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Meet Wapsipinicon, one of Iowa's most unique state parks

  • 11/4/2016 3:31:00 PM
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By Sandy Flahive, Photos by Ben Curtis
From the September/October 2014 issue of
Iowa Outdoors magazine
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“Ya’ see,” says one old-timer, “it was this way.” Some horse thieves were scramblin’ from the law way back when and were acquainted enough with the territory to know they could vamoose up into the rocky bluffs and thick timber there along the Wapsipinicon River and disappear all the way back into the caves and escape the hoosegow. 

The historic Hale Bridge was moved from its rural home to Wapsipinicon State Park in 2006 | Iowa DNR“And,” the storyteller continues, “one cave in particular was a favorite of these ne’er-do-wells and one or t’other was always skedaddlin’ back in there with horses and loot and what have you. Why, some folks say there was a time the villains could hide out as many as 15 miles back in that cave, though skeptical sorts say that’s just hearsay. Whatever the case, the honest-to-God’s truth is enough scoundrels beat a hasty retreat in that black hole that folks started callin’ it Horse Thief Cave—and the name’s stuck ever since.”

Thus endures one of the many stories, myths, legends and even proven historical facts about a well-known feature of what is now Wapsipinicon State Park, and, though its tale-inspiring caves are definitely a main draw, Wapsipinicon is so much more. 

The perfect person to let a visitor know just how much more there is to this nearly-400-acre oasis of natural beauty gracing western Jones County is park manager Dennis Murphy.

“It’s true that Wapsipinicon is unique,” he affirms, “so much so that it has been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Park visitors, after spending a little time here and learning about its history, understand why it should be on that list.” 

Without a doubt, its history is matchless—and its beginnings differ far from other Iowa state parks, many of which were built as part of the massive efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. 
Not so for Wapsipinicon. In the summer of 1921, shortly after local citizens purchased 180 acres of land near Anamosa, construction began on roads, bridges and facilities for a park—with the laborers for the project being a most unusual crew: inmates from the nearby men’s reformatory. For five years, using dynamite, handpicks, sledges, shovels, wheelbarrows and lots of sweat, the men from the prison doggedly met the challenge of creating a park in the midst of extremely formidable and nearly impenetrable limestone bluffs bordering the Wapsi River.

“That was its beginning,” states Murphy, “and we’ve been adding parcels of land to the park ever since, the last one as recently as 2005—always relying on the inmates. Without their help through the years, this park wouldn’t begin to be what it is. They’ve had a hand in nearly every aspect of its development.” (Now called Anamosa State Penitentiary, the facility, built in 1875, features spectacular Gothic Revival architecture from locally quarried limestone. It and the adjacent museum, also built by resident inmates, are both on the National Register of Historic Places).

Wapsipinicon State Park is one of very few state parks with a golf course, and rich in history, too | Iowa DNRFrom the outset, no time was wasted in park expansion. In November 1922, approximately 24 acres were added, and inmates went to work creating something that destined Wapsipinicon to become a rarity in the Iowa parks system. They were charged with building a golf course inside the majestic park tucked between the scenic bluffs and the river.

“So,” explains Murphy, “not only were original features of the park built by an unusual group of workers, but their very next project, the golf course, was one that even to this day is rarely part of the makeup of a state park.” The addition proved to be a hot item, because shortly after the land purchase was made, and before the course and its accompanying clubhouse were completed, 118 charter members had signed up, a board of directors was formed and the whole enterprise was named the Wapsipinicon Country Club, a title the nine-hole course laid out over nearly 3,000 yards retains today. 

Still a popular attraction, the course always has been open to the public and has changed little in size or shape since its early 1920s dedication. From the first, its operation and maintenance have been supported solely through club membership and greens fees. 

Whether teeing up or not, park visitors should take a gander at the two chimneys rising skyward on either side of the clubhouse roof. Looking closely, one can spy an oversized golf tee and two clubs embedded on the surface of one chimney and a tennis racquet on the other—additional distinguishing characteristics of Wapsipinicon.

