Backbone State Park is Iowa’s first state park, dedicated in 1920. This one-of-a-kind 2000-acre park is a sight to behold, with unique geological features and tons of outdoor activities.
There’s something for everyone at Backbone—especially nature lovers! And we believe it’s among the most adventure-filled parks in the Iowa park system.
A Brief History of Backbone State Park
The name for the park came from a narrow bluff carved on two sides by a curve in the Maquoketa River. This ridge is the highest point in northeast Iowa, once referred to as The Devil’s Backbone.
The narrow ridge and other unique geological formations interested prominent Iowans, like Thomas MacBride and L.H. Pammel, who envisioned the area as a state park.
The first 1200 acres of Backbone State Park were donated by a Lamont, Iowa, man named Edward Carr. He bought the land in the 1890s for conservation.
The State of Iowa dedicated the park in 1920 but didn’t start work until 1925. Then, in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many unique park features; you can still see many of them today. The boathouse, beach house, old fish hatchery, shelters, and much more still stand as a testament to the quality craftsmanship of the CCC. The good news is, if you want to learn more, there’s a CCC Museum on the park’s west side.
Things To Do at Backbone State Park
With over 20 miles of multi-use trails through unique landscapes, Backbone is a favorite among hikers. Many trails wind through the woods over interesting terrain and offer great views!
The Backbone Trail is one of the more popular trails at the park. This craggy, .8-mile loop trail is on a narrow ridge towering over the Maquoketa River. It’s a moderately difficult trail with some rocks to scramble over.
Another popular hiking area is around Backbone Lake. The East Lake, West Lake, and Six Pines Trails connect to form a ~6-mile loop trail around the lake.
The longest trail is at Backbone State Forest, on the park’s northeast corner. This 7-mile trail is popular for horseback riding and mountain biking and is open to cross-country skiing in the winter. However, it’s important to note that it’s on public hunting ground, so trail users should be more alert during hunting seasons.
See the Iowa DNR Brochure and Map for trail locations and distances.
There are two fishing opportunities at Backbone State Park: Backbone Lake and Fenchel Creek.
Backbone Lake is an 80-acre lake with boat access, fishing jetties, and a concession shop with boat rentals and bait. In other words, it’s a great place to go fishing. Anglers catch Crappie, Largemouth Bass, Bluegill, and Trout.
Trout fishing in Backbone State Park
Backbone stands out for its excellent trout fishing. In fact, it’s one of the most popular spots for trout fishing in Iowa!
Fenchel Creek is a beautiful, cool, clear stream fed by Richmond Springs on the park’s north end. And it’s a perfect spot for trout fishing! The Iowa DNR regularly stocks the creek with thousands of trout for year-round fishing. Find plenty of accessible fishing spots not far off the park road.
Explore Backbone Lake by boat
Bring your boat or rent one from the park concessionaire to explore Backbone Lake. Electric motors are allowed at no-wake speeds.
And if you don’t have a boat, you’re in luck! Boat rentals are available at the boathouse near the beach. So stop by to rent paddle boats, kayaks, and canoes for hours of fun on the lake!
Spend the afternoon at the beach
Spend the day basking in the sun, build a sand castle, or play a game of beach volleyball at the beach! Another lovely beach perk is the concession store at the beach house, where you can get a hot dog, ice cream, beach toys, and more! Find the beach on the lake’s southeast side.*
*Backbone Lake has a history of water quality issues, so it’s wise to check the state’s beach monitoring map before swimming.
See Richmond Springs
The steam rising off Richmond Springs is a beautiful sight on a warm day! See the natural jade-colored pool near a picnic shelter on the park’s north end.
The spring’s output is 2000 gallons per minute at a consistently cool temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit! It feeds Fenchel Creek, a beautiful shallow stream through the park.
Visit a cave
Take a short hike from the park road and cool off in a cave. Getting to a cave room will require a lot of bending, crawling, and a good flashlight! Plan to get muddy.
Rock climb or rappel
Rock climbing and rappelling are adventurous park activities! A popular spot for both is the Drive-In Wall, a 70′ tall ridge that’s easy to access off the park road. Most routes are near the Backbone Trail.
If you want to climb or rappel at the park, you must first register at the South park office and review the climbing rules.
A few multi-use trails throughout the park are great routes for mountain biking! The following trails are designated for mountain biking (see the park map for locations):
- Bluebird Trail (2.2 miles)
- East Lake Trail (2.4 miles)
- West Lake Trail (3 miles)
- Forest Trail (7.3 miles)
Tour the CCC Museum at Backbone State Park
The Civilian Conservation Corps was organized in 1933 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The organization’s purpose was two-fold: to provide work to the unemployed and expand conservation work in the national and state park systems. The program was a huge success; the CCC planted over three billion trees and built structures in 800+ parks. All in just nine years.1
The CCC played an integral part in the development of Iowa state parks in the 1930s and 40s. The quality artistry of their stone and wood structures left behind a legacy that has been, and will continue to be, enjoyed for generations.
It’s fitting that Backbone, Iowa’s first state park, features many CCC structures. And several are on the National Register of Historic Places!
