer over the edge of the rock face and watch them climbing up toward me.
If hiking isn’t your jam, Backbone State Park offers tons of other activities.
The East and West Lake trails, as well as the Bluebird and Barred Owl trails, double as mountain bike trails, although I personally have never seen a mountain bike on the trails, so don’t let that deter you from hiking. And in the winter, they are open to snowmobiles.
At the north end of the park is Richmond Springs, a fast-moving creek that is a favorite spot for fishing.
“Backbone is known for its exceptional trout fishing, and anglers looking for their ‘secret spot’ can enjoy a variety of shady and universally accessible trails along the stream,” the DNR website says.
During the summer, Backbone Lake at the south end of the park offers a nice beach and swimming area, and the swift-moving Maquoketa River makes for some fun kayaking, canoeing or boating.
Only electric motors are allowed on the lake, according to the DNR website, and visitors can rent boats at the boathouse or access a boat ramp at the southwest end of the lake. Kayaks, canoes and paddle boats can be rented from the park’s concessionaire.
Backbone also offers plenty of overnight accommodation options, including two campgrounds and modern one- and two-bedroom cabins to reserve.
The South Lake Campground offers both electric and non-electric campsites, as well as two shower buildings, a playground and a dump station. The Six Pine Campground consists of non-electric campsites and pit latrines.
And, since it is only about 90 minutes from the Cedar Rapids area, Backbone State Park is the perfect spot for a day trip, a family camp out or a hiking day. Perhaps I’ll see you on the trails!
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