The light was tricky as we entered the looming mouth of the Upper Dancehall cave at Maquoketa Caves State Park. My eyes kept adjusting to the shadows cast from the towering rocks and oak trees. Radiant beams of sunlight pierced the gloom, all whirling with pollen, dust and insects. While I was sure that I saw bats flitting back and forth in the air, I later found out that they were rough-winged swallows, a species of cave-dwelling birds. Then a chilly updraft from the cave fogged my glasses. I followed my friend John into the shadowy underworld, carefully balancing from stepping stone to the next through a shallow pool of water. Then THWACK! I banged my head onto the sloping rock ceiling. Of course, being 6 feet tall can hurt when climbing under the earth.
Wild caves to explore
Aside from my bruised noggin, Maquoketa Caves is a fun place to explore. The park, in Iowa’s scenic driftless region, is one of the few places within driving distance of Chicago (3.5 hours) where you can actually climb through wild caves. John and I took Route 64 to get there. We could have almost missed the park altogether because it’s so small and surrounded by farm fields. I quickly learned that the park’s 13 limestone caverns, all open to the public, more than makes up for its 323 acres. Maquoketa Caves is reputed to have the most caves of any park in Iowa.
After several slow, far more careful steps into the Dancehall cave, I saw that there was a paved path and the ceiling rose back up, more than accommodating my height. Along this subterranean path was shallow water and thick mud. I could hear and feel moisture dripping from above. The air was cool. Two fixed lights illuminated the glistening contours of the cave as we walked deep beneath the forest floor. I made the obligatory ghost noises: “OoOoOoh!” which echoed off the quiet cavern’s walls. Fifteen minutes later we emerged at the Middle Dancehall entrance. There I saw a verdant portal of trees, ferns and moss trailing the dark rocky walls to the surface.
Hiking and camping
Back up above, we hiked and got lost on some of the park’s seven miles of trails. We later got ourselves a map at the visitor’s center. We walked on wooden plankways tucked under tall bluffs, up and down flights of stone stairs, along soft dirt paths and across concrete stepping stones over Raccoon Creek. It was gusty while we were hiking, and the loud, long rushes of wind had the tree leaves hissing and trunks swaying. We spied two white-tailed deer in the brush. By then it was getting dark. I was tired and completely drenched in sweat and grime. After we found our way back to our little camp site we cooked up some chicken and tin-foil mixed vegetables on the fire pit grill while enjoying our beers. While eating my veggies a fat bug flopped onto my plate. John saw the bug and remarked, “Hey, free protein.”
Exploring more caves
On our second day, we visited the ranger station for a required and free caving permit and a short lecture about White-Nose Syndrome in bats. By noon we were out hiking the north-side trails and seeing the caves on the way. We encountered a Boy Scout troop at Twin Arch Cave. One of the scouts had squeezed underneath a rock and was exploring ahead for the rest of them. At Hernando’s Hideout cave, John threw a stick inside the ominous hole to make sure there wasn’t an animal inside before going in. We heard only the clank of wood and so he climbed in. All he saw in there were spiders.
It was cloudier and dimmer as we came upon the Natural Bridge, an imposing rock formation hovering some 50 feet over the creek. After a break for water and another flashlight, we looked for Wye Cave, which visitors have to carefully drop themselves down into. We couldn’t find the trail and ended up by an old gazebo in the woods and a creepy boarded-up outhouse along the 60-70-feet tall bluffs. From the edge we peered down at what we referred to as “death territory.” We backtracked and found a south-side trail to the Ice Cave.
On the way we walked through the wide Lower Dancehall cave and debated how it was that people did dancing there in the olden days. John thought that perhaps they mopped up the floor beforehand. I figured it was a mud ‘n moonshine kinda affair. Back on the trail we passed through Fat Man’s Misery, a narrow passageway in the rock where the trail passed through.
At the Ice Cave we climbed right inside. A ranger told us that it’s 37 degrees in there, but I thought it was more like 55. Either way, it was welcome air conditioning against the hot humidity outside. I peered upward at the tall ceiling and saw it glitter with minerals. Moments later some teenagers arrived on the path outside and one guy wondered aloud if anyone was inside. From the back of the cave John called out, “Nobody’s in here!”
Tips for Maquoketa Caves
We ended up seeing ten caves in all. All of the caves don’t go very far and you can’t get lost in them. The caves are generally wet, muddy and dark, and it’s a good idea to bring two flashlights with you along with grubby clothes and shoes, knee pads and gloves. I was glad that I brought my headlamp for hands-free spelunking. Since the caves always stay around 50 degrees, they’re good to visit all year. There’s a good variety of accessible and challenging caves, with caves #12-16 being the easiest and the rest requiring some crawling. All of the caves, except the Dancehall caves, are unlit and completely wild. Disappointingly, I didn’t see any interesting stalactites or stalagmites anywhere because they had all been damaged or stolen a long time ago. Even so, the park’s beauty and call to explore remains.
Maquoketa Caves State Park
10970 98th St., Maquoketa, IA 52060
free admission; $11 a night for non-electric camping site