Travel Guide

Find your Inner Explorer at Maquoketa Caves State Park

Journalist Amie Rivers recently explored the sprawling cave systems and tranquil hiking trails of Maquoketa Caves State Park as part of her ongoing series Aime Takes a Hike. Rivers is a staff writer at Iowa Starting Line, a publication owned by Courier Newsroom.

Maquoketa Caves State Park is one of Iowa’s oldest state parks and a beloved summertime destination for families and thrill seekers. 14 caves wind from the north to the south of the park, some of which are massive caverns, such as the 800-foot Dancehall Cave. Others offer a challenge to thrill-seekers and spelunkers who don’t mind belly crawling through tight spaces to reach the innermost caverns.

For Amie Rivers, a bonus of exploring the caves in the summer is the refreshingly cool temperature inside. “Seriously, it’s instant air conditioning!” she says.

But there are more than just caves in this 111-acre nature reserve. Maquoketa is home to three trail systems. Visitors can choose between leisurely loops of less than an hour or day-long hikes spanning the entire park. Along the trail, hikers will encounter the tranquil Racoon Creek, gazebo structures, and wildlife. Of course, there are plenty of caves to see along the way.

Ancient Origins to Modern Wonder

The Maquoketa Caves formed over millions of years as rainwater dissolved the natural bedrock in the area. These natural wonders are still forming today—albeit very slowly—and visitors can see natural history in action at the park.

Inside the caves, visitors can hear the drip, drip, drip of water sliding off the tips of calcium-deposit stalactites. Over time, these drips form stalagmites on the cave floor, and in some cases, the stalactites and stalagmites meet to form majestic natural columns.

Our Native American predecessors made these caves their home, as archeological digs have revealed. And in the 1800s, Iowa’s first European-American residents used the caves for recreational activities.

“They basically turned them into a summertime Party Central,” writes Amie Rivers for Iowa Starting Line, a Courier Newsroom publication. Residents came to the area to kick back and relax. Dances were even held in the largest cave, Dancehall Cave, which takes its name from those events.

Exploring the Caves

Modern visitors won’t be able to attend parties and dances in the Maquoketa Caves, but there is still plenty to explore. Apart from the aforementioned Dancehall Cave, there are 13 other caves to visit.

Wye Cave is popular among spelunkers but not claustrophobes. Visitors can push and squeeze through winding tunnels to explore some of the park’s deepest caverns. For the less adventurous, Wide Mouth Cave offers refreshing temperatures and fantastic cave scenery without the need to squeeze or descend. And, it’s near the beginning of Ridge Trail, so it doesn’t take long to find.

There are a number of caves to explore on the trails, so guests can find a cave that suits them or simply explore the surrounding forest. “Although I’ve definitely gotten slither-on-my-belly dirty in these caves before, I decided just to go as far as a mild stoop this day,” Rivers recounts in Iowa Starting Line, a publication of Courier Newsroom.

Visiting the Park

Maquoketa Caves State Park is located in Jackson County, Iowa, north of the city of Maquoketa. The park is closed from mid-October to Mid-April to protect animal habitats, but visitors are welcome to explore the trails and caves through the summer.

Amie Rivers warns visitors to prepare before taking on any caves. “This isn’t your normal Iowa state park hike,” she says. She recommends visitors wear waterproof hiking boots and bring a headlamp to help navigate the pitch-black caves. Appropriate clothing is also important, especially when crawling or sliding through the tighter caves.

The beauty and thrills of Maquoketa Caves State Park make it unique in Iowa and the USA. According to Rivers, there’s no better park to satisfy your inner explorer while supporting one of the state’s most beloved nature reserves.

This story was originally published in Iowa Starting Line, a publication owned by Courier Newsroom.

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