We came home last Friday from a week-long cabin retreat at Backbone State Park in northeastern Iowa. Although the cabin itself is modern, there is no telephone, Internet or television. We love being able to unplug for a little while!

Side view of cabin

Most people think of Iowa as farm country. Although large parts of Iowa are indeed rural, many folks are surprised to learn there are 53 state parks in Iowa. Backbone State Park is the oldest and is named, according to an official brochure, “ . . . for its narrow and steep ridge of bedrock carved by a loop of the Maquoketa River. Folklore named this high ridge of rock the ‘Devil’s Backbone’.” You can see the bedrock, nestled in the greenery, as well as the Maquoketa River, below. Maquoketa (ma KOH ki tah), which is also a city on the eastern border of Iowa, is a Mesquaki native American word that roughly means “bears were here.”

Backbone ridge

One hundred years ago, state geologist Samuel Calvin described the park as follows:

Its sides are in places precipitous, the rocky cliffs rising sheer for more than 80 feet. Erosion and secular decay have carved the rocks into picturesque columns, towers, castles, battlements and flying buttresses.

Ridge formation

Climbers and rappellers can take advantage of the more rugged trails and climb the rocks, if they wish, but they need to check in first with the park ranger’s office. John and I are not among this crowd, but we do enjoy the beauty of the “backbone” that runs through the park.

Climbers and Rappellers

The park is divided into different areas for bicycling, boating, camping, climbing, fishing, hiking, or picnicking, so it is not a stretch to say there’s something here for everyone. There are 16 modern cabins for you to choose from if you rent a cabin as we do, but if you prefer to camp, either in an RV or in a tent, there are 127 campsites that are available.

State park map

This was our eighth year, renting a cabin at Backbone, and the seventh in which we stayed in the same one, Hawk’s Roost. I would love to know if a hawk actually had something to do with the naming of the cabin, or of that specific location, but I doubt anyone can provide that information besides, perhaps, the park ranger. However, I can attest to the fact that you can find all kinds of other birds, such as chickadees, eagles and geese.

Bird Collage

One thing I can say for certain is that four-footed creatures are alive and well at the state park. After a late dinner on the first night, John took out the trash to the communal dumpster up the cabin road. To my surprise, he returned with the same bag.

“Looks like this isn’t the best time,” he said. “There’s a raccoon that’s sitting on the dumpster lid. When I pointed my flashlight at him, he just stared at me as if he was asking, ‘Whaddya want?’ and then he dove into the dumpster three times for dessert.”

A better time to visit the dumpster is early in the evening, after you’ve cooked your food over the campfire. For most of the rest of the week, John grilled sometime between four and six o’clock in the evening.

John grilling dinner

There are three sizes of cabins at Backbone State Park, and ours is one of the medium-sized ones. The first year we stayed here, however, we rented one of the smaller cabins, which was just refurbished by the Amish. On the left you’ll see the cabin we rented in 2006. On the right is the same cabin today.

Cabin No. 7 Collage

Although Backbone State Park cabins are rented by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, they are maintained by Mike and Kelly Peterman and their two daughters, Nicole and Jnae (pronounced jiNAY). During the daytime, you can purchase some basic supplies from the concession stand, which is called the Beach Store.

Concession Stand Collage

The Beach Store is on the left side of  The Lodge, where graduation, retirement and birthday celebrations frequently are celebrated.

The Lodge

You can rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboat at the boathouse, also maintained by the concessionaires. No matter how many times or what time of day we visit the boathouse, it is always beautiful.

Boathouse Collage

You can climb the stairs all the way to the top of the boathouse tower and take spectacular photos of the surrounding area.  Four years ago, we discovered bats at the top of the tower, but they didn’t bother us because it was daytime and they were asleep. At night, when we sit in front of the campfire and look up at the sky, you can see bats flying between the treetops. I am sure they are feeding on mosquitoes, so they are doing a good deed!

