Jun 182015

We spent last week at Backbone State Park in northeastern Iowa once more for the 10th consecutive year. If you have never rented a cabin in a state park, it’s a wonderful experience, especially because it gives you the opportunity to unplug and completely unwind. Unless we head into nearby Manchester for supplies, there is no telephone, television or Internet. The state park itself is nestled in the middle of rural Iowa farm country, so even when you’re not at Backbone, everything feels like it’s operating—delightfully—at half-speed.

IMG_5752 - Farm Country

To be honest, the cabin we rent is not exactly rustic—it’s an air-conditioned cabin with a refrigerator, microwave and stove—in addition to two bedrooms and a queen-sized futon in the full-sized living room that is bigger than our own. Although we did spend time outdoors, this year’s unseasonably warm, humid early June weather definitely called for the air-conditioning to be turned on!

Cabin Interior

We checked into our cabin on Friday evening. By the time it was eight-thirty, we were hungry but still not completely unpacked, so we drove into Manchester for supper at the Fireside Pub & Steakhouse, where we enjoyed nachos and the best pizza (really!) we have ever eaten. You can tell from our happy faces that the food hit the spot! If I had thought about it, I would’ve handed the server my iPhone to snap our picture, but I didn’t think of it at the time and instead took individual shots of us.

Fireside Pub & Steakhouse

Our son, David, drove out from Indiana for much of the week, which was a special treat for us. I think he got a chance to relax, too.

David relaxes outside

Every evening but Thursday, when it rained buckets all day, we grilled our dinner outdoors over the fire pit, and sometimes we enjoyed roasted marshmallows much later, when the stars came out. But there was at least one fire every night but Thursday, filled with appropriate chat and silence, in equal measures. One night after our dinner campfire, we took a walk along the East Trail Lake. When we returned a couple of hours later, David stacked the wood chimney-style and blew on the still-hot embers to get a second campfire started.


John and David paddled a canoe around sunset on Backbone Lake one evening, while I enjoyed being a passenger. Because we had never done this previously, we didn’t realize how shallow some parts of the lake are. At one point David dipped his paddle and hit bottom, pointing out we probably had less than 18 inches of water below us. It made me feel foolish for wearing a life vest, but at least I can say I was following safe boating practices. John and David sat on theirs—ha!

Paddling the canoe at Backbone Lake

Despite the shallow water in some parts of the lake, we still enjoyed being on the water. In the photo below, you can see a rock formation against the shoreline. If you use your imagination, you can see how it resembles part of a backbone. Backbone State Park is known for this type of bedrock, carved by a loop of the Maquoketa (ma-KOH-ka-tah) River.

Backbone Lake shore rock formation

Paddling a canoe around sunset provides an excellent opportunity to take photos. I can’t take credit for the beautiful ones below; David took the first two from the canoe using his iPhone, and the last one from the dock.



Dusk outisde the boathouse

The sun was setting as we pulled into the boat dock. I had it pretty easy as John and David tied up the canoe across from the boathouse.

John and David tie up the canoe outside boathouse

We hiked along the East Lake Trail, which parallels Backbone Lake. In the photos below, you can see more examples of backbone-like rock formations.

East Lake Trail ridge

In front of our cabin is an immense, mature pine tree that provides a lot of shade over our fire pit and picnic table. David couldn’t resist climbing it—probably to make me nervous, as I’m not fond of heights.

David climbs pine tree outside cabin

One day last week, we had perfect kiting weather. John and David flew a stunt kite on a hill next to Backbone Lake while I tried to follow the kite with my iPhone lens.

One afternoon we played a board game called Firefly (yes, based on the Firefly film series) and enjoyed root beer floats at the same time. Both were thoroughly enjoyable!

Playing the game of Firefly

Next year we hope to rent the same cabin again. There are small, medium and large cabins at the state park, and ours is called Hawk’s Roost, one of the medium-sized ones. A porch wraps around the back, where a picnic table and benches sit—great for when it rains. We also store our firewood on the deck to keep it dry. The cabin is surrounded by trees, bushes and a large grassy area. The people in the cabin next to us used their grassy area to play croquet. Our neighbors on the other side spent most of their time trout fishing, for which Backbone State Park is known. Behind Hawk’s Roost are woods with lots of oak and maple trees, the East Lake Trail and Backbone Lake.

Outside the cabin

You couldn’t ask for a better summer getaway, or a better place to create some family memories!

Beneath the pine tree outside cabin

© 2015 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jun 232014

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.

Jun 152014

You know when you’ve been on vacation when . . .

