Maquoketa Caves State Park – Camping Visit!

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I present to you, the coolest place to hike in Iowa. My love for caves has deep roots; growing up, my grandparents lived in Arkansas so we frequently visited the show caves in neighboring Missouri. There is something so thrilling about walking underground for me, and it never gets old! When I was a teenager, I did an incredible “wild caving” tour of the Kentucky Mammoth Caves with my brother. Moving to Cedar Falls, I was super excited to hear that there were similar opportunities only two hours away but they closed the caves around the same time in an effort to prevent a bat disease from spreading. Last summer I finally got to see them in person when we went to Maquoketa Caves State Park and camped overnight; we had so much fun we’re hoping to make it an annual family tradition!

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You can find the official Maquoketa Caves State Park page here; there are two trail maps on their page but I highly recommend using this one that actually has the different caves listed out. When you’re planning your trip, another great source of information is this post at Iowa Parklands, with lots of tips on the trails.

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How cool are these nifty trail bandanas for the park!

This post at Canoe There has beautiful photos and more information about the caves themselves. There are more cave pictures and descriptions on this post at Cavechat, as well as a bunch of reviews and thoughts on TripAdvisor.

Their page mentions a mandatory program to learn about White Nose Syndrome before you explore, but we didn’t see any signage about it. I emailed the Iowa DNR to ask for clarification; they said that a staffer at the main shelter house talks to people before they go in, but to go ahead if no one is there when you arrive. It is a disease that affects bats (not humans!) but we can carry the plant spores on our hands or feet. If you plan on exploring any other cave systems at other parks, be sure to wash your shoes well and wash your hands well, regardless.

What else I couldn’t find before going, was a list of the caves and how treacherous they were. You definitely want to bring head lamps (we have really liked these!*) or at the very least, flashlights. I took a few quick notes once I thought of it, but hopefully this year when we go back I can take more thorough pictures and notes for a full report!

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The park itself isn’t terribly large; you drive in by the big sign and then there is a main parking spot by this little lodge, with a nearby bathroom. We kept driving to get set up at the campground and then came back – I guess there is an interpretive center that we must have missed up closer to the road, maybe this year we’ll check it out.

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Some notes on specific caves:

  • Cave #10, Wye Cave, had a rope to climb down in order to enter
  • Cave #15, Rainy Day Cave, you needed waders to get in and stay dry
  • Caves #12/13/14, the Dancehall Cave entrances, are definitely kid-friendly with a paved path and lights
  • Cave #2, Dugout Cave, was a crawl-only cave
  • Cave #6, Window Cave, was shallow and kid-friendly
  • Cave #7, Match Cave, was a crawl-only cave
  • Caves #16, Ice Cave, was kid-friendly, we were able to walk/crawl in without too much trouble and explore a little bit with our flashlights

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This was the rainy day cave, we decided to loop back after exploring other caves but didn’t have the energy to go in once we were willing to get our feet wet.

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I highly recommend camping there! We were able to get up early and get to the caves, so it felt like we were the only ones there for a few hours. We reserved ahead of time at campsite #24 and LOVED it. It was set back, so peaceful and quiet. There was even a little trail behind the site, it felt like our own little secret park inside the park. I’d recommend buying campfire wood on your way in at a local gas station, they had a small box with a box to collect money but it was empty really quickly.

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The natural bridge formation is truly stunning, I was really glad we checked this out before the crowds came so we could soak up the view without a bunch of chatter.

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When you turn down the path from the parking lot, you suddenly realize that you drove over the biggest cave of all! It’s safe to say that exploring these trails is not for the faint of heart. Lots of steps, lots of rocky terrain, lots of mud.

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Descending down into the biggest, Dancehall, cave was so exciting!

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Terrible picture, but just to give an idea of walking under the road and through Dancehall. Water on both sides with a bumpy path, decidedly messy with a preschooler and toddler. There weren’t any big drops or anything, so it never felt dangerous, just dirty.

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At the time of this trip, my daughter was 1.5 and a very confident walker/climber/hiker. An early walker would definitely get frustrated, but she seems to have billy goat feet.

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My son was 3.5; my husband tried to crawl with him into this cave but he changed his mind a few wiggles in, which I was relieved about. The last thing that I want is for one of my kids to change their minds mid-cave when we don’t have any quick exits.

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I was very happy to have my toddler carrier, because she hit her limit after 3 hours of walking and exploring.

With all the anticipation over the caves, I didn’t realize how much we’d enjoy the trails themselves. There were varied landscapes, lots of wildlife, and beautiful views.

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Is there anything better than feeling completely dwarfed by trees?

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Some of my favorite critters – I didn’t know that there were Midwestern tree frogs but check out that little guy on the bottom right! He hung out on my baby carrier for a while, it was so much fun.

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I could not believe the roots on this tree! This was found on one of the longer trails that went out and around the caves, with a random wooden shelter.

We can’t wait to go back again this year and I’d love to hear any tips you have if you’ve been before! The Mines of Spain Park and the National Mississippi River Aquarium & Museum are both close by, if you are looking to make it a full weekend. We easily spent a full afternoon and full morning exploring just the caves, but maybe we’ll sneak another day somewhere else next time.
If you’re really into caves, check out this book! I found it at one of the local libraries, either Clive or Urbandale, and thought it was worth paging through.

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