Tucked into the rolling hills of eastern Iowa’s Jackson County near Maquoketa, a 323-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Maquoketa Caves State Park.
As alluded to by the name, Maquoketa Caves features a series of caves and sinkholes created by water carving Hopkinton formation, Silurian period dolomitic limestone. With at least thirteen distinct cave structures ranging from 30’ long to over 1,000’, the subterranean wonders of the cave system have drawn visitors from a time immemorial. An abundance of archeological and other evidence trace human occupation of the state at least 6,000 years into the distant past. Iowa’s Woodlands era peoples occupied the caves, using them as shelter in the state’s harsh winter months, and later the Sauk and Meskwaki utilized the site for council meetings. A plethora of pottery, arrowheads, spear points, and other evidence heavily link the caves to the earliest Iowans.
The first American record of the caves came when Joshua Bear and David Scott, two hunters who stumbled upon the caves in the early 1830s during a snowstorm. The two men believed they cornered several deer in one of the park’s numerous canyons, and while the hunters searched in vain for their escaped prey they discovered the entrance to the large Dance Hall Cave. As American settlement proceeded, eager onlookers flocked to the caves to observe one of Iowa’s greatest natural wonders. Over the course of the 1800s the caverns developed specific names, and the early reports commonly refer to the site as either Hurt’s Caves or Morehead Caves. The Dance Hall, the park’s largest cave, gained the moniker from square dances held by early visitors to the park. Early photographs depict a dance pavilion near the natural bridge at the cave’s entrance. Although visitors enjoyed the caves, they also robbed future generations of truly enjoying the natural wonder of the site. By 1937 the Iowa Conservation Commission’s State Park guide noted the lack of stalagmites and stalactites, reporting: “Souvenir hunters have robbed the caves of their rarest beauty.”
By December 28 of 1920, newspaper reports confirm the Iowa Conservation Commission’s interest in obtaining the site. Evaluations of the site paired with calls from the Federated Women’s Club of Maquoketa to develop the park. By 1924, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported the state holding and starting work to develop the site. Workers contracted from the Anamosa State Penitentiary worked to clear pathways starting with Dance Hall Cave, while also constructing roads and initial trails. Other local labor supplied by the Maquoketa Kiwanis Club helped to place the initial safety rails within the park. As work continued, the park neared dedication during the early years of the 1930s with the help of funds raised in local communities. On Friday, October 13, 1933, crowds gathered under a glorious canopy of fall leaves to celebrate the official dedication of the park.
The 1930s also saw extensive continued development of the park. Both Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps workers toiled at the site, constructing a large lodge-concession building, stringing electric lights in the caves, building toadstool shaped stone-and-timber picnic shelters, and the erecting the park entrance portals now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With a great deal of development completed, the park continued to welcome huge numbers of visitors across the middle of the 20th century.
The delicate nature of the geologically wondrous formations created a constant challenge for preservation and maintenance at the site. In 1944, wide-scale flooding on the Maquoketa River inundated several of the caves, carving large holes up to eight feet deep in some of the caves and damaging the electric lighting system. Repairs took several years, but by 1949 the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported things at the site had returned to normal. Field trips from area colleges, reports of scenic auto tours, and other outings abound as visitors continued to flock to the popular park in eastern Iowa during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
In the 1980s, the Iowa Conservation Commission started to mull plans to update and improve the park. Complicated by flooding, the plans ultimately rejuvenated the park and also resulted in the construction of a museum focused on Indigenous artifacts found at the site and the park’s unique geology. Expansion of the park’s footprint also occurred over the decades as the state acquired more lands to help buffer the caves while also creating and modernizing camping opportunities at the site.
Today, Maquoketa Caves State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in eastern Iowa. A series of trails and boardwalks help provide access to the caves as well as hiking options, and plant enthusiasts enjoy observing more than 350 species of plants which call the park home. A variety of animals recorded in the park, including deer, fox, and even bobcats offer visitors a glimpse into Iowa’s animal life. The cave’s themselves, led by the 1,100’ foot Dance Hall Cave, the popular Bats Passage, the Devil’s Cavern, the Ice Cave, and the Rainy Day Cave continue to awe and inspire visitors hoping to get a glimpse of one of Iowa’s most prolific natural treasures.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Maquoketa Caves 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, Maquoketa Caves 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 Maquoketa Caves State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!