Iowa Caves? Caves in Iowa? It turns out the best Iowa State Park is also, perhaps, the most unique state park in “The Hawkeye” State. Maquoketa Caves State Park is well put together, with a variety of sites to see that can occupy you for hours.
I find a lot of people tend to be squeamish about caves. I have to wonder if it’s something to do with our innate biology, some primordial, passed down fear. Only with the invention of portable light have people set out to conquer such fears – and it gives a fun thrill on the weekend.
I started getting interested in caves with a trip to Damyang, South Korea , and cemented my new obsession with a shockingly amazing trip to South Dakota. When I learned there were Iowa Caves, I simply had to go. Now, I consider Maquoketa Caves to be the Best Iowa State Park – so keep reading to learn all the details to plan your next trip!
History of Iowa Caves
One of the oldest state parks in Iowa, Maquoketa has the largest cave system in the state. Even before becoming a state park, it was a popular spot in the mid-1800s for people to visit.
Unfortunately, due to its age and lack of watchful eyes (consistent in Iowa parks) many of the amazing features of the caves such as stalactites and other formations have been broken off and stolen. A few remain in the more difficult to reach sections – but it’s proof of why such things need to be protected. It can take a 100,000 to a million years for such things to form.
The formations of these karst caves are fairly unusual – it makes up part of a section of Iowa and Wisconsin known as the Driftless Zone. This zone is an area that experienced erosion, but not by glaciers (a more typical source)
There is some evidence of early occupation by native tribes from pottery sherds and arrow points.
What to Bring to Maquoketa Caves: Iowa Caves
Despite what some reviews might say, it is entirely possible to have a fantastic time exploring the caves all day without any equipment. It’s always a good idea to bring a bottle of water, of course! But there is no need to hiking sticks, flashlights, or headlamps.
That being said, some of the smaller and more cramped caves do not have their own lighting. If you want to do some actual caving and exploring, you would need a head lamp. If you intention is merely to peek in, or walk through the larger caves, this is not necessary.
And while some of the hills are a tad steep, proper hiking equipment is in no way required. However, be aware that the caves are frequently quite chilly! So you’ll probably want a jacket, even in the summer.
Feel free to bring your dog to the Iowa Caves!
When Should You Go
This is one of the best options for a hot summer day, as the caves are generally hovering around 55 degrees. In the winter, expect it to be quite icy (there’s even a cave known as the Ice Cave!). Many of the caves are up on steep ridge lines, so in the muddy spring months it’s best to wear quality shoes that grip well.
Be aware that most cave entrances will be closed for the winter (typically opening only in mid-April). Many people show up in March and are very disappointed!
If you can, it’s also a good idea to go on a day that is not too busy. So, avoid weekends, or go on Easter Sunday when people are otherwise occupied! This park is not terribly large, and many of the Iowa caves are only large enough for a couple of people.
Best Iowa Caves
There are 13 official caves documented on the Maquoketa Iowa Caves State Park website. Some are a lot more interesting than others, and some are more difficult to get to, or to navigate around due to water, etc.
Wide Mouth Cave: A bit further away from all the other caves on the northern side of the park. The cave is low to the ground and would require crawling, probably on your belly, and a headlamp.
Dug Out Cave: More of an indentation into the side of the hills, this is an excellent photo opportunity as the rock forms something of a seat. You may be able to go back further, but it is quite muddy.
Twin Arch Cave: One of the prettiest and well-done caves in Maquoketa State Park. It is large enough to walk through, and the boardwalk path loops neatly through the arches.
Hernando’s Hideaway: One of the most intriguingly named caves, I could find absolutely no explanation of the history behind why it’s called this. If you know, please tell me in the comments! I need to know who Hernando is!
This is similar to the Up-N-Down cave in that the entrance is very narrow and I’m not sure what’s in there!
Up-N-Down Cave: The entrance of this it is one of the narrowest caves in the park. It would involved stepping up and backing yourself in for several feet before getting to a wider area. A headlamp is an absolute must, and you’d have to be decently skinny to boot. Expect some spider webs in the entrance.
However, once you step down it is a pretty neat pocket – and great hiding spot!
Window Cave: While it’s not large, this is a nice “pocket” style cave that’s almost a little cozy. You do have to duck down to get in, and you’ll want to keep your head bowed inside even if you’re short. Honestly, I could see living in this one! It’s got some natural shelves, protection from the elements, it’s not too damp, it’s great.
Match Cave: A very small cave that bores back into the rock. I’m not sure you could fit in here, but the wall is pockmarked with other small holes like Swiss cheese.
Barbell Cave: Definitely a belly-crawl cave, I think it’s probably best to explore this one as a small child!
Shinbone Cave: This cave is a bit harder to find, on the most southern end of the park. The signage fails here but there are a set of stairs to take you up to a belly-crawl style cave. If you’re looking to get an idea of what these caves look like from the inside, someone has done a wonderful exploratory series in Maquoketa on Youtube.
Wye Cave: A particularly cool cave, it is low to the ground and slants downward. Because of this, it is at a high risk for flooding – so be careful during the rainy season. The initial cave is tall enough to stand in, but becomes increasingly narrow the further back you go.
Balanced Rock: This isn’t a real cave, but it is an impressive rock structure! 17 tons of rock balanced on the edge right next to the walkway.
Dancehall Cave: A seriously impressive, absolutely massive cavern. This is the main draw and best of the Iowa Caves in Maquoketa State Park. It loops under the carpark and winds around – it’s very easy to get turned around in this park, even if it’s a pretty hard to get lost.
It is very well lit, with paved paths, it’s very easy to walk around.
Rainy Day Cave: They’re not kidding! This is a very wet cave and while it is fairly large, there is no lighting inside so you will need a headlamp to fully appreciate it. Depending on the time of year, expect a full-on stream to be pouring out!
Ice Cave: Unfortunately, we didn’t see any ice. It’s a somewhat round cave, but it also lacks lighting. I think it might have some ice inside given that even in mid-April (when we went) there were still little patches of ice around from dripping water in several of the caves.
White Nose Syndrome
White Nose Syndrome is a terrible fungus that affects bats. It is easily spread from cave to cave by people, especially via your shoes. Luckily, it seems like these caves have managed to combat it after an outbreak in 2009-2012.
It’s spread via fungus. So, if you’ve been to any other caves and once you finish your time here, it’s a great idea to help prevent this disease by washing the bottom of your shoes with some hydrogen peroxide.