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In Iowa’s oldest state park, old man winter won’t slow you down–he’s just part of the scenery.
From the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
“Exploding egg cake!” announces Mike Donovan, pulling his wife Emily’s recipe for Swedish umspunkaka from the rental cabin’s oven. The smell of coffee is in the air on a winter weekend getaway for this Des Moines family. Soon the kids, Greta and Elliot, will set aside their puzzles and descend upon the simple kitchen table set with lingonberry jam and maple syrup.
At Backbone State Park, on a winter weekend, you’ll need something like this fluffy egg pancake dish to fortify your corpus before leaving the warm shelter of the park’s small cabins. Take your pick of winter activities: snowshoeing, snowmobiling, sledding the raucous hills, fishing for trout in burbling rivers and streams.
Really, there’s no reason to feel cooped up on this plot of northeast Iowa, 55 miles east of Waterloo. It’s like a self-contained entertainment unit, with a lake, woods, streams, the Maquoketa River and 21 miles of trails.
“You know what I like about a place like this?” says Mike, looking out a window as fat snowflakes fall. “Aside from a few snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, we’ve got the whole place to ourselves.”
Mike is right. Iowans tend to pull down the shades once the weather turns chill, but those willing to venture out during January and February will experience parks that feel like private playgrounds. Kids can run free in open spaces and wooded places. If you’ve ever spent winter indoors with little ones, you know just how important that is.
Dave Sunne knows. He’s Backbone’s park ranger, and his brood romps through all 2,000 acres in every season.
“The park is beautiful this time of year. It just takes on a whole new look when it’s covered in snow,” Sunne says, hands interlaced across the chest of his coveralls as he kicks back in a maintenance building. Sunne (pronounced “sunny”) looks like a high school basketball coach, blondish little moustache and all.
His is Iowa’s oldest state park, traditional in feel, with forested winding roads, and much of it nestled in a deep, woody ravine.
The park is divided into two units—north and south—with a very high, narrow hogback ridge jutting out over a bend in the river. It’s called the Devil’s Backbone, which, if you’re hiking it, inspires serious awe that conservative Iowa didn’t fence this baby in. One misstep, and you could fall a deadly distance on either side of the “spine.”
It’s exhilarating, really.
“I just can’t believe this trail,” says Emily Donovan, balancing across the path covered in snow. “It’s amazing.”
In winter, against a white backdrop, the wildlife watching is vivid. Bald eagles hunt the open water, and deer are herded up. Coyotes yip throughout mating season. Finches, cardinals, jays, nuthatches and chickadees flit around on bright mornings. You may glimpse an otter, wild turkey or any number of hawks. Do a little ice fishing on Backbone Lake, and you might find trout or crappie on your line.
“You can go to sleep to the sound of owls hooting,” says Sunne. “I do every night.”
He says each winter visitor has a different agenda. Some hike and reflect. Some tote a stack of books to their cabin and don’t emerge for days. Others bring cross-country skis or snowshoes. Photographers can’t get enough of the place.
“Then there are the people who just want a break from everybody else,” he says.
Don’t forget the snowmobile crowd. Truth be told, it’s just flat-out fun to see all that pretty scenery whooshing past at 40-some miles per hour. The park’s Westlake Trail is a real rollercoaster ride, with just enough serious drama to make you whoop with utter joy or sheer terror.
The trail shows the Maquoketa River at its prettiest. Sunne claims the whole park is a postcard, and that’s largely thanks to the water, flanked by tall spindly trees like legs of adolescent boys—native white pines, oak, shagbark, elms.
Action, adventure and drama
Emily suits up to take the kids snowshoeing, first removing the toys inserted in her boots during what was supposed to be naptime.
“You get cabin fever at home. It’s somehow easier to get cabin fever somewhere else,” she laughs. “We’d never strap on snowshoes at home—but you almost have to when the snow is deep and the trails are this pretty.”
Not far away, the sand dances under the water at the head of Richmond Springs. For thousands of years, this very spot has pumped about 2,000 gallons per minute of 42-degree water from the dolomite limestone, making the surrounding streams cozy for trout.
Mike is stealing a little grown-up time here, casting his line and hoping for the best. A good day this time of year is maybe one or two fish. Mike doesn’t seem to mind.
“This is a little refuge that has so many qualities you don’t typically see in Iowa topography,” he says, tilting back his head to soak up the winter rays. “Everywhere here is secluded and serene—all plunked down in the middle of some farm fields.”
The quiet is later interrupted when the whole Donovan crew joins Ranger Sunne’s family on a sledding hill near their house. At Backbone, the sledding is righteous. And it’s not very serene.
Mike saddles up a saucer, and barrels away. His son Elliot, who is almost 3, watches in awe.
“Whoa! There goes Dad! Yay, Dad! Hey, wait! Dad? You okay, Dad? Dad? Dad?!”
Mike has wiped out, and Elliot starts down the hill on little snow-suited legs. It’s not a particularly big wipeout in sledding terms, unless you’re 2 and you’ve never seen one before.
“Dad! Oh, no! Dad!”
Mike sits up, spits out a mouthful of snow and gives Elliot the thumbs-up. All is well again in kid world.
The hill is one continuous eruption of laughter and whoops. Kids and grownups race to the bottom, eyes wide and mouths agape.
This is winter’s best side—not the hibernating crabbiness or holiday hubbub. It’s open-mouthed belly laughs, runny-nosed exertion and rare moments of adventure in a landscape that appears on the surface to shut down for the season.
Mike snowboards down the hill a few feet—Elliot watching, concerned—then bites it. Mike giggles and yells to his son: “That’s about as good as it gets!”
And in Iowa, in winter, it really is.
Backbone State Park Sixteen cabins, $50-$100 per day (cabins rent by the week during summer. 1347 129th St., Dundee. 563-924-2527; firstname.lastname@example.org or www.iowadnr.gov *Please note the 4 deluxe cabins and 4 two-bedroom family cabins will be closed from February 1, 2016 through May 1, 2016 for remodeling.
For more ideas on exploring Iowa in the winter, check out our Iowa State Parks, We Love Winter in Iowa, Take It Outside and Iowa Outdoors boards on Pinterest.