Rolling green prairie, lightning bugs, the smell of sweet corn, the rumble of a farm vehicle going down main street. These are the sights and sounds of our summers in Iowa when we head back to John’s hometown and hang out with his family for a few weeks. While we usually get some work done — I work on my writing and John helps out at his parents’ business — we do set aside a day or two to explore the region. After a quick glance at Eastern Iowa on Google Maps I picked out Maquoketa Caves State Park, which John confirmed would be a great spot to explore one morning when the humidity dropped.
Reading reviews online, it seemed that Maquoketa Caves State Park is a very popular location with a fantastic rating when it comes to family recreation and adventure. I could tell from some of the comments that if we wanted to get pretty dirty (entering caves where crawling is the only way to get around) we’d have to pack headlamps, a change of clothes, and sturdy shoes. Lacking those essentials and equipped with iPhones and flip flops, we set out like city slickers after a hearty breakfast.
Highways, rural routes, and gravel roads took us to the paved entrance to the park where there was a turn off for a campground and signs that led us to the main trailhead area. There we were met by a park ranger who ran us through a brief program about White Nose Syndrome, which affects the caves’ bats. A few years ago the outbreak was so bad that they had to close the caves to visitors in order to protect the bat population.
We learned from the ranger that the fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome is not harmful to humans or pets but we do end up carrying it around while visiting the caves. Wiping our feet on green turf mats upon leaving helps track the spores around and we were advised to wash our closing and wipe down our gear when we got home. After the info session we were given wristbands, a map, and assured that flip flops were ok in the big caves.
Boardwalks and wooden bridges led down to over a dozen cave entrances with caves numbered 10 through 14 being passable on foot (without having to get down on your belly). I followed John into the “Dancehall” cave series after a bit of anxiety rushed over my body — I usually don’t like small, dark, confined spaces. Crouching down on the muddy path under the arching rock I could spot daylight on the other side, which helped me continue the rest of the journey.
We came out into a ravine where trails ran up the side and into another series of caves. We continued our climb and made it up to the “Valley Overlook Trail” that was reminiscent of hiking though Lynn Headwaters, but without the giant evergreens, pine cones, and raging mountain river below. Instead, thick vegetation lined the paths and acorns dotted the packed, leaf-covered soil.
The terrain was pretty steep and rocky, crossed by root networks and rubble, but we managed alright in our sandals. Next time, I just might be brave enough to try the other caves, provided we bring the right equipment to navigate the rest of the 6 miles of above and below ground trails. We dropped a donation in the bin on our way out as a school group was getting their orientation and wristbands from the ranger. For a morning stroll, it was invigorating to discover and explore such a unique piece of the Iowa landscape.
Related Post: Horne Lake Caves, Vancouver Island.