  • you come home to ankle-high grass
  • all the items you unload from your vehicle(s) make you want to leave for another vacation
  • you’re grateful your neighbor collected the newspaper you forgot to cancel and the package you forgot you ordered
  • after five loads of laundry, you can’t believe the end is not in sight
  • the luncheon meat left in the refrigerator has passed its “best when eaten by” date
  • you thought you got away cleanly without any insect bites, but then the itching begins
  • your laptop is loaded with unread e-mails and waiting-to-be-configured software updates
  • you’re still eating leftovers two days after you come home
  • the mail held by the Post Office consists mostly of unsolicited catalogs, credit card offers, and invitations to tour senior living communities
  • you want to extend your vacation because it went by too quickly.

Yes, that’s exactly how we felt when we came home from a week spent at Backbone State Park in northeastern Iowa. This is the ninth consecutive year we’ve rented a cabin there, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. In fact, it feels more like our home away from home, but a nice, uncluttered one where you can sit down and relax immediately. I admit we do bring a few comforts from home, and that helps.

Cabin Collage

Except for last week Saturday, when it rained, the weather was perfect with temperatures in the mid-70s. Every evening, as the sun set, we built a campfire and either toasted marshmallows or read books, courtesy of our e-readers and tiki-style torches.


It was nice to visit with Nicole Peterman, one of the concessionaires’ daughters. During the school year, she teaches and this year is also completing her master’s degree, but during the summer she helps her parents manage the concession stand. When you arrive at Backbone State Park, this is where you check in and collect your cabin key, and also where you can pick up snacks, drinks, firewood, and other conveniences.


We were charmed, when we pulled up in front of our cabin, to discover that the 2013 Industrial Technology Class of Maquoketa Valley High School had installed a lending library-on-a-post just across from our parking space. It was stocked with about two dozen titles. The glass door is etched with the words, “Take a Book. Leave a Book. Free Book Exchange.” All week long, we observed cabin residents borrowing books or returning them. What a great idea!


I keep a dedicated journal when we stay at Backbone State Park. It’s great to return to previous years’ entries and re-live the memories.


Every year we learn a new fact or two about Backbone State Park. This time we learned that the boathouse, concession stand and Backbone Lake dam were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. By the end of 1933, there were 22 CCC camps in Iowa, providing work for young men who would otherwise be out of work. The men were paid $30 a month, plus room and board, but $25 of their pay was sent home to their families. Two of the camps were located at Backbone State Park and were served by about 200 men. The men gathered native materials to build structures, splitting tons of stone for walls and foundations, and felling trees for log beams and posts. Camp SP-2, Company 1756, constructed the dam for the 125-acre Backbone Lake, as well the boathouse and bathhouse. The bathhouse later became the combined concession stand and Beach Lodge, which can be reserved for weddings, graduations, birthdays and other group events. Camp SP-17, Company 781, performed reforestation and erosion control, as well as construction of roads and trails. Backbone Lake is actually a reservoir formed from the damming of the Maquoketa River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, that has been flowing through 150 miles of Iowa since the last Ice Age 16,000 years ago.

This is the original boathouse. In the background you can see the bathhouse, which today is the Beach Store and Lodge.

This is the original boathouse. In the background you can see the bathhouse, which today is the Beach Store and Lodge.

The boathouse today looks very similar to the original one.

The boathouse today looks very similar to the original one. The view in the black-and-white photo faces the lake, while this view faces the shore.

The Beach Store and Lodge look very different from the original from the original bathhouse, although the basic structural lines are the same.

The Beach Store and Lodge look very different from the original bathhouse, although the basic structural lines are the same.

When the reservoir that is now Backbone Lake was formed, two spillways were created. They are easier to see from the other side of the lake.

When the reservoir that is now Backbone Lake was formed, two spillways were created, one on each side of the trees in the center of the photo.

During our annual cabin retreat at Backbone State Park, we make regular trips into the nearby town of Manchester to buy groceries, torch lamp oil and other supplies. One day of each stay, John arms himself with a shopping list and drops me off at The Quiltmaker’s Shoppe so I can shop for fabric. This is always a treat. I tend to buy fabric in half-yard cuts, and plan later what I’ll do with it—probably sew bags, journal covers, and organizers. In the photos below you’ll see Mary Ann at the cash register, and Carol near the cutting table.

The Quiltmakers Shoppe

One of the delights, of course, of being at Backbone State Park, is enjoying nature. You can always find raccoons, both in the forest and in the waste bins. When we chatted with Nicole at the concession stand one day, we remarked that last year John learned that you don’t want to take your trash out to the waste bin at midnight because that’s party time for the raccoons.

“They’re pretty clever,” I said. “They get into everything.”

“Not that clever,” said Nicole. “There was one that knew how to get into the trash bin, but not out. I had to stick a wooden pole in there for it to climb and get out.”

When we were at the northern end of Backbone State Park, we spotted this raccoon, playing in a trout stream.

When we were at the northern end of Backbone State Park, we spotted this raccoon, playing in a trout stream.

Our cabin is located at the southern end of Backbone State Park, but on the last day of our stay, we visited the northern side, which has its own surprises. In my next post, I’ll fill you in.

© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.