By Trent Jonas
If you’re in search of a winter adventure, Backbone State Park will provide you with over 2,000 acres of fun. Backbone is the oldest park in Iowa and is named for a striking escarpment (the highest point in Northeast Iowa) formed by the Maquoketa River. Travelers will find everything from camping and fishing to skiing and snowmobiling within the park. Start planning your trip now.
Backbone State Park has two campgrounds that are open year-round to both RVs/Trailers and tent campers. The modern South Lake Campground, however, offers two frost-free pumps that make water available to campers throughout the year. Not feeling like camping? Rent one of the park’s year-round camper cabins.
If you love to snowmobile, you’ll be happy to learn that Backbone State Park is home to over 21 miles of multi-use trails through cedar and hardwood forests. From the South Lake Campground, jump onto the West Lake Trail on your snowmobile, and you can blaze along the southern portion of Backbone Lake until you connect with the East Lake/Bluebird Trails. Pay attention to trail markings, as snowmobiling is not allowed in the adjacent state forest.
Trout anglers will be pleased to learn that Backbone State Park boasts its own trout stream. Richmond Springs flows into a rushing, cold-water stream that is perfect for year-round trout angling. In November and December, and again in late winter, the trout are feeding aggressively—which is good news for those who are chasing them.
In addition to fantastic snowmobiling opportunities, Backbone State Park is home to almost seven and a half miles of cross-country skiing on the Forest Trail. The trail winds out of the northeast corner of the park and into the adjacent Backbone State Forest, through the hardwoods and pines that are native to the area.
Just northeast of and adjacent to the park, Backbone State Forest is open to public hunting. This makes the park an awesome basecamp for any outdoor adventure that includes hunting—during the appropriate season, of course. Make sure you have all the proper Iowa licenses and endorsements and be careful not to cross into the park: Hunting is not permitted inside state parks. Check out more Iowa hunting information here.
No visit to Backbone State Park would be complete without visiting its namesake feature: The Devil’s Backbone. This feature is a limestone escarpment that was carved out by a tight curve in the Maquoketa River, leaving the park with one of the highest points in northeast Iowa. The trail can be difficult and rocky in the summer, so use extra caution in the winter. Assess the trail conditions before setting out and turn back if the going is too tough or slippery—an ascending 80-foot trek isn’t one to be taken lightly.
A little southeast of Backbone State Park, near the town of Cascade, you’ll find the Whitewater Canyon Wildlife Area. One of only three true canyons in the state, the near 500-acre reserve is a gorgeous (pun intended) place for a winter snowshoe. Of the area’s many trails, Lost Canyon offers the most striking scenery in a sometimes-challenging loop.
Sundown Mountain Ski Resort is located less than an hour east of Backbone State Park, outside of Dubuque. With its 475 feet of vertical, 21 trails, four lifts, two terrain parks, and two lodges, Sundown is Eastern Iowa’s largest ski area. While you’re in the area, refuel at the famous Copper Kettle under 10 miles away in Dubuque.
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If you’re up for some fat biking during your stay at Backbone, feel free to explore the open trails in the park. But if you’d like a longer ride and a change of scenery, head to the Volga River State Recreation Area, about 30 minutes northwest of the park, near Fayette. The 25-mile trail system includes the Lima Trail, which will take you along 20-foot high limestone bluffs and through acres of white pines. On your return to Backbone, grab some grub at Barney’s in nearby Wadena.
Not too far from the trails at Volga River is this masterpiece of a restaurant. You never know what kind of culinary masterpiece they’ll be serving up at Shrubb’s Street Eatery in Fayetteville. With options like specialty gourmet flatbreads, fresh artisanal salads, and other drool worthy dishes, you’ll be satisfied no matter what. The dishes are composed of unique, fresh, and local ingredients; so, you could imagine that their quality matches their creativity—top notch! Not only are the prices very fair, the service is also very personal and laid back. This friendly eatery is certainly worth a stop.
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