Tucked away in the valley of the Maquoketa River lies Iowa's oldest state park, Backbone State Park, where the scenery is rugged and awe-inspiring. The rustic architecture of the park dates back to the time it was first established in 1920, and its charm has only been heightened through the years. With 21 miles of beautiful hiking trails, a fast-moving stream perfect for fishing, and a serene lake for relaxing on the boat, Backbone State Park promises an action-filled vacation for families, couples, friends, or solo adventurers.
The park is named for the natural geological formation known as The Devil's Backbone, a narrow, steep ridge of bedrock that was carved by the river over the course of several centuries. While staying at Backbone State Park, visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities, including rock climbing, hiking, bicycling, fishing, hunting, boating, and wildlife viewing. Even during the winter, Backbone State Park offers cabin stays, so there is plenty to do, like snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.
Backbone State Park and the surrounding area is packed with a natural and cultural history that kids and adults alike will find riveting. History buff or not, don't leave the park without visiting the museum and learning more about the famous settlers from the area as well as its conservationist roots. The rivers and lakes running throughout the park not only provide picture-perfect views but also attract a plethora of wildlife, making it a special place for your next RV vacation.
Finding the park should be easy as it is just three miles south of Strawberry Point in northwestern Delaware County and right off of 129th Street in Dundee. To get to the south entrance for South Lake Campground or the cabins, go 1.3 miles north out of Dundee on W69. To go to the west entrance for Six Pines Campground, take 187 north from Hwy 20 to C57, and then take C57 5 miles east to the west park entrance.
The paved roads in the park make it easy to get from place to place, but they can be a little narrow and winding, especially in the campground. Large RVs should use extra caution when maneuvering the roads. Depending on where your campsite is, you may have to make a few sharp turns, but none that are too difficult for experienced RVers. Since the roads can be tricky, many visitors choose to bring an extra vehicle or bikes to get around the park. Bikes are great for using on the trails and can take you pretty much anywhere you need to go inside of the park. If you plan on staying within the park boundaries, bikes should be adequate transportation, but if you plan on exiting and re-entering the park for shopping and other activities, and if you don't have a fifth wheel or towed vehicle, it would be a good idea to bring an extra car with you.
If someone in your party needs ADA access, or you just appreciate the convenience, stay overnight in the South Lake Campground. This campground offers a variety of experiences, with 98 sites available. Forty-nine of the campsites have electric hookups, but no direct water or sewage hookups. Luckily, there are water and dump stations nearby, so you still have everything you need. Kids will enjoy the playground, and everyone will appreciate the two shower buildings. Both the campsite and the showers are accessible. Located at the south end, it's close to the many popular points of interest within the park.
The campsites are spacious and can all accommodate RVs at least 45 feet long, although several sites can accommodate 50, 60, and even 70-foot rigs, so just make sure whatever site you reserve can fit your equipment. Most sites offer a picnic table and fire ring. The campgrounds are just a short walk from the neighboring lake, but that also makes it popular, so get there early to get that ideal spot because it's first-come, first-served.
If you're interested in a more rustic experience, the nearby Six Pines Campground offers over 20 non-electric tent sites. Campers will enjoy roughing it at this site. There are pit latrines and no showers. Getting back to nature is what this campground is all about. The awe-inspiring beauty is all you need here. It's a little further from some of the busier parts of the park, but the roads and trails around the campgrounds make it easy to get from one end of the park to the other. The maximum number of campers is six to a site, and pets are welcome. These sites are first-come, first-served.
During the winter months, plan to stay in one of Backbone State Park's 16 quaint but modern cabins. Once the snow begins to fall, and the campsites are closed, the park becomes a winter wonderland for cross-country skiing. Even if you have explored the trails in the summer, you won't want to miss the unique experience of seeing them in winter. Not all of the trails allow cross-country skiing, so be sure to pick up a map of trails ahead of time. Even though cross-country skiing is popular in Backbone State Park, you may not see many people on the trails, so be sure to be safe by skiing with a partner and dressing for the weather. For an easier day exploring the trails, take your snowmobile down to West Lake Trail or East Lake Trail and start your cross-country adventure there.
