Yes, This is Iowa

Appears in the November 2022 issue.

Head west for a spelunking adventure

It’s pretty much rolling farmland as far as the eye can see. This is eastern Iowa, after all.

That is, until you enter Maquoketa Caves State Park, and suddenly a world of towering bluffs, forested ravines, and a system of caves appears.

“They are Iowa’s hidden gem,” says Ryland Richards, natural resource technician at the park. “They are some of the only caves in the country that are open for self-exploration without a guide. Most cave systems, you must enter with someone. They are also an unexpected location because we are surrounded by cornfields and towns.”

Prepare to spend some time happily wandering both above and below ground. “We have 15 different caves that vary in difficulty,” Richards says. “The Natural Bridge and [17-ton] Balanced Rock are two of the main features people come to see. The main cave, Dancehall, has lights and a sidewalk.”

In fact, actual dances were held in the caves in the early 1900s, all part of the park’s storied history. Millenniums of water erosion on limestone bedrock created the caves. “They have been explored since they were made, but our earliest records date to the 1800s when they were rediscovered by two hunters,” Richards says. A popular place for picnics and hikes since the 1860s, the area became a 370-acre state park in 1933 (one of Iowa’s earliest) and now averages about 300,000 visitors a year (plus 700 or so overwintering bats). A six-mile trail links the caves, winding through—and up and down—the lush scenery and geologic formations. “The caves are accessible by those who can walk up and down stairs to enter and exit them,” Richards says. “Out of the 15 caves, 10 are crawling caves and five are walk-through caves.” Most visitors stick to the walking caves, leaving the tight spots to the serious spelunkers.

“Dress appropriately—it’s about 55 [degrees] in the caves. Bring clothes that could get dirty,” Richards says. “Flashlights are recommended but not needed in the walk-through caves. You can spend anywhere from an hour to eight here, depending on what you see. You will see something amazing that you wouldn’t have known was in Iowa.”  

More to MAquoketa

  • From March through November, Maquoketa Caves State Park offers a campground as well as primitive hike-in campsites. Reservations are required through
  • Enjoy a float on the nearby Maquoketa River. Outfitters like Maquoketa River Rentaloffer inner tubes, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, floating coolers, as well as shuttle service and guided tours.
  • Grab a bite to eat at Mega’s Grill & Eatery (101 McKinsey Dr., Maquoketa), open for breakfast and lunch daily and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. Waffles, burgers, and steak are all on the menu, as is a chicken strips on French toast sandwich.

Photos by Jen Banowetz