Other features that came and went during the park’s long and interesting history include: a Boy Scout camp (dissolved in the 1950s); a number of WWI German cannons (melted for scrap metal during WWII); grist mill turned hydroelectric plant (now defunct); inmate concerts (halted during WWII); and a huge swimming pool (forced to close in 1934 due to low water levels). 

The historic district nominated for membership to the illustrious national register includes the entirety of the park, all buildings, structures and sites; the Wapsipinicon River Bridge, dam and waterworks; 10 archaeological sites; and the bowstring, relocated and restored Hale Bridge, which has been re-listed in the National Register following its move to the park. It is the only remaining three-span bridge in Iowa. 

Dennis Murphy is park manager at eastern Iowa's beautiful Wapsipinicon State Park | Iowa DNRA RIVER WRAPPED IN LIMESTONE
While Wapsipinicon is indeed endowed with a rich and colorful history, it is no less blessed with natural beauty. The rolling upland wooded park with its river-wrapped limestone bluffs that tower 70 feet in places offers stunning views from the road that winds between the river and the bluffs. 

It is with this backdrop that today’s visitors happily enjoy the park. Campers hang out in a shaded campground with 30 sites, 15 with electrical hookups. Modern restrooms and showers are close by, and shelters and two lodges may be reserved for group events or a family picnic. 

Touring the park with Murphy is an exercise in appreciation of the outdoors. “In addition to golfing and camping, we offer the full range of other recreational opportunities here,” he says, indicating a tree-lined pathway. “For example, we have hikers who enjoy…” But before he can finish the statement, as if on cue, Don and Shirley Tureck of Anamosa, come walking from the other direction. 

“Oh, yes. We walk in the park every day,” states Shirley. “At least a mile or two.”

“We really enjoy the scenery,” adds Don. “It’s a super park and well cared for.”

And away they go to continue their daily endeavor. 

But before they are out of sight, another hiker comes along. Steve McAleer, of nearby Monticello, is also a regular on the park’s trails and pathways. “I try to walk here every day, but I don’t follow the same routine. I try different loops. Don’t want to get bored,” he laughs. 

“As I was saying,” remarks Murphy, returning to his original thought as he waves adieu to these folks he sees daily, “even in the dead of winter people enjoy hiking here.” 

Skiing, snowmobiling, biking and nature walks also make the trail system a popular park attribute. 
Hunting, mostly for turkey and deer, is allowed in season on a 140-acre area that includes ponds, grassy slopes and brushy valleys. Fishing in the Wapsipinicon River, which forms most of the north and east boundaries of the park, and Dutch Creek, which runs through the park, tends to be excellent. The two waterways offer both easy pickings and great challenges for anglers—easy pickings due to the large variety of fish found below the dam near the park entrance and great challenges in capturing walleye and northern at their feeding area near the mouth of Dutch Creek. 

Hiking, hunting, fishing, gorgeous vistas? Oh, yeah…awesome draws to Wapsipinicon State Park. But in reality, the real allure, the real excitement, for most visitors, lies in those intriguing caves buried within the craggy bluffs. They are not to be ignored, especially legendary Horse Thief Cave 
and smaller-but-still-captivating Ice Cave.

As mentioned, Horse Thief Cave was aptly named for the antics of bad guys when they actually did ride off on horseback into the sunset with their plunder. The bowl-shaped opening, some 15 feet high and 30 feet wide, goes back about 100 feet into the bluff before petering out into nothing more than a slender crevice that makes it impossible to scootch in further.

“At one time you could go back a long way,” says Murphy, “but not since the ceilings and walls gave way. They may have fallen on their own, but we think the cave probably was dynamited to keep people from getting too far in there.”

Murphy also reports, as do other accounts, that the cave was apparently occupied as a shelter by prehistoric Native American cultures. “After some blasting was done at the entrance many decades past, nine human skeletons, most of them children, were found,” he says. Other credible sources indicate evidence of cannibalism in the cave. Pottery, bison teeth, a mastodon tusk, spearheads, arrowheads and numerous other antiquated items were found.

