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.