Located just south of Strawberry Point to stretch across the border between Clayton and Delaware County, a 2001-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Backbone State Park.
The first state park in Iowa, thousands of Iowans each year visit the namesake quarter-mile long “Devil’s Backbone” comprised of Silurian-age dolomitic limestone towering roughly 100 feet above the Maquoketa River. Legends of Indigenous rituals and horse thief hideouts abound relating to early history of the park abound with little firm evidence, but newspapers accounts as early as the 1860s speak to individuals appreciating the rugged scenery of the site. Iowa’s earliest geologists and naturalists studied the park during the second-half of the 1800s, and by the 1894 the Manchester Press reported the sale of the lands for the purpose of constructing a hotel. Two years later, in 1896, geologist Samuel Calvin implored Iowans to save the site, writing: “If it (the Backbone) can only be let alone, it will remain a source of purest pleasure.”
Two decades later, at the inaugural meeting of the Iowa State Board of Conservation officials heeded Calvin’s word and recommended the state acquire roughly 1,200 acres at the site. Paying $50 to $60 per acre to forty-four individual property owners, by September 25, 1919, local papers reported the park would open to the public on October 1 of that year. Rainy conditions washed out the ceremony, initially pushing it back a week before officials ended up deciding to wait for more favorable weather on May 28, 1920. With Governor William Harding joining the Iowa Board of Conservation and the gathered multitudes estimated at 5,000, the state park era of Iowa officially began.
Even before the opening, local boards of supervisors started planning for road construction to the park, and the state started work on the roads within Backbone during 1923. Other small projects like tree planting, conversation of a barn into a caretaker’s lodge, and the construction of a trout hatchery followed. As with several other state parks during the 1920s, much of the labor at Backbone came from individuals imprisoned at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Despite setbacks from flooding which wiped out portions of road and seven bridges during June of 1925, several enduring features including the open-walled stone auditorium came into existence.
As with many other public lands in Iowa, Backbone saw significant development with the onset of New Deal programs and the arrival of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Two CCC camps found plenty to do in the park starting in 1933 including the construction of an 125-acre artificial lake and recreation area in the southern portion of the park, development of the central picnic grounds, reconstruction of the trout hatchery, and the construction of the area around the natural spring at Richmond Springs. Trail work, erosion control, cabin building, and other activities also kept the workers busy until their 1941 departure. By 1942 the park help roughly 125 structures, and the 1,415 acres representing the total area at that time finds listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The iconic beach house and boat house still register as two of the most recognizable state park features in Iowa.
Work slowed during the post-World War II era, and constant maintenance allowed many Iowans to make memories in the eastern Iowa park. Although careful care of the historic park continues, some improvements over the decades including the 1989 transition of the caretaker’s lodge to a museum celebrating the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Iowa add to the opportunities to better enjoy and appreciate the past of Iowa’s first state park. During the 1990s, significant work went into Backbone Lake as crews converted the beach house into a day-use lodge more suitable for modern gatherings while also restoring the boat house, dredging the lake, and completing vital repairs to the dam.
Today, Backbone State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northeastern Iowa. Featuring a 21-mile trail system which winds through rugged terrain and offers some of the state’s best views, the park offers opportunities to hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiiers, and even rock climbers interested in exploring Backbone. Although the trout fishery no longer operates, the site welcomes curious visitors hoping to explore the ruins. Trout fishing, always a stable of the park, still draws in thousands of Iowans hoping to cast a line in the quick flowing streams fed by Richmond Springs. Boat rentals at the boat house pair with a boat ramp on the southwest end of the lake to allow easy access to Backbone lake, and many visitors enjoy the beach. Campgrounds and cabins offer the opportunity for those hoping to spend more than a single day exploring all the park has to offer. With a treasure trove of features and hidden treasures, Backbone towers within the Iowa State Park system as one of the best parks in the land between two rivers.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Backbone State Park. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Backbone State Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Backbone State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!