See CCC structures throughout the park, and learn more about the CCC and the stories of the young men in the camps at the CCC Museum. Find the museum near the park’s west entrance; it has limited hours listed (Tues – Sat 8 am to 4 pm). Consider calling the park office before visiting (563-924-2527).
Have a picnic
There are plenty of great picnic spots at Backbone! Several even have charcoal grills and fire rings, so you can cook your food in the great outdoors.
The stone lodge at the lake and other picnic shelters are reservable for group gatherings. When not reserved, open-air shelters are available first-come, first-serve. Make reservations at ReserveAmerica.com.
Backbone State Park is among one of the best birding areas in Iowa. With 2000 acres of woods, plus a lake, stream, and rocky ridges, it’s the perfect park for spotting a range of bird species. See the bird checklist for the park here.
According to the Iowa Audubon website, “During the Northeast Iowa Neotropical Migrant Songbird Project (1994-1996), PHD candidate, Bill Norris, noted that more bird species were recorded at Backbone State Park than any other northeastern Iowa site”.
Winter activities at Backbone State Park
Snowmobiling is a popular winter activity in northeast Iowa! At Backbone, snowmobiles are allowed on the Bluebird, West Lake, and East Lake Trails. (Snowmobiles aren’t allowed on the Forest Trail.)
Cross country skiing
The Forest Trail is a 7-mile designated ski trail in the Backbone State Forest on the park’s northeast side. (Be aware this area is also used for public hunting.)
Explore the park on snowshoes! Richmond Spring and the area around the lake are two great places to wander on snowshoes.
Fish for trout!
Go ice fishing on Backbone Lake, or head to Fenchel Creek to go trout fishing!
Backbone State Park Campgrounds & Cabins
There’s no way to fit everything you want to do into one day at Backbone State Park! So, rent a cabin or pick your campsite to allow time to enjoy everything the park offers. What’s better than sleeping under the stars after a day exploring the outdoors?!
Campsites and cabins are reservable at ReserveAmerica.com. See details below.
South Lake Campground
- Located on the park’s south end near the lake
- Electric and primitive tent sites
- Modern restrooms/showers
- Dump station on-site
- See the campground map here
Six Pine Campground
- Located near the park’s west gate
- All non-electric sites
- Pit latrines
- See the campground map here
Modern one and two-bedroom cabins are a great place to stay year-round at Backbone! There’s never a bad view, and you’ll have all the modern amenities you need. Cabins have kitchens, restrooms, and basic furniture. Guests provide their own bedding, towels, toiletries, dishes, cookware, and cleaning supplies.
Reserve cabins up to a year in advance at ReserveAmerica.com. During peak season, guests must rent for a minimum of one week. For last-minute cabin bookings (that you can’t make an online reservation for), call the Backbone Concession office at 319-361-4794.
Things To Do Nearby
Northeast & Eastern Iowa offer all types of outdoor recreation, like fishing, camping, and trails of every kind – hiking, biking, equestrian, and water trails. Below are many places we recommend seeing while you’re there!
Strawberry Point is a small Iowa town six miles north of Backbone State Park. Stop by to see the World’s Largest Strawberry and The Franklin Hotel, tour the Wilder Memorial Museum, or grab some groceries or a bite to eat.
Spook Cave is a fun stop 36 miles north of the park where you can take a one-of-a-kind cave tour in a boat! There’s also a campground with a waterfall on site.
Volga River State Recreation Area is about 40 minutes north of the park. It’s an excellent place to camp (full hookups!), boat, and fish. And, with over 20 miles of multi-use trails, you can hike, bike, or ride! If you have horses, check out the equestrian camping and trails.
Pikes Peak State Park is another fantastic must-see state park, just 40 miles northeast of the park along the mighty Mississippi River. It’s nestled on a 500-foot-tall bluff overlooking the river, where you can take in the magnificent views and hike to a waterfall too!
Effigy Mounds National Monument is 43 miles north of the park. Learn the history of local Native American tribes and see animal-shaped burial mounds! Check out the visitor center, trails, and ranger programs on your visit.
If you have time after seeing Effigy Mounds, it’s worth checking out the Yellow River State Forest. The remote woodlands have 40+(!) miles of multi-use trails, primitive campsites, trout fishing, kayaking, and more!
Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa! If you’re a baseball or Field of Dreams fan, check out the Field of Dreams Movie Site, just over 30 miles east of the park.
Cedar Rock State Park is 28 miles southwest of the park and a popular place for visitors to see a Frank Lloyd Wright design. Tour the Walter House, a Mid-Century-style home on a ridge overlooking the Wapsipinicon River. And be sure to check out the visitor center too!
Pinicon Ridge Park is a scenic 966-acre park about 40 minutes from Backbone. It has an observation tower, wildlife area, and a cool 520-foot pedestrian bridge! Also, check out its camping, cabins, trails, and boat rentals.
George Wyth State Park is about an hour away and right in the heart of Cedar Falls-Waterloo! It’s home to several small lakes and an excellent place to hike, bike, swim, fish, or boat. Plus, there’s a nice modern campground along the Cedar River.
Visit Backbone State Park Today!
Backbone State Park is at 1347 129th St, Dundee, IA 52038.
1. Civilian Conservation Corps. History.com Editors, updated March 31, 2021. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/civilian-conservation-corps