Sunday, June 26, 2022

Basecamping Backbone State Park--Iowa's Oldest

Backbone East Lake Trail
I remember wading a pebble-bottomed stream, ankle deep and crystal clear, and I remember hiking the "backbone" ridge with my son's schoolmates on a classroom campout, raccoons in the night and owls . . . and rain. Those are good memories, and I wanted to return to Backbone State Park, Iowa's first state park, and explore and experience more deeply this sanctuary in NE Iowa's Driftless Area. Missed by the glaciers of the last ice age, this part of Iowa has a geography much different than the rest of Iowa.

I opted to camp at Backbone for only four days, not really enough, but another heat wave was sweeping the Midwest, and a humid 97 degrees was a good reason to head home and water the garden. Four days of exploring wasn't quite enough to hit all the sites in this 2,001-acre state park, especially with Backbone State Forest adding an additional 186 acres of recreation opportunity at the NE corner of the park. The park, according to the DNR website, has something for everyone, from bold climbs to relaxed outings.

"Dedicated in 1920 as Iowa’s first state park, Backbone State Park is one of the most geographically unique locations in Iowa. The steep and narrow ridge of bedrock from the Maquoketa River forms the highest point in northeast Iowa - The Devil’s Backbone - giving the park its legendary name. Take a walk through history by checking out the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) museum, explore the rugged 21-mile multi-use trail system or fish in some of Iowa’s best trout streams. Whether you’re an adrenaline seeker or just wanting to get outdoors for the day, Backbone State Park has something for everyone."

 Arriving on a Thursday morning without a reservation, I felt confident that I'd be able to land a non-reserved site for my stay. I was correct in that assumption--but there is a story attached to that choice. I arrived and walked through the lower park of the modern South Campground, the 30-amp section, and found a non-reserved site with an old tag still attached to the site-numbered post. I added mine and then spent some time erecting two awnings to help with the sun and heat after the usual leveling and unhitching routine. By late afternoon I was able to enjoy my Airstream Basecamp's air conditioning, reading and relaxing. 

Interrupted by a firm knock on the camper's door, I looked out to see a park ranger waiting outside. I got up, and after a moment opened the door, saying, "Sorry it took a bit. I had to put my pants on." The ranger's response was, "And I appreciate that." It turned out that the site was already reserved. The rain-bedraggled reservation slip had indicated a reservation from June 10 for four days--except that it was actually from June 15 for four days . . . and I had arrived on the sixteenth. I had to break camp and leave; however, the ranger had kindly found another two non-reservable sites that weren't taken. 

"I thought you couldn't reserve a site and not set up camp. There was nothing at this site indicating anyone was here," but evidently, Iowa allows for someone to arrive at a campground and reserve a site, leaving only the reservation tag. So, okay then, I'll remember that. "Happens all the time," the ranger said. A group of several travel trailers showed up on Friday for the weekend, with my walk-in site spot having been reserved on Wednesday to ensure a spot for the weekend--two days reserved and empty, but the DNR still got their money.

At Backbone with two awnings to help keep the camper cooler
Deciding not to let the situation ruin my mood, I packed up and moved, following the ranger's advice of first picking one of the two sites and then adding my already-filled-out tag, having changed the campsite number. After that little blip, now I was ready to enjoy my four days, and I'd actually enjoyed the practice of speedily breaking and setting up camp. I'm getting pretty doggone fast! 

I had arrived at Backbone to stay for four nights. Obviously, Thursday was mostly driving and setting up camp (twice!), but I still managed to walk the upper and lower sections of South Campground, scouting out the general lay of the land. I discovered a trailhead for the West Lake Trail while taking a small, relaxing walk around the campground before bed. I also met one of the campground hosts, Thad, who let me photo a map of the park so that I'd have a better understanding of the trails.