Bats in the Boathouse

On our way to the state park, I made a list of the towns we pass, if for no other reasons than to establish in my mind where they are located geographically. We passed the water tower of Evansdale (where two little cousins’ bikes were found near a lake last summer, but the girls’ bodies were not discovered until months later in the woods), as well as the towns of Jesup, Independence, Oelwein, Quasqueton, Cedar Rock (23 miles away from Backbone, where a Frank Lloyd Wright house was built), and Dundee. As you travel along the road you see typical Iowa farm country, which means rolling fields dotted with cows, grain silos and barns.

Rural Iowa Collage

At this time of year the crops are nothing more than short shoots of green, poking up their heads from the furrows the tractor has dug for them. Where there is grass, however, it’s that lovely shade of spring green that you encounter during early summer, after lots of rain. And if a storm is coming, you need no weather forecast to warn you because you can see it approaching from miles away because of the open countryside.

Stormy Sky Near Jesup, IA

Last Wednesday afternoon, the air was heavy and still, typical tornado weather. We were, in fact, under a tornado watch. “It feels,” John said, “as if a cloud could brush up against the top of a tree, and the water would let loose.” His words were prophetic. The park ranger knocked on our door to let us know the park was under a severe thunderstorm warning at the same time that the alarm on our weather radio sounded. This part of the state has gotten a lot of rain recently. We noticed that flooding caused river bank erosion, with trees being uprooted and carried downstream, sometimes lodging beneath bridges. This walking bridge will likely have to be replaced.

Flooding 2013

This part of the state is not a stranger to flooding. In 2006, some parts of the state park were unusable.

2006 Flooding

Our cabin, I must admit, has pretty generous proportions. The kitchen is three-quarters the size of the one we have at home, and the living room is about the same size. There are two bedrooms, one that is larger toward the front of the cabin and one that is smaller toward the back of the cabin. John and I sleep in the smaller bedroom because it feels more private and snuggy back there, and we put all of our storage items—suitcases, plastic storage tubs, bags and the like—in the larger bedroom.Cabin CollageThe bathroom is larger than either of our two bathrooms in Urbandale, but has a shower stall instead of a bathtub. Because there are not enough towel rods, we bring a couple of spring-loaded café rods, and hang them at intervals in a corner alcove in front of some shelving. This has worked well over the years, allowing towels and wash cloths to dry during the daytime in time for use mornings and evenings.


I must admit that using café rods is a lot more practical for hanging items than the solution we used the first summer we rented a cabin and were unprepared for rainy weather and bras that had to be dried in a cabin that did not have a single towel bar! (Yes, that is duct tape holding up those hangers. Embarrassing, but effective.)

Duct Tape bras

One of the things that is not as nice in the cabin as it is at home is the shower itself. The water heater is old or small, probably both, so you run out of hot water in less than 10 minutes if you run the showerhead continuously. Since there are two of us, we try to be mindful of the next person to use the shower. We take Navy-style showers, getting ourselves wet and then turning off the water, soaping up, and then rinsing off.

One of the main joys of staying at Backbone State Park is having the opportunity to take long, uninterrupted walks with nature all around you. One day we walked for two hours from our cabin to the South Lake Campground located on the western shore of the lake, and back. Along the way, we crossed a bridge that arches over a stream of the Maquoketa River. This stream flows throughout the park and is known for its trout fishing opportunities.


The edge of the road is bordered with pretty flowers, and when the trees are in blossom, they hang over the deck rail of our cabin.

Flower Collage

Our walk took us past the ranger station to Backbone Lake’s spillway, which helps keep the lake at acceptable levels during heavy rains.

Spillway with boathouse in background

Everywhere you look, you see stout old trees with interesting bark patterns.

Tree Bark Collage

From a distance, I thought this rotting tree trunk looked like Dorothy’s Toto in “The Wizard of Oz.”


There are a number of trails to walk, bike or hike—21 miles of them, in fact. However, the West Lake Trail that we often explore was too muddy to walk. It is one way of reaching the South Lake Campground. We took the road instead, which stretched our uphill walking muscles.

