Amie Takes A Hike: Backbone Remains, Well, The Backbone Of Iowa’s State Parks

The rocky, picturesque Backbone Trail at Backbone State Park.

I’m hiking every state park or other cool hiking place I can think of around my home state, to showcase the natural beauty Iowa has to offer. Follow along here, or on social media using #AmieTakesAHike, to pass along your suggestions and see where I’m headed next.

You can’t ask 10 Northeast Iowa hike enthusiasts about their favorite spots without at least nine of them mentioning this stunningly unique place.

Backbone State Park in Dundee is officially Iowa’s very first state park. Dedicated in 1920, its most recognizable feature is the “Devil’s Backbone,” dolomite limestone bedrock that juts straight upward from the winding Maquoketa River below in what appears, from above, to resemble the vertebrae of a spine.

Dolomite limestone you’ll walk over at Backbone.

It’s a popular spot for rock climbers. But you can also drive up to the top and walk along for the incredible views without needing ropes and harnesses (and rock-climbing skills).

The hike

Backbone has seven trails encompassing 21 miles within its more than 2,000 acres. They cover a wide variety of terrain, from a lake loop to a prairie walk to a hike that leads to a cave and more—all definitely worth exploring.

Backbone is marked with 4 on this partial map of the park.

But the pièce de résistance has to be the Backbone trail, which manages to have both dolomite to scuttle over as well as a shady, wooded loop, bringing you down to the river’s edge and back up to the parking lot, all in under a mile.

The trail, at least the dolomite cliffs part, isn’t for those afraid of heights or those unable to navigate up and down rocky terrain. You can get as close as you’d like to the very edge, and even hike down to the river in non-official steep dirt tracks, providing a nice, challenging thrill and some lovely vistas from up high (the DNR ranks it as “moderate” difficulty).

Just don’t mess around, and keep an eye on kids near the edges—falls causing injury aren’t common, but they do happen on that section of trail.

“You’re too close to the edge, Amie!” ~my mother from somewhere in the ether

Once you’re past the short rocky cliff section, the trail descends down into the forested river valley and loops around itself to follow the loop of the Maquoketa River, which carved out those cliffs over millennia (now so low, you could walk right across). You’ll still have to watch your step on this section, but this time it’s for the numerous tree roots providing a natural staircase around the loop.

Trust me when I say you wanna stop walking before you take a photo.

The sights and sounds

The Backbone Trail is the “highest point in northeast Iowa,” according to the Iowa DNR, and thus is a great place for spotting swooping eagles, turkey vultures, and hawks, plus just naturally taking in the views. Besides the very cool-looking ancient dolomite, the twisted, craggy cedar trees at the top are another unique feature of the trail.

This tree has seen some things.

Though there are plenty of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks, there wasn’t otherwise much wildlife along this stretch. This is probably because it’s the most popular trail in the park for human visitors. Those searching wildlife out specifically might try the 7.4-mile Forest Trail (which also allows public hunting when in season).

For a shorter jaunt, the Barred Owl Trail (a 0.4-mile moderate hike that includes the cave), Six Pines Trail (rated “difficult,” but only about a half-mile), or Bluebird Trail (the lone “easy” hike in the park) are more off the beaten path, providing a better chance of spotting more animals.

A well-trod single track.

The verdict

Every time I get to Backbone, I take a different trail and see new things in various seasons. There’s so much different terrain to explore, from a cave to high cliffs overlooking the river to a beach and walk around the lake or challenging, steep hikes through the wilderness.

There’s a reason it’s busy year-round and is right up there with the hikes people immediately told me I should do for this series: Backbone State Park is a gorgeous, river-carved wonder of nature, with plenty to recommend it. I always leave wanting to do one more trail, and I bet you will too.


By Amie Rivers

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2 Comments on "Amie Takes A Hike: Backbone Remains, Well, The Backbone Of Iowa’s State Parks"

  • This comment is just a test, after several unsuccessful attempts to post a different comment on this essay.

  • I don’t know why my other comment keeps being refused. It has no bad words, and it insults no one and nothing except water pollution.

    But I will give up trying to post it and and will just point out that the lake in Backbone State Park, Backbone Lake, has really bad water, like so many Iowa public lakes. Iowans deserve good public lakes as well as good public trails.

    We need to end our collective resignation to our state’s massive water problem and tell our state legislators that we want meaningful action for clean water NOW. There are a few basic steps the Iowa Legislature could take that would make a major difference, and those steps need to be taken.

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