Make sure to schedule a visit to the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum during your busy RV adventure. Whether you are a history buff or conservation enthusiast, you will want to check out the fascinating stories of this group of volunteers who built many of the buildings in Backbone State Park and left a legacy of nature preservation for all to enjoy. The CCC is open Tuesdays through Saturdays or by appointment. It's a great way to warm up in the winter months and be inspired at the same time.
The fall is perfect for hunting deer at Backbone State Forest, located just seven minutes outside the park, four miles south of Strawberry Point. Parking is available just east of the north entrance to Backbone State Park. By far, the most popular area for hunters is State Forest Trail, which is about eight miles long and is open to hunting during the season, but be sure to apply for your non-resident license well in advance. The trail is long but easy to travel, and you will enjoy the walk among the beautiful white pine trees and cedars in addition to observing a variety of wildlife. Hunters should be aware that this area is also used by cross-country skiers, horseback riders, and hikers as well, so caution is advised, and a hunter safety card is required.
While staying in the cabins for your winter retreat, you'll want to take advantage of those summer-time trails for snowmobiling instead. Make sure you have a good trail map and a weather report before heading out. Snowmobiles must stay on established trails for safety. You'll also want to consider the windchill when choosing your gloves and face protection. With all that in mind, you will be ready for a thrill ride you won't soon forget. The frigid air isn't the only thing that will take your breath away. The Devil's Backbone covered in snow against a cornflower blue Iowa sky is something everyone should see.
Flora and fauna are in no short supply at Backbone State Park. The park is known for its rugged beauty and untouched, primitive vibe. Spring and summer are a great time to spot wildlife such as raccoons, rabbits, whitetail deer, foxes, songbirds, and various types of waterfowl. Grab your binoculars, your camera, and take a relaxing stroll to see how many different species of animals you can spot.
Rock Climbing is a popular activity in the park for all the daredevils with an urge to reach the top. The rugged dolomite limestone cliffs within the park provide a challenging climb for climbers and repellers, but the adrenaline rush and fantastic views are worth it. A popular site for the experienced climber is the Drive In Wall, which is the first cliff off the main road. At 70 feet tall, you can't miss it. The most popular area for climbers is the Devil's Backbone, which is a large ridge of limestone located in the center of the park. The west side is 80 feet tall, and the east side is 50 feet, but parts of the ridge are as narrow as 15 feet wide. This area is sure to get your blood pumping, but be aware that bolting is not allowed anywhere in Backbone State Park. You can access these climbs from the west side of the ridge. If you're ready to begin your rock climbing adventure, make sure you don't set out without first registering at the park office.
Backbone State Park is known for its amazing trout fishing. Fly-fishing is at its best in this fast-moving stream, fed by Richmond Springs, which continually pumps over 2,000 gallons of water per minute, so there's never a shortage of fish. You can cast your line into the picturesque clear waters either on the lake from your boat or along the shore of the rivers throughout the park. There is a 600-foot ADA concrete sidewalk along the stream and accessible parking lot for your convenience, or you can enter from the trailside for a more secluded and natural setting.
If the serenity of a lake is more to your taste, rent a boat from the boathouse at the southeast end of the lake. This area includes a boat ramp and a swimming area kids of all ages are sure to love. A concession stand is also available during peak season, serving hamburgers and hot dogs, another perk your kids will enjoy. If you bring your own boat, please note that motors are limited to electric only. A variety of trout, bass, and catfish are plentiful in Backbone Lake. Best of all, you can take your catch back to your camper and cook it up for dinner. Interesting side note: Backbone Lake is an impoundment of the Maquoketa River and was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps to protect the waterway.
Take your hiking and biking to another level on the breathtaking 21-mile multi-use trail system. This trail is where the rugged beauty of Iowa can really be appreciated. Take in the twisted cedars and dramatic rock staircases lining the winding trails. Cycle the designated Barred Owl Trail, East Lake Trail, or West Lake Trail. Are you looking for a quick and easy ride? Try the Bluebird Trail, which is only about 2 miles long and is suitable for both biking and hiking. Mountain bikes must stay on the trails in Backbone State Park, so if you like to get off the beaten path, you'll have to do it on foot.