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.

Jun 182013

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.