Backbone State Park Iowa in Autumn

Where is Backbone State Park

1347 129th Street Dundee, IA 52038 

Backbone was Iowa’s first state park and is now considered one of the most geologically unique. With thousands of heavily wooded acres and the adjoining Backbone State Forest, it offers standout activates like rock climbing, trout fishing, jagged trail hikes, and impressive masonry work from the Civilian Conversation Corps. Located in the valley of the Maquoketa River, Backbone US State Park is three miles south of Strawberry Point in Delaware County, Iowa. It is 55 miles north of Cedar Rapids and 160 miles northeast of Des Moines.

How Big is Backbone State Park

Backbone has 2,001 acres of land with a variety of tree species, predominately oak and maple. There are more than 21 miles of trails, containing natural rock formations, man-made waterways, and local wildlife. The geology of the area is particularly notable; as a section of the Driftless Area, it was left unglaciated during the most recent Ice Age. This protected the dolomite formations from over 25 million years ago. This history can be seen in the park today, with a large ridge of rock dividing the park. This created 80-feet cliffs that many visitors climb and rappel today.

Backbone State Park Weather

Backbone State Park experiences the highs and lows of all four seasons. Summers are rainy and humid with temperatures spiking up to 80°F or greater. Winter temperatures can drop below freezing, with heavy winds and dry air. The temperature typically varies from 17°F to 86°F and is rarely below -3°F or above 95°F. The park is usually cloudy year-round. The clearest part of the year begins in June and ends in October. It gets much cloudier in the fall and winter months. There is a higher chance of rain starting in early April and lasting until late September. The snowy period of the year lasts a little over 4 months, from November to late March. No matter the season, there are always activities that can be carried out in the park, like hiking in the warmer weather or cross-country skiing in colder temperatures. 

When did Backbone become a State Park

Backbone State Park was the first state park in Iowa, created after the passage of the State Park Act in 1917. It was officially established in May 1920. Backbone is named after the narrow limestone ridge along the Maquoketa River, named “The Devil’s Backbone”. Much of the park’s infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) beginning in 1933. They built dams along the Maquoketa River which formed Backbone Lake, a cluster of rustic cabins, bridges, roads, picnic areas, trails, and more.

Hiking Trail Along Cliffs in Backbone State Park Iowa

Things to do in Backbone State Park

If you enjoy outdoors activities, Backbone State Park is the place for you. With over 2,000 acres of land, there is no lack of things to see and do within the park. Our State Park Visitors Guide outlines a list of the main sites and what they entail.

Trout Fishing

Fenchel Creek, a 1.4-mile stream fed by Richmond Springs, hosts a ton of trout fish and is the main reason for the popularity of fishing in the park. It is located at the north end of the park and has a sidewalk right up to the stream bank. The trout are stocked by the Iowa DNR hatcheries all throughout the year. 

Backbone Lake

Backbone Lake was built by the Civilian Conversation Corps off the dam of the Maquoketa River. It can be used for swimming, fishing, and boating. There is a sand beach located by the beach lodge, where you can also rent boats. The lake is limited to electric-only boat motors and can be launched from a ramp near the dam.  


The park has 2 campgrounds that have 125 campsites in total. Six Pines is the main campground located on the west side of Backbone Lake. It’s popular among dry campers, tent campers, and climbers. South Lake Campground is a more modern camping facility on the southeast side of the park. It can accommodate large recreational vehicles and tent campers.

Bird Watching

Backbone State Park is an IRA, or Important Birding Area, and an eBird Hotspot. There are 123 bird species within the park, harboring neotropical migratory birds like warblers, flycatchers, tanagers, vireos, grosbeaks, and songbirds. Eastern wood pewees and American redstarts can also be spotted within the park.


There are 21 miles of trails in Backbone State Park. Most are long and rugged, with beautiful vistas, marshy wetlands, lake shorelines, open prairies, and hill climbs. The 7-mile loop around Backbone Lake is the best way to see and experience what the park has to offer. Other popular hikes include East Lake trail, West Lake Trail, Six Pines Trail, and Barred Owl Trail.

Civilian Conservation Corps Museum

The Iowa Civilian Conservation Corps Museum opened in 1990 and provides visitors an interesting look at the work of the CCC in Iowa’s state parks. It is located on the park’s west gate. Backbone contains many buildings built by the CCC, and the museum goes into the history of these structures. 

Rock Climbing and Rappelling

There are many challenging cliffs along the rugged dolomite limestone throughout the park. The most popular rocks to climb are near the Backbone Trail. Before scaling, climbers and rappelers must register at the park office for documentation and in case of an accident.   

Non-motorized Boating

You can bring or rent canoes, kayaks, or paddle boats on Backbone Lake. Most visitors head out to the water during the spring and summer months. You can search for birds on the water or in the nearby trees and wildlife along the edge of the lake. Additionally, you can go fishing off the side of your non-motorized boat. 