Ice Cave goes back about 70 feet into the limestone bluffs and, unlike Horse Thief Cave, has a narrow opening. “It’s a little wet and drippy in there and the walls look like ice,” says Murphy, adding that little kids find Ice Cave a fun place to get on their bellies and crawl around a bit. It’s also a nice cool retreat when summer temperatures become unbearable.

On a warm fall afternoon, the only inhabitant of either cave seems to be a busy little ground squirrel, apparently preparing for colder weather ahead. “That’s about all you see in the caves these days,” says the park manager, adding that there is no indication of bat hibernation there.

As the crow flies, in fact even as the car drives, it’s a short distance from Wapsipinicon to another Jones County treasure: Pictured Rocks County Park. Named for the unusual formations in the steep limestone bluffs along the Maquoketa River five miles from Monticello, the 60-acre Pictured Rocks Park is part of a 1,138-acre wildlife area which includes nearby state preserve Indian Bluffs. The entirety is managed by the Jones County Conservation Board and the DNR.   

Pictured Rocks County Park is a great side trip after Wapsipinicon State Park | Iowa DNRPopular with hunters, birdwatchers, fishers, paddlers, hikers and spelunkers (yes, there are caves in these bluffs, too), Pictured Rocks appeals to yet another category of outdoor enthusiasts.

“We attract huge numbers of rock climbers and rappellers,” says Michele Olson, Jones County naturalist. “In fact, Jones County manages more than 60 climbing routes here in collaboration with the Iowa Climbing Coalition.” Scanning the sheer cliffs, one can see embedded within them permanent anchors ready and waiting for the next round of gutsy ascenders. These are the only permanently anchored climbing routes in Iowa.

Leading hikers along a trail through an undeveloped hardwood forest running parallel to a mighty line of sun-drenched bluffs, she points out, “On fall weekends we have hundreds of people testing their skills on these cliffs. Our parking lot is usually filled, with many cars having out-of-state plates because people from all over the country come here. Lots of climbing clubs not only practice their techniques here, they also pitch in and help maintain Pictured Rocks.” 

Passing by a cave embedded in the 230-feet-high bluffs from which tiny plants and wildflowers cling, Olson discloses that the caves in this area do have bats. 

“Unfortunately we’ve had to close the caves to protect the bats against White Nose Syndrome which has already killed hundreds of thousands of them across the country,” she says. The only way to enter the caves at Pictured Rocks is to obtain a letter of authorization from the Jones County Conservation Board Director.

The forested valleys, extraordinary bluffs and unusual rock formations of Pictured Rocks serve as an impressive visual background for the annual October Fall Canoe Outing on the Maquoketa River that Jones County Conservation conducts. 

“We usually paddle about eight miles on our journey,” says Olson, “through beautiful stretches 
of scenery as we pass boulders and forested cliffs.” 

For paddler Libby Head of Cedar Rapids, a recent trip offered an opportunity to enjoy a rare tranquility. “The quiet of the river, the serenity of the landscape, and the peace of it all was mesmerizing,” she reflects. 

“Canoe shuttles can be expensive and often are difficult to arrange,” she adds, “so we really appreciated the opportunity to get our canoe on a river we hadn’t been on before and see more of Iowa.”

So ya’ see, it is this way! From hearing of horse thieves hiding far back in a dark, dank cave, to reading reports of inmates building a magnificent state park, to conversing with canoeists paddling down a wide, scenic river, the picture becomes clear: a visit to Wapsipinicon State Park and Jones County has to be penned in darkest ink on the bucket list.

Pictured Rocks County Park: Get climbing information and cave closure information at or 563-487-3541 190th Street, Monticello, IA 52310

Wapsipinicon State Park 21301 County Road E34 Anamosa, IA 52205 319-462-2761. Reserve campsites at 1-877-427-2757 or

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