“What’s up there? Is that where you hide your gold?”
A young man, perhaps eight years old, peeped out of a hole in the solid rock face of the cliff. He was somewhere in the twisty windy chambers of Up-N-Down Cave, while his father stood near us on the hiking trail below.
“No!” he yelled down, and in moments, tumbled out of a hole near our feet. We all laughed. After several hours in Maquoketa Caves State Park, we’d seen this played out several times: the kids vanish into a hole in the earth hardly wide enough to squeeze through and pop out somewhere completely different, streaked with mud, laughing.
We’d been on our way to dinner with the cousins, and after an hour’s drive through cornfields, turned off the Grant Wood Scenic Byway into a leafy glade with a big sign for Maquoketa Caves. Caves in the middle of Iowa cornfields? It piqued our interest enough that we returned the next day to check out the park for ourselves.
Discovered in the 1830s by settlers, the Maquoketa Caves were occupied by native tribes for millenia, as evidenced by pottery shards and projectile points you can see in interpretive displays at the visitor center. Added to the Iowa State Parks system in 1921, the park’s facilities – restrooms, shelters, trails, and walkways – date back to the 1930s, that classic Civilian Conservation Corps construction, including the long, dimly lit tunnel through Dance Hall Cave.
Having just finished reading Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, it was a delight to discover a swarm of families tumbling over one another, raring to explore, on Labor Day Weekend. In stark contrast to most parks we’ve visited, where the list of rules and regulations is several miles long and you certainly aren’t allowed to touch, Maquoketa Caves State Park lets you climb right in. First comes a short orientation, after which the ranger provides your free permit to explore a complex of 17 caves in a deep cleft in the earth.
Common sense rules. Carry a flashlight, or even better, a flashlight and a headlamp with backup batteries in your pocket. Keep a spare set of clothes in the car if you want to do some serious cave crawling, as it’s wet and muddy in these deep, dark spaces. And keep tabs on your party. You never know where they might end up.
“I don’t know what it is!” Her eyes wide, a woman with a few streaks of mud on her clothes pointed to a very large bug on her shirt.
“I crawled out of that cave and it was on my shirt,” she said. She touched it tentatively. “It looks like a slug, but it feels hard, like a snail.”
It seemed harmless. We left her pondering her passenger and continued to where we heard voices echoing along the far wall of the gorge we’d climbed into, the central feature of Maquoketa Caves State Park. The trail system works on two levels: an upper trail stays above the rim of the gorge, circling it through the forest. If you want to get down and dirty in the caves, you have to climb down one of the steep staircases to the bottom of the valley, all of which can be found where the entrance road and gorge intersect.
Reaching Ice Cave, we found a virtual conga line of cavers – mostly families with kids – snaking their way in and out of the cave. It was as chilly as a freezer inside, a refreshing break from the summer heat outside. Working our way down the valley wall, we found a stream flowing out of Rainy Day Cave, and John – wearing waterproof boots – walked up it into the dark, headlamp blazing, to figure out how far he could go. My headlamp quit, but that wasn’t a problem at Dance Hall Cave. You guessed it – the entrance was big enough for folks to hold dances here. A pile of breakdown sits in front of the cave.
While some families scrambled up and over the breakdown, others splashed up the stream flowing out of the cave, and still others took the beaten path into the cave. The channel squeezes down tightly, but lights overhead provide a dim, spooky glow as you splash through 1,100 feet of linear chamber.
A sinkhole collapsed into the center part of the cave, creating a new entry and exposing two levels of tunnel-like tunnels that intrepid explorers echoed through. We passed a family tableau: older members staring up at the young man peering out of a passage several feet over their head. “If I jump, can you try to catch me?” he yelled.
The enormity of Dance Hall Cave contrasts with the smaller caves found beyond it. Following the flow of Raccoon Creek upstream, trails lead under a large natural bridge up both sides of the valley. We stuck to the right, finding Up-N-Down Cave occupied. John convinced me to squeeze into Hernando’s Hideway for a photo. It was a trick to tumble back out!
We snacked near Twin Arch before descending to the valley floor to find Cave #1 on the map, Wide Mouth. True to its word, it had one. A duck-and-crawl entrance led us into a chamber lined with old formations, including columns, and several that were still dripping.
A couple of kids popped out of a deeper hole. “There’s a baby bat in there!” they said. Given how tiny brown bats are, it was probably full-sized. The park closes the caves to visitors between mid-October and mid-April to let the bat colonies have some rest.
Coming back along the other wall of the valley, we discovered Match Cave. The entrance reminded me of the hole that Winnie the Pooh got stuck in, so there wasn’t a chance that I’d try my luck climbing into it. We peeked into the very last cave before hopping across Raccoon Creek for a final meander through the Dance Hall again. As we climbed up the steep staircase through the breakdown in the middle, John decided he needed one more explore. He stepped into a skinny tube and popped out over the sunlit sinkhole in the middle of the Dance Hall.
“This is the best state park ever!” I said, feeling as gleeful as a kid for the first time in years. A day’s worth of playing in Maquoketa Caves State Park had us both grinning from ear to ear.
Visiting Maquoketa Caves
Open dawn to dusk daily, Maquoketa Caves State Park is seven miles northwest of Maquoketa off US 61, about an hour south of Dubuque. Access is free; there is a small fee for the visitor center. The park has a 29-site campground plus hiker shelters and two youth group campsites. NOTE: The park is closed through August 24, 2018 due to road construction and renovation of the campground.
Caving is open only from April 15 – October 15. All visitors who plan to enter the caves must attend a short, mandatory program on white nose syndrome, a fungus that is killing bats throughout caves throughout the Midwest. If you’ve recently visited a show cave in the Midwest, don’t wear the same clothes or carry the same gear here without thoroughly disinfecting all items first. You’ll be asked to walk through a disinfectant tray (for the soles of your shoes) before entering the trail system, but it’s best to make sure your clothes, headlamps, and backpacks have not been in contaminated areas as well.
You’re responsible for your own gear and your own safety. This is a hands-on outdoor activity with the associated risks of slipping and falling on slick surfaces and in dark, tight places. Please avoid touching any live formations. There aren’t many, but you’ll know them when you see them.
Down a dirt road and a steep hill beyond the far edge of the park, Bluff Lake Catfish Farm is known regionally for its excellent family-style fish dinners. We’re glad Cousin Gertie introduced us to it, as taking her and her husband Dick to eat there led us to discover this state park!