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9 Hidden Surprises at Backbone State Park

Backbone is one of Iowa’s largest state parks, checking in at just more than 2,000 acres. Even if you’ve been to the park before, do you really know all the surprises it has to offer? To test your knowledge and find new destinations at the park, check out the featured facts and attractions below from park manager Mary Shea.

Iowa’s First Dedicated in 1920, Backbone was Iowa’s first official state park and remains one of the state’s most popular today. Many of its stately stone buildings were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1933 and 1941.

Quieter than You Think While campgrounds and trails are all abuzz for most of the summer, Backbone offers a surprisingly quiet stay in the off-season. 

9 Hidden Surprises at Backbone State Park | Iowa DNR

Cabin rental requirements also drop to a two-day minimum, making this park great for a weekend trip. For winter campers who want to stay warm, there is a year-round cabin available for rent, and 21 miles of multi-use trails provide great cross-country skiing and snowmobiling opportunities.

Balanced Rock Near the north entrance to the park, Balanced Rock is a great picture spot just off of the main road where the whole family can be awed by the natural power of erosion.

CCC Museum Although the hours are irregular, the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum gives a unique look at the projects and people this organization affected all over Iowa. The museum is open on weekends Memorial Day through Labor Day and by special arrangement through the park office.

Old Fish Hatchery Site Slightly north of Balanced Rock is the site of Iowa’s historic first trout hatchery. Although the hatchery closed in 1987, visitors can still see 16 circular pools on site, originally built for the hatchery by the CCC.

East Lake Trail Park Manager Mary Shea says this trail is one of her favorites. The 2.2 mile hike starts at the shore of Backbone Lake and continues up to the backbone itself. The entire length is picturesque, but the western half of the trail is particularly gorgeous, sandwiched between a daunting rock face and beautiful views of the lake.

Richmond Springs This popular trout stream is encompassed by Backbone, and offers excellent fishing from shore as well as from the water. Just make sure you pay the trout fee on your fishing license first! The clear water and dappled sunlight make for lots of prime casting locations, and some occasional downed limbs provide hiding places for the fish. The stream is stocked early April through October, but these fish are still smart enough to be a fun and challenging catch. Parts of the trail along the stream are paved for easy access.

State Forest Trail This trail extends for nearly eight miles, and is open to skiers, horseback riders, hikers and hunters depending on the time of year. The trail is long but not particularly difficult to travel, so take your time and look for wildlife in the surrounding stands of mature trees. Interestingly, this trail used to be a series of firebreaks meant to protect young trees in the forest.

The Backbone While this attraction isn’t such a secret, it’s worth a second look. This stark, exposed ridge of dolomite limestone bedrock juts up from the Maquoketa River and the surrounding valley by as much as 80 feet at certain points. Weathering and ancient stream effects carved this rock into all sorts of interesting forms, including pillars, crevices, and small indent caves. If you’ve already hiked the backbone, give climbing or rappelling it a try (remember to register at the park office first).

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