Backbone Lake from the lower end of the West Lake Trail
The next day I was off hiking, a bit late in the morning, but I did manage to walk about half of the West Lake Trail, first heading south to the end of the lake and then turning around and hiking north of the trail. I managed a little more than half the trail, turning around at 11:30 so that I'd get back to camp in time for lunch and before it got too hot. Talking later with Thad and nearby campers, I was told that I could walk the West Lake Trail, follow the park's central road around the north end of the lake, and then take the East Lake Trail to complete the lake trail loop. I was told by a ranger I talked to that the loop trail route was okay to complete on a bicycle. That was my challenge for Saturday. The weather forecast was predicted to be cooler, and I assembled my folding bicycle, a Montague Allston, Friday evening. 

Instead of beginning my lake bike ride later in the morning, I headed out at 8:30, catching the cool air. There was a bit of a breeze, enough to hassle the humidity but not enough to hassle my trek. The West Lake Trail was described as having steeper hills than the East Lake Trail. I had hiked a couple of pretty steep pitches on Friday, so I knew that I'd be pushing the bike. That's okay with me, though, because ultimately the route is faster on a bicycle, even with a little riding and a lot of pushing. If I were pushing a fully-loaded touring bike, then that would be unnecessary work, but a lightly loaded bike isn't a problem; the bike can even function as a "walker" or wheeled "trekking pole" on steep parts of the trail. The West Lake Trail was uniformly about four to six feet wide, with mostly graveled sedimentary stone chips. 

In the end, I walked about forty percent of the West Lake Trail and bicycled the other sixty percent. There are many large, mature trees in this section of the park, many of them oak and hickory. Having attended an introductory lecture about the park by camp host Thad, I had learned that originally the park had much more open prairie, that the area had been a mixture of copses of forest and prairie. With the establishment of the state park, many more trees were planted so that now much of the park is unbroken forest. Some of the trail skirts private farm land, but most of the trail is deep enough in the park that the feel of forest silence is available. The west lake side of the hike spends some time near the lake and then moves away. 

A wider, smoother park of the East Lake Trail
I don't mind walking my bicycle, even when on highways. We can go for a Sunday drive and enjoy the scenes, but our interaction with the environment isn't nearly as immersed as when on a bicycle. Take that one step further; hiking immerses me in my surroundings even more than when riding a bike. On a road, that may not be so obvious: we can cruise along and still gawk. However, when riding on gravel or on a path with upthrust stone and exposed tree roots, a lot of the attention has to be on the path just in front of the bike. Believe me, I know because I've fallen a couple of times when the front tire has slipped out from beneath me. I wasn't hurt because I was essentially standing still, balanced on the bicycle when the tire slipped away, but nonetheless, there I was, on the ground. 

Therefore, I wasn't upset when I ended up riding about fifteen percent of the East Lake Trail and hiking the other eighty-five percent. It was a beautiful journey, even while packing the bike up or down steep, rocky trail across the "backbone" of the park and around or over trees fallen across the path. In a later conversation with the camp host and the park ranger, the ranger decided he'd have to hike the trail and open up a few spots that were sketchy.

My last full day at Backbone was a hot one, so I spent the morning checking out campsites for sun and shade orientation. I also enjoyed checking out some of the smaller trailers in the campground--quite a variety!

Rpod with a rear kitchen and quite a lot of room inside
A happy couple downsizing to an Aliner after their children have grown up
A classic (and well-used) Aristocrat trailer
Although I enjoyed my four days at Backbone State Park, there are several area features that I missed: I didn't get to the ice caves (at Bixby State Preserve), didn't get to hike the Backbone Trail, and missed wading up the river from the North Flats Shelter. The last two were activities I enjoyed with my son over twenty-five years ago, and it would have been nice to revisit both those places and those memories. However, 97-degree days were coming, so I kept my stay to four nights. I plan to visit Backbone again and to explore those areas of the park that I missed, especially the north end of the park. It was a good trip, one that made me look forward to another visit. Maybe those are the best camping trips of all!

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