Friday, August 13, 2021

Two Days in the Caves: Hiking at Maquoketa Caves State Park

Part of the Dancehall Cave hike
Two days was not enough time to delve deeply into Maquoketa Caves State Park's trail and cave system; it was definitely enough to make me want to come back for more. Following the trails led me through hill and ravine, through woodland, and below land--making my stay here a truly fascinating and unforgettable experience. 

Lush growth and varied terrain
The state website describes the park as a "unique" outdoor attraction, and I have to agree. It's quite unlike other state parks. The park is described as follows: "With more caves than any state park, Maquoketa Caves is one of Iowa’s most unique outdoor attractions. Enormous bluffs tower throughout the park, and a six-mile trail system winds through geologic formations and forests brimming with natural beauty. As one of the state’s earliest state parks, Maquoketa Caves has been a popular destination for picnickers and hikers since the 1860s. Grab your hiking shoes and a flashlight before traveling to Maquoketa Caves, because this state park is nothing short of adventure."

Lots of hikers and lots of fun
Putting on my hiking boots and grabbing my flashlight, I began my journey. In my opinion, the trail signage is lacking because 1) the trail signage doesn't match up with map identification. For instance, I started off on a hill trail that wasn't even identified on the map. Also, there were times when it wasn't clear which trail would take me back to camp. Not to worry, though--I had brought water, snacks, and with the throngs of hikers, there were plenty of folks to ask for directions. Since I had no real destination but rather a simple purpose (to enjoy myself and get some exercise), I joined the flow and saw some great sights (and sites), hiking through carved sandstone ravines, through vivid green copses of forest, alongside a winding creek, and of course, through some subterranean passageways. 

Perspectives of the main cave trail
There was only only part of the hike where I was beneath the ground for any length of time (the Dancehall Cave, 1,100 feet), most other caves being much smaller. Quite a bit of elevation change (for the Midwest) was required for the hike, and the Dancehall Cave required negotiating a wet and somewhat slippery stone walkway. I would suggest that folks with balance or mobility issues should begin the hike being willing to bail and turn back when necessary. And I certainly wouldn't wear flipflops on the hike.

Didn't even need to unhitch
The campground was located in a wooded area with individual sites isolated by forest undergrowth rather than by lawn. I'm pretty sure there was a bit of poison ivy next to the front door of my SUV. The campground reminded me of the time I camped at Sunset Bay State Park at Coos Bay, Oregon: shade, natural vegetation, and a campground that always had someone arriving or departing, busy yet orderly. The campground was laid out in such a way that I always felt I had my own space, even with the flow of people. Some of the campsites were smaller, but I had no problems with my little Airstream Basecamp

I didn't get to visit all the caves and hike all the trails; I missed the Rainy Day Cave, the Ice Cave, and the Shinbone Cave; and I also didn't hike the park's perimeter trails. Some of the staircases and elevated boardwalks were closed, with repairs being needed; however, there was still plenty to see and lots of hiking possible. 

Dramatic colors and vistas
Cellphone reception was fair, enough for me to work online with my signal booster, but it was slow, especially working on this blog and working with photos, which sometimes would require repeated attempts to send. Working on my blog wasn't my main reason for camping, though. Shucks, I can work best on my blog from home! Maquoketa Caves and Wildcat Den state parks are my two most unique camping experiences so far this season. 

I recommend this park for its original beauty. The town of Maquoketa is just outside the park if you need anything. The campground is 100% reservable with procedures for reserving an open spot overnight if one is available. As the state website says, be sure to bring hiking shoes and flashlight, and I'd suggest also a mask and hand spray, considering the amount of traffic on the trails and in the caves. I'm sure that summer is "rush hour" at this park, but let's make sure we don't bring anything home other than great memories. 

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