West Lake Trail Collage

When the concrete for the road was poured, leaves from the trees left their imprints, almost like petroglyphs at an archaeological dig.

Leaf Print Collage

When we reached the South Lake Campground, I was amused by the sign in the bathhouse.

Bathhouse sign

As we walked through the campgrounds, we noticed that nature and wildlife education are important goals of Backbone State Park.

Education Collage

Between the playgrounds at the campground and near the boathouse, the woods, walking trails and the beach, children are provided with ample play space.

Play Space Collage

The campground nearest us is divided into one area for RVs, and another area for tents. Picnic areas are sprinkled throughout the campground.

South Lake Campground Collage

As we returned to our cabin, we passed a private picnicking area that appeared to be abandoned. When we asked the concessionaires’ daughter, Jnae, about it, she said that as long as her parents had been running concessions, this private area had not been used. We thought it had possibilities as an outdoor wedding reception area. Later, I searched on the Internet for “Forest Village Resort.” It was listed as an RV park/campground, but as Jnae told us, it appeared to be completely inactive.

Forest Villa Resort Collage

It is difficult to describe how large the lake at Backbone State Park is, but this photo shows the southern half. When your eyes can see no more, the lake curves to the left.

Lake view

This incredible pine tree stands a little off to the side and in front of our cabin.

Tree outside cabin

One of our favorite times of the day takes place during the evening, when we light a campfire and sit outside until the fire dies down.

It is hard to believe that back in 1920, Backbone State Park did not exist. In 1923, six thousand trees were planted here by the Daughters of the American Revolution of Iowa.

Six Thousand Trees Collage

We already made our reservations to return to Backbone State Park next year. You can hear, from the peaceful sounds in the background of this video, why our spirits are lifted when we do our annual cabin retreat.

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

About The Author

10 thoughts on “Getting unplugged at Backbone State Park”

  1. Welcome back Judy 🙂
    It looks so peaceful there. I think I’d enjoy staying there! So glad that our four-legged friends are doing great and the raccoon story is hilarious! Great shot of the bats!

  2. Trina (Trina's Clay Creations)

    What a great place to relax and unwind! Thank you for sharing your vacation with us!

  3. Paige @ Little Nostalgia

    How beautiful! I didn’t know that Iowa had so many state parks, either, but I bet every state has more than we think. It sounds like you had a great time! I’m not much of a camper, but I could totally do a sweet cabin like yours.

  4. Wow, what an extensive photo tour! Honestly I enjoyed your photos of the highways in Iowa more than anything. They take me right back to living there. I love the big skies.

  5. What a wonderful getaway! It reminds me of Lake Herman State Park in South Dakota, within biking distance of my home town. Thank you for sharing the photos and videos.

  6. How great to get away for a while! (though I must admit I could never go that long without internet…lol)
    The shots of the water are all so pretty..love the reflections. And the spillway is cool too.
    I can totally see a dog out of that old tree stump…how cool!

  7. Splendid Little Stars

    aaahhhh…Backbone State Park looks like a relaxing and lovely place to visit.
    clever drying solutions!
    wonderful pine tree!
    interesting that the DAR planted all those trees.

  8. Beautiful photos! I would love to try that outdoor climbing the sign says you have to register for. It’s crazy the forest was basically planted there 90 years ago! Goodness – is that right? 90 years? When did things in the 20th century get to be so long ago?

  9. it looks like a wonderful place to stay. You must enjoy it if you’ve returned so often! Hate to say it, but I don’t know what my DH would do without a television. Fish, I guess… Glad you got to get away! {:-D

  10. I know this post is old, but I stumbled upon it in my research of the cabins at Backbone. Today I’m getting ready to make reservations for a 3-day stay and the hardest part has been which cabins to reserve! The family Moderns look close together (and on Google street view, full of yahoos) and I was confused as to why the large named cabins were cheaper than the deluxe. Argh! Anyway – I am so glad I bumped into your review – I can’t wait to make my own memories!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

186,030 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments

Scroll to Top