In my previous post, 10 signs you’ve been on vacation, I introduced you to the southern end of Backbone State Park in northeastern Iowa, where John and I have rented a cabin one week during each of the past nine years. Besides having 16 cabins available for rental through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources site, the southern end of the state park sports a campground for trailers and tents. The northern end of the state park, in contrast, is especially appropriate for picnicking, hiking, rappelling, fishing and taking ankle-deep walks through streams. The western side of the state park does also have Six Pines Campground, which is designed for those who appreciate more primitive camping (i.e., pit latrines and no electricity).

Trout Fishing

We enjoyed a picnic at Ridgemont Springs, where there is a shelter providing ample shade on a sunny day. The picnic grounds also include grills, free-standing picnic tables outside the shelter, grassy areas for the kids to play Frisbee or croquet, and lovely woods for a relaxing view. Ridgemont Springs feeds more than 2,000 gallons per minute of water into the stream, which is known is known for its excellent trout fishing.

Ridgemont Springs

Until 1987, Ridgemont Springs supplied water to the fish hatchery. However, it was closed because so much water (1,500 gallons a minute) is needed to keep fish healthy. Where the hatchery used to flourish for almost 100 years, the earth is dotted with empty circles and impressive pine trees. The icy cold stream that Ridgemont Springs feeds supports three species of trout that don’t survive in warmer waters: brown, brook and rainbow.

Fish Hatchery

Did you know that Backbone State Park’s name originates from the ridge of bedrock carved by a loop of the Maquoketa River? Local folklore refers to the highest point as the Devil’s Backbone. Especially as you drive through the northern end of the state park, you can see the bedrock peeking out from behind the forests. Eighty percent of Backbone State Park is wooded. Twenty-one miles of hiking and multi-use trails criss-cross the park, with various levels of difficulty, so if birdwatching and photography are your passion, you’ll find plenty of inspiration here as you climb the twisting, rocky staircases. Because Iowa is known for farming, you don’t expect to see such rugged terrain, but this part of the state escaped the glaciers of the last Ice Age that flattened much of northern Iowa.


Surrounding Backbone State Park, which is located in Delaware County, are the typical farmlands and farmhouses you’d expect of rural Iowa.

Iowa Farmland

Throughout Backbone State Park you’ll see stone structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s. The building below is a restroom. One year when we rented a cabin, we entered one of these buildings and discovered bats inside. The bats, apparently, appreciate the shade and cooler temperatures found inside. At night, when the stars come out, those same bats devour insects, allowing you to enjoy a campfire without being bothered, especially by mosquitoes and gnats.


Near the Barred Owl Trail is the Auditorium, a roofed structure with windowless walls that you can reserve for group events. Inside are rows and rows of seating, with a raised platform on one end. I could see this as the perfect setting for an outdoor wedding, a graduation celebration, a family reunion, or a musical concert.


Near Balanced Rock, aptly named for the way it seems to float in space, is a cave. A steep, rocky staircase allows you to enter the cave, from which you’ll get a good view of the forest below. Because I am afraid of heights, I opted to take photos from the bottom of the staircase while John ascended.

Balanced Rock
John climbed the rocky staircase to the cave while I waited for him at the bottom.
John climbed the rocky staircase to the cave while I waited for him at the bottom.

After so many years of renting a cabin in the same place, you might think that we’d be looking forward to a different venue, but we always find something new to explore. Sometimes what fascinates us is close to the ground, other times it’s the way the sunlight dapples the leaves at eye level, and at dusk it’s simply the silhouette of pine needles against a fading sky.

Simple Things

In any event, we have already made reservations for next year.


© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

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5 thoughts on “Exploring the northern end of Backbone State Park”

  1. It’s such a beautiful area. Ooh, I would have loved to have gone up those stairs and explored the cave 🙂
    Sounds like you had a great time!

  2. Love that last shot of you two happy campers!! The abandoned hatchery circles are interesting. Love those CCC-era buildings!

  3. Paige @ Little Nostalgia

    What a great trip! I think it’s nice that you have a favorite vacation spot. We’ve been going to New York a lot, so I guess that’s becoming “our place.”

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