Iowa in general is an underrated state – and at times it feels almost impossible to find guidebooks or things written about the great things to do here. So, I am endeavoring for the next few months to visit as many great spots in Iowa as possible. Hiking Backbone State Park is just the first of many places you’ll get guides to in the coming months!

hiking backbone state park, backbone lake in winter

What is Backbone State Park?

Backbone State Park has the distinction of being the oldest state park in Iowa, dating all the way back to 1919. Of course, showing up to the place might give you other ideas given how disorganized the park is, but we’ll talk about that later!

Located in the northeastern part of Iowa, this park features more heights and rolling hills than most other areas of Iowa. And, due to being over a 100 years old, it has many historical sites such as cabins and stone buildings strewn throughout the park.

This park is a favorite among rock climbers, trout fishers, hikers, and kayakers.

Getting Around Backbone State Park

Despite being open year round, expect things to be more confusing in the winter months. Frequently, in winter, most of the park entrances will be closed to cars. The South Gate will be the only reliably open entrance and it is the one that Google Maps will take you to (no other entrance shows up on Google).

The Southern Entrance features access to the South Lake Campground, the West Lake Trail, and the Beach.

The West Gate is where you can access the Six Pine Campground, the museum, as well as the Six Pine Trail. This entrance is also generally open to allow access to the campground.

The East Gate is the best option for the Bluebird Trail and the Backbone Trail. Although the entrance is closed in winter, there is parking just outside the gate and it is a very short walk to the Backbone trailhead, and the Bluebird is next to the parking.

The North Gate is the most far from everything else, but it has a cave to explore and the short Barred Owl Trail. Don’t forget to pick up some hiking gear if this is your first time heading out on the trails!

hiking backbone state park trail view of the cliffs

Hiking Backbone State Park

Now that you know where the main trails are, let’s discuss the trails themselves. There are 7 trails in Backbone State Park.

The Bluebird Trail is the easiest trail in the park, at about 2.2 miles long. Don’t expect too much from it, however. It’s just a wooded path that doesn’t take you through the nicer areas of the park. Even if you have children, I think there are better options.

The West Lake trail is similar to the Bluebird, but a more interesting choice for those looking for something fairly low-key yet pretty. At 3 miles long, it goes right along the Backbone lake and takes you up to the Six Pines Campground. However, if you’re wanting lake views I would recommend:

The East Lake trail. This trail follows almost the entirety of Backbone lake, and then runs through some very pretty sections close to the Backbone trail. It’s 2.4 miles long and offers some great views and photo opportunities. It terminates near the museum.

The Barred Owl trail is in the north section of the park that is less visited. It’s just a .4 mile hike and while pretty, it might not be worth your time unless you’re exploring the cave and other areas in the northern part of the park.

The Six Pines path is the most difficult hike in the park, but it is only .6 miles long so it will be a short. It is right next to the Six Pines campground so it’s a good way to warm up before heading to the Backbone Trail (which I’ve devoted a section to).

Finally, there is supposedly a Forest trail that has the advantage of being open to equestrian use. It’s supposedly 7.4 miles long…but as you can see form this map, it’s not marked anywhere. I also didn’t see any signs for it – I assume it takes you into the north of the park, but your milage may vary!

trails for hiking backbone state park map

Hiking the Backbone Trail

In my opinion, this is the best trail for hiking Backbone State Park. The views are incredible, the length is doable, and the difficulty is reasonable. There’s also a lot of variety to this trail, with many options for off-roading:

hiking backbone state park trail off-roading option

You won’t get views like this without hopping off the trail! And the park somewhat encourages this, there are some lingering picnic tables in poor repair down by the Maquoketa River. The way you get here is to start off on the Backbone trail.

You’ll see the beautiful limestone cliffs and the views from up above. Be careful and there are some very sheer drops! Once you reach the more wooded section and as you start to loop back around, look for an area to walk down to the river.

Then, all you have to do is follow the river until you reach the area where the museum and facilities are. This is a great way to level up your hike, as the Backbone is pretty much an in-and-out path otherwise.

I hope this post has helped you have a great day out hiking Backbone State Park!

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