THE IOWA UNDERGROUND
We had one last big breakfast the next morning before the looooong drive across Nebraska. The drive was long and boring. The only highlight was lunch at Taco Johns in North Platte. The low point was Christy losing her car keys at a truck stop somewhere in eastern Nebraska. Luckily I had a spare. In Omaha we noticed that I-29 was still closed due to flooding of the Missouri River. We made it into Iowa before dark and stopped at a Perkins in Des Moines for dinner.
Because we headed back east early, we were way off our original plan. I had to change all of our hotel reservations. Fortunately I was able to get a free night at a Holiday Inn in Coralville, Iowa. We drove straight there after dinner and crashed after a long day in the car.
Since we were returning early, I had negotiated with the wife and gained a hike in Iowa. This was useful, since I’d never hiked in Iowa and needed to do one there to make progress towards my goal of hiking in every state.
I had actually researched some hiking options in Iowa prior to the trip. Two of the places I’d looked into were in the eastern part of the state, which was convenient to our location.
We slept in a bit on Thursday and had a nice breakfast before checking out. From Coralville we drove over to Wapsipinicon State Park. The park is wooded and actually rather pretty, but my first impression was that it reminded me of McDowell Park, which is about 5 miles from our house. We drove around the park for a bit before winding up at the Rotary Lodge and the parking area for the Overlook Trail.
I was curious about the Overlook Trail. What exactly would we be overlooking? The hike was less than a mile round trip, so it wouldn’t take much of an investment in time or energy to find out. We walked up a wide path bordering an overgrown field while Boone ran full speed in circles. He’d been penned up in the car the previous day, so we figured that our hike would at least get him some exercise. We really gave him a workout by tossing a stick deep into the weeds of the overgrown field. He’d charge into the thicket and disappear for several minutes before finally reemerging with the stick. Honestly, I have no idea how he was able to find it.
The trail ended on a hilltop. The views were largely obscured by weeds, but there was one spot where we could peer through. This provided us with an exciting vista of a highway and a subdivision. I was pretty sure I spotted Napoleon Dynamite in his driveway. Christy and I shared a hearty laugh about this as we turned and headed back down the trail to the car.
We made one more stop before leaving Wapsipinicon State Park. First we took a short hike to Horsethief Cave. Surprisingly, northeastern Iowa is riddled with caves, and Wapsipinicon State Park features several. The trail to the cave passed through a tunnel of sunflowers along a small but pleasant stream. The cave itself is a large overhang, though it doesn’t appear to go anywhere. After that short hike we stopped at Ice Cave, which is a narrow but deeper passage. There was something I really liked about Ice Cave, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
From Wapsipinicon State Park we drove on to the day’s main event. We had lunch at Taco Johns in Maquoketa before beginning our search for Maquoketa Caves State Park. Christy’s navigation system led us astray, but I was able to get us back on track using a map of the park I’d printed off the interwebs.
Maquoketa Caves State Park features 13 named caves, a natural bridge, and some other unusual rock formations. Unfortunately, all of the caves were closed when we visited due to White Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is devastating bat populations throughout the country, and the cause of the disease has not been determined.
I was disappointed that the caves were closed, but the park’s trail system was open. We parked near a picnic area, and Christy joined Boone and me for a short hike along Raccoon Creek on the north side of the park. First we walked to the upper entrance of Dancehall Cave, which is impressive. Dancehall Cave is 1,100’ long, with three entrances. The upper entrance is massive – it was a bit shocking to see something on that scale in Iowa. Just upstream from the entrance we hiked under the natural bridge, which is also rather remarkable.
From the natural bridge we continued upstream, passing Up-N-Down Cave, Hernando’s Hideaway, and Twin Arch Cave. These caves are small, but interesting. Also, many of the park’s caves offer more than meets the eye. Some of the entrances are small, but they frequently hide an extensive cave system. Unfortunately that sort of exploration is currently off-limits due to WNS.
As we continued upstream we passed underneath some surprisingly large trees. We passed Dug Out Cave, and at Wide Mouth Cave we met a family that had hiked the loop from the other direction. They warned us that the Ridge Trail, which loops back to the main park road, was overgrown with stinging nettle. That didn’t sound like fun, so we doubled-back and made a shorter loop on the far side of Raccoon Creek. This took us past Match Cave and Window Cave and back to the natural bridge. From there we passed the upper entrance to Dancehall Cave and returned to the car.
The hike had been pretty short, and I wanted to do more. Christy wasn’t interested in pushing her knee though, so she decided to wait for me at the car.
I continued my hike with a loop on the south side of the road. This part of the hike took me past the middle and lower entrances to Dancehall Cave. Normally lighting allows park visitors to walk the length of Dancehall Cave, but since it was officially closed I limited my explorations of it to the entrances.
I passed Balanced Rock (a precariously perched boulder) and continued down the valley to Rainy Day Cave and Ice Cave. A bit later I rock hopped Raccoon Creek and reached a junction. At this point I had a decision to make.
I contemplated extending my hike to see the Upland Prairie. However, that would’ve made for a much longer hike, and Christy was waiting for me. Plus, it was hot, humid, and rather buggy. Instead, I decided to loop back to the car on the west side of Raccoon Creek. This was a good choice, as I ended up passing the entrances to Barbell Cave, Shinbone Cave, and Wye Cave. By the time I returned to the car I’d seen the entrance to every named cave in the park.
I ended up hiking for about 3 hours in Maquoketa Caves State Park. Overall I was pretty impressed with the park. The natural bridge and some of the caves really are quite impressive. You can definitely say that the park exceeded my expectations! Also, we only encountered a few people on the trails. On the other hand, August is probably not the best time to visit. I could have done without the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes.
From there we drove directly to Davenport, Iowa, where we rejoined the interstate. We crossed the Mississippi River and headed towards Chicago. Road construction created a huge traffic jam in central Illinoing, so we got off the highway and took a scenic ride through Joliet. We rejoined the highway beyond the traffic jam and continued to Lansing, where we had reservations at a Red Roof Inn. I had reserved a room for $38 a couple of months earlier, and I was amused when I overheard that the current rate for walk-in customers was $92. Sometimes it pays to plan things in advance.
We found a Thai restaurant for dinner using Christy’s GPS, but it was closed due to a plumbing problem. At that point we were hungry and tired of driving, so we settled for takeout Chinese that was rather uninspiring. Fortunately a Moose Drool from the cooler perked the meal up.
On Saturday we drove across Indiana and Ohio. The drive was boring and expensive. The Indiana toll road cost us $7.50 and the fare for Ohio was $14. I guess it was a small price to pay to get out of those states! I did consider suggesting that we stop in Cuyahoga National Park, south of Cleveland, so I could do a hike in Ohio. In fact, we drove right through it. However, we only had a couple of hours to go to Christy’s parent’s house, and I knew she was eager to get there. I’ll have to do a hike in Ohio some other time.
Continue reading about our trip as we travel to Clearfield, PA, and I do a couple of hikes on the Quehanna Trail in the Elk State Forest.
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!