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Exploring Maquoketa Caves State Park and the Grant Wood Scenic Byway

  • 3/16/2016 4:42:00 AM
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Exploring Maquoketa Caves State Park and more along Iowa's Grant Wood Scenic Byway | Iowa Outdoors MagazineTraipse along Jackson County’s Grant Wood Scenic Byway for a trip through Iowa’s lifeblood.

From the March/April 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine

There’s a full moon over eastern Iowa. Cold, clear streams glisten like silver threads through fields and farmland. Moonbeams caress the southward pull of the Mississippi River. In this tiny swath of paradise between Maquoketa and Bellevue, man and nature have found a balance that sparkles on a chilly spring night.

A road winds through this bastion of traditional farmscape. The Grant Wood Scenic Byway leads travelers past local limestone structures, dairy farms and undulating hills that interstate drivers will never know.

Water sets this place a notch above the rest. Anglers hook into brown and rainbow trout from stocked, spring-fed streams. Paddlers embrace the manageable Maquoketa River. The Mississippi snugs right up to Bellevue, a rare river town without railroad tracks obscuring the views. Water-carved Maquoketa Caves State Park, and panoramic river views are the ultimate payoff for hikes in Bellevue State Park.

In Jackson County, along the Grant Wood Scenic Byway, if you come for the scenery, you’ll stay for the water.

Small wonders
Rowdy owls romp through mature pine trees. Coyotes yap. Lest one forget that this is Iowa, a cow joins the chorus. In a tent, nighttime at Maquoketa Caves State Park is an aural hoe-down.

This petite park on 323 acres, seven miles northwest of Maquoketa, is a state favorite. All 13 caves, formed by rainwater erosion in the limestone, are fair game for exploration. Six hearty miles of trails pass limestone formations, rugged bluffs and photo-ready features like a natural stone bridge 50 feet above the Raccoon Creek and a 17-ton “Balanced Rock.”

Judging by the arrowheads and pottery found long ago in the caves, the location has been popular for millennia. An on-site interpretive center fills in historic details. Jill and Kyle Gauley of Pella make their way through gigantic Dancehall Cave with sons Connor, 3, and Thomas, 6. The boys boulder over the chilly rocks, flashlights glinting into the dim depths.

“I see bats!” frets Connor.

“Bats won’t hurt you,” assures Jill. “Besides, there are no bats right here.”

The boys cram their small bodies through a mud-brown wall crevice.

“Wow!” sounds Thomas’ voice from within.

“Bats!” answers Connor.

The caves could easily swallow two days of rapt exploration. So it’s a good thing that Bluff Lake Catfish Farm, a few miles west, serves all-you-can-eat dinners through the weekend. The hour-long wait is doable between the bar, the ducks and geese and a catfish pond where the Friday night special lurks.

Elusive fish
The Grant Wood Scenic Byway stretches 60 miles between Anamosa and Bellevue. Steep hills, valleys, deep creek bottoms, high church spires and limestone buildings were inspiration for Iowa artist Grant Wood in the 1930s, who wrote: “A true art expression must grow up from the soil itself.” The regionalist began Stone City Art Colony near Anamosa to honor, with art, the subtle beauties of the Midwest.

The area inspired classic paintings as “Stone City” and “Fall Plowing,” but the drive is far from the county’s highlight. Leaving from Maquoketa Caves, following the byway toward Bellevue, stocked trout streams such as Big and Little Mill creeks and Brush Creek are about the best way to see some of Iowa’s best scenery.

“One thing about trout, they don’t live in ugly places,” says Bryan Hayes, the DNR fisheries biologist who keeps track of the streams. “This is spring-fed water, clear and cold, with rocky outcroppings, pretty trees alongside... nice country.”

Surprisingly, you don’t need a lot of equipment for trout fishing. Farm-style angling is not A River Runs Through It fancy (though it certainly can be). Trout fishing can be as easy as split-shot, Power Bait, rubber boots and the ability to be very sneaky.

Fisheries biologist Scott Gritters ties a spinner to his 2-pound light line along a section of Little Mill Creek. He points to a quiet pool just beyond a burbling riffle.

“I guarantee you there are 200 or 300 trout out there,” he says.

As Gritters walks the bank, he keeps his distance from the water until he’s ready to fish. If trout see you, they won’t bite. Trout swim facing upstream, and Gritters is essentially sneaking up on his catch. He casts—a feisty, quick swat—and allows his bait to flow back downstream toward him. He casts twice more, then moves on. If they aren’t biting, he says, they won’t be changing their minds soon.Gritters wends his way upstream, though some anglers work one site all day, fishing a little, letting the water rest for a half-hour, then fishing it again. 

Area farmers are generally open to sharing their stream access—just ask. The properties with permanent permission have DNR signs posted and wooden ladders across the fences. Consult a DNR trout map, which lists county plat numbers for public access points. However you find your sweet spot, remember: It’s good karma to leave sites cleaner than you found them and farm gates closed behind you.

Small town charms
Bellevue is a wee town with a fascinating lock and dam, a municipal park hugging the Mississippi and tasty ice cream at Grandpa’s Parlor on Main Street.

Bellevue’s character is cemented by an idyllic red structure—Iowa’s oldest gristmill—seated on the bank of Big Mill Creek. Retired Marshalltown doctor Daryll Eggers saved Potter’s Mill when he purchased it, in decrepit condition, in 1980. The foundation and 11-foot-thick dam that powered the mill were built with limestone from bluffs across the creek. Local timber (hand-hewn walnut and oak beams) framed it out.

In 1985, Eggers and his wife, Carolyn, opened Potter’s Mill as a restaurant. Today, new owners run bed-and-breakfast rooms upstairs and a barbeque and southern food restaurant with live blues and jazz. It’s the go to place for grits, ribs, gumbo and other classics.

“Townspeople still thank us for saving this place,” he says. “I have no doubt this building would not have been saved.”

To appreciate Bellevue’s status as an iconic Iowa town, see it from high above, in Bellevue State Park. The 720-acre beauty is known for panoramic views, Iowa’s largest butterfly garden (see sidebar) and nomadic Woodland mounds.

Oak and maple trees shimmer in the breeze, as park ranger Ron Jones explains the park once served as a golf course. “We still find golf balls up here,” he chuckles. Eight miles of trail wind through.

“This is probably my favorite park,” Jones says, looking out from Pulpit Rock near the main overlook, where groups pose for what’ll likely end up in the family Christmas card. “You can just sit up here, and use your imagination as to what it was like in the days of the Native Americans.”

Jones walks the chain-link fence protecting the mounds along a bluff. The local Native Americans honored the sun, moon and river, he says, and burying their dead here was a logical choice.

“They built these mounds one basket of dirt at a time,” he says. “Places like this got them as close as they could to their lifeblood.”

And just like that, Jones sums up the mystique of Jackson County. For Iowans who wander its fields and farms, watered and buoyed by its river and streams, the attraction is Iowa’s beauty—and the lifeblood that keeps it around.

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Exploring Maquoketa Caves State Park and more along Iowa's Grant Wood Scenic Byway | Iowa Outdoors Magazine