Richard Lewis, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0012
The Devil's in the Backbone
The Devil's in the Backbone
The Devil's in the Backbone
Editor’s note: The University of Iowa offers lots to do throughout the year, from arts performances to readings, and lectures to recreation. But sometimes faculty, staff, and students want to explore areas beyond campus. So University Communication and Marketing is publishing a series of “daytripper” stories this summer, pointing to fun, interesting, and uniquely Midwestern destinations within a day’s drive of Iowa City. Other stories in the series can be found here.
Last year, as I told my Rhode Island friends that my family and I were leaving the Ocean State for Iowa, many got a puzzled look. “Why are you moving to Ohio?” they’d ask. No, I’d say, Iowa. “Where? Idaho?” they replied more often than not. They, like many across our great land, have little concept of Iowa, save for anecdotal images of a vast, flat expanse dominated by fields of corn (and one iconic ball field, too) located somewhere in the middle of the country.
Of course, there is corn in Iowa—lots of it—but there are oases of beauty: vertigo-inducing bluffs and cliffs carved by the eons-long meandering of rivers across the prairie; undulating hills lapping toward the horizon like gentle waves of green; rich, dense forests of quiet and solitude to rival stands of hardwoods elsewhere. Indeed, the beauty of Iowa lies both in its minimalist, contrasting tableau of earth and sky and in less known attractions, some of which you’ll find in state parks that are an easy day trip from Iowa City and the University of Iowa campus.
Photos by Richard Lewis.
On a preternaturally cool July morning, my family and I hit the road for Backbone State Park, about an hour’s drive from our home in Mount Vernon and some 90 minutes’ travel north from Iowa City. The drive in itself is scenic, showcasing Iowa in its resident, rural profile: shades of green curving toward the horizon, sky speckled with rain-ripened clouds of gray as the one-lane highway curved through and around towns named Central City, Ryan, Coggon and Dundee. We first went to Backbone’s south entrance, which we found is more for picnickers content with watching children splash in the manmade Backbone Lake. There, a kindly ranger noticed me walking around aimlessly and gave me a map of the park. It showed that most of the hiking trails branch out from the east entrance, and so that’s where we went.
There are several trails there; we decided to take the Backbone Trail, a two-mile loop recommended by a colleague who goes with her family to the park every summer. Within minutes, the trail had turned from soft dirt to blocky patches of granite, which jutted up from the ground in irregular shapes and incongruent angles, challenging our every step. Cedar trees jutted from the top of the rocky formation. Just ahead, the central part of the trail seemed to disappear into a narrow-walled gully. The setting became more dramatic when we approached the trail’s edge, just several paces away from the middle: On either side, the path dropped at least 80 feet, straight down the bedrock face to the brown ribbon of the Maquoketa River on one side and a section of Backbone Lake on the other. We were dead on the spine of the “Devil’s Backbone,” and it’s easy to see why this spot is so named, for the view is equal parts exhilarating and frightening: one misstep and you have an express ticket to the undertaker. In other words, be careful and keep a firm grip on your children, because there are no barriers to catch you from an inadvertent tumble.
After white-knuckling our young boys through that panoramic gauntlet, the path smoothed out again, leading us into a forest in which mostly oak and maple trees reached up like spires wrestling for space in nature’s cathedral. The brief morning rains had given way to a blue, puffy-cloud sky, and a cool breeze whistled through the woods. We relaxed and strolled onward. “This place is beautiful,” marveled our 4-year-old, Nathaniel, as he gazed around. Meanwhile, our 2-year-old, Isaiah, had taken note of the numerous trees that had fallen throughout, a reminder that the woods have a rhythm all their own. “It’s spooky in here,” he remarked, before preoccupying himself again with gathering sticks.
Photo by Richard Lewis.
Backbone Trail is arguably the most scenic of the 21 miles of hiking in the 2,002-acre park, the first preserve dedicated in Iowa. Yet trails aren’t the only thing to see or do. We proceeded to Backbone’s north entrance. There, the road crossed over Richmond Springs, a quick-flowing stream filled with trout and popular with anglers, some of whom stood in the cool waters and fished right off the road. A little further ahead, we drove to another area and parked. Just off the lot was a short trail ending at a rock staircase that led to a cave. Nathaniel ran in without pausing, and I struggled to keep up, crouching as I crab-walked inside to avoid knocking my noggin on the cave’s 3-foot-high ceiling. Even a few steps in, the air temperature dropped dramatically, prompting me to shiver. Further in, it was completely dark, and without a flashlight, I couldn’t tell how deep the cave went. Nathaniel and his younger brother had gone silent, perhaps appreciating what it’s like to fear the unknown. Finally, he piped up, “There’s a bear in there!” and ran out.
I knew he was wrong, but then again, why chance it? So, I got out of there, too.
Wait, there are more state parks nearby
Eastern Iowa is blessed with several state parks within easy driving distance of Iowa City. We highlight two others here:Wapsipinicon and Palisades Kepler.
Wapsipinicon State Park is best known for the canoers, kayakers, and inner tubers who loll a day away drifting down the river from which the 251-acre park gets its name. But for those less adventurous (or with children too young to stick in a boat or inner tube), there are other things to do. One is to walk across the Hale Bridge, flown in by a helicopter in 2006 and said to be the only three-span bridge in the state. A short, concrete trail leads to the bridge, which affords a sweeping view on both sides to the lazy Wapsipinicon below. A short distance from the bridge, the road leads through Dutch Creek. Just off the road, children splash around in the clear and clean creek and rest on the sandbar-like strips of sand at the water’s edge. There’s also a nice playground nearby with a large shelter and at least a dozen picnic tables. There are two caves worth exploring, one believed to be a hideout for two horse thieves and the other offering a refreshing, cool respite to the heat of a summer day. Wapsipinicon is located in Anamosa, a charming community less than an hour’s drive from Iowa City. Stop into the Family Table Restaurant for lunch or an early dinner, a no-frills, friendly spot where children eat for $3 and you can get a tasty hamburger and fries for under $5.
Palisades Kepler is the little secret of a state park that’s located closest to Iowa City, off Highway 30 and a little west of Highway 1. Perhaps the most popular trail winds to and fro on a bluff that overlooks the Cedar River. You can also easily go right to the river’s edge at several locations, whether it’s to fish or to admire the current and the cliffs on the other side. Picnic spots abound—some well secluded—to complete a relaxing day outdoors, while Mount Vernon, home to Cornell College, the popular Lincoln Café, and the authentic Italian pizzeria Lincoln Wine Bar, is just two miles away.