Tour Historic Buildings

The Civilian Conservation Corps built structures in the park that are arguably some of the Midwest’s most historic collections of architecture. You can visit the CCC museum, as mentioned above, or walk past the historic structures firsthand. This includes the hatchery infrastructure, dam, beach lodge, boat house, cabins, and more. 

Visit the Beach

A sandy beach definitely sounds strange for the state of Iowa. However, there is a man-made one off of Backbone Lake on the south side of the park. You can sunbathe, build sandcastles, play beach volleyball, or go swimming in the lake. Pets are not allowed on the beach.

When to go to Backbone State Park

The 21 miles of multi-use trails provide year-round activities. The lake is known for swimming, boating, and fishing primarily in warmer weather. Climbing and rappelling are best in the warm weather as well. Park staff will generally turn the water on and open shower buildings by mid-April, for those interested in camping. On the contrary, the water is usually turned off around mid-October. When the temperatures drop substantially in November, many visitors will use trailheads for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Overall, the park supports various activities year-round. Each season in Backbone State Park provides a new adventure. There is no best time to visit, rather your trip should be planned according to your interests.

Trees During Autumn in Backbone State Park Iowa

Must-Have things to bring to Backbone State Park

There are a few must-have items to bring on your visit to Backbone State Park. List of Parks will cover all the items you should bring along, including essential safety gear and recommended clothing.

Fishing Gear

Anglers casting their lines in the lake may catch a variety of fish such as bass and catfish. Anglers can also explore the stream for trout.  If you plan to fish in the park, bring the necessary fishing gear you would need to do so. Items include rods, reels, bait, and coolers.

Supportive Footwear

With over 21 miles of trails, supportive shoes are a must. The trails are rugged, steep, and filled with adversity. Do research ahead of time as to how difficult your planned hike will be, and wear footwear that accommodates that difficulty level.


There is a concession stand in the park, which is open starting Memorial Day Weekend and closes after Labor Day Weekend. Still, if you plan to camp or go on a difficult hike, do not solely rely on the stand. Bring along snacks that will help fuel your body for the upcoming adventure. 

Climbing Gear

Backbone State Park is known for some of the best climbing in the state and even in the country. The rugged dolomite limestone cliffs and boulders draw both experienced and new climbers to the park. The difficulty level of these climbs is substantial, making it important to be equipped with the proper and recommended climbing gear to make for a successful scale. Things like rope, carabiners, and runners will be essential.


Backbone is filled with unique bird species and other wildlife like fox, turkey, and deer. Bring binoculars on your visit and look out for migratory birds like flycatchers, tanagers, vireos, grosbeaks, songbirds, and more. They can be found all throughout the park, depending on the time of year. 

Layered Clothing

Layering your clothes is a good idea when visiting Backbone State Park. The multiple layers will help keep you warm in the colder weather, acting as an insulator for warm air. Vice versa, you can shed a layer or two when your body temperature rises, which will reduce the amount of heat trapped.

Camping Permit

If you choose to camp at South Lake or Six Pines, you will need to reserve a spot. Reservations fill up quickly, making it important to stay on top of it. If camping isn’t your thing, you can stay in a cabin. Cabins need to be reserved as well.   

Bathing Suit

If planning to head out on the lake, a bathing suit is a must. Whether boating, fishing, or simply heading to the sand beach, you never know when you’ll want to head in the water. Bring a bathing suit to your visit to Backbone State Park.


Whenever planning to stay outside for the day, staying hydrated is a must. There is water available for purchase within the park. You can bring water bottles in with you as well. Prepare to bring or buy enough water to keep you and whoever you’re with properly hydrated for the day. 


Regardless of the time of year, sunscreen is an essential. Spending the day outdoors, even if it’s cloudy, can lead to a sun burn or sun damage. Bring a mineral sunscreen to protect against this hazard. Anything over 30 SPF will suffice.

Where to stay in Backbones State Park

There are 16 cabins and 2 campgrounds within Backbone State Park. All cabins have heating, air conditioning, kitchens, and bathrooms. Each unit comes with a fire-ring to make a campfire. Visitors must bring their own bedding and dinnerware. As far as camping, there are non-electric and electric sites in South Lake Campground, along with two shower buildings, a playground, and dump station. The Six Pine Campground features non-electric sites and pit latrines. Campsites and cabins are available year-round and must be reserved ahead of time.

Food Nearby Backbone State Park

There is food available for purchase within the park. Near the beach lodge, there is a concession area that sells hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream, candy, soda, firewood bait, boat rentals, and cabin rentals. The concession is only open from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend. You can also bring food inside the park, which will be especially important if camping overnight.

Airports near Backbone State Park

There are many airports surrounding Backbone State Park. Cedar Rapids Municipal Airport is 65 miles south of the park. Des Moines International Airport is 167 miles southwest. Other surrounding airports include O'Hare in Chicago, Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and Kansas City International Airport. All require a car to reach the park.

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