Backbone State Park is Iowa’s oldest state park – it was dedicated to the state in 1920! This park had been high on my list of places to visit with my kids for quite some time and finally we had an open day to explore. Backbone State Park is just about 2.5 hours from our house and while it was worth it for us to do a long day trip there and take in the sights – I would love to return for a longer time to camp in the near future.
Here are my suggestions for a fun filled time at Backbone State Park in just one day!
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Picnic Lunch and Stream Exploration
We arrived around 1:00 pm with a van filled with 3 kids – ages 7, 4, and 2 – 1 large dog – a cooler of lunch – and two parents. We entered through what is known as the “west entrance” and drove on the paved road past the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum to a parking lot near the North Flats Shelter. You really can’t miss it! There are picnic tables, a play ground, and restrooms right by the parking lot.
We unloaded and started out with a picnic lunch at one of the picnic tables.
It is important to note that Backbone State Park wants you to pack out all of your trash!
This means that everywhere we went there were NO trash cans. We did tour the campground and there ARE dumpsters for people to use who are camping over night – otherwise you won’t find a single trash can in the whole place. Bring a trash bag and be prepared to pack out. This worked great until our dog needed cleaning up after and we were left trying to figure out the best way to dispose of his waste.
There is a lot of shade throughout the park and our lunch was completely enjoyable. The kids really had a nice time and the restroom was simple pit toilets but clean!
After lunch it was a short walk to a bridge that over looked the trout stream that runs through the park. If you love trout fishing this park is the place to be! They stock the stream that is fed by an underground spring every year spring through fall. Make sure you have added trout fishing permits to your Iowa Fishing License first!
A few families were playing along the stream when we stopped for lunch. As the stream is fed by Backbone’s Richmond Springs the water is crystal clear and cool all year long! We decided to avoid getting wet for the moment and loaded in our car to start the hiking part of our day.
Total Time: 1 – 1.5 hours (We did not play at the playground but you could add that!)
We chose to tackle the park from North to South.
The northern part of the park boasts Richmond Springs, a neat exploration cave, an old fish hatchery, and several trails. This park is also home to horse trails in the northern section that I can’t wait to come ride with my girls one day!
The main road through the park is easy to navigate and parking near each attraction point was a plus. Our first spot of interest was Richmond Springs.
Richmond Springs is the source of the park stream and puts out over 2,000 gallons per minute of water. My girls loved watching the water bubble from the ground, hiking back and forth over the rock path near where the spring pool spills into the main stream, and hiking on the steep trail on the other side that gives you a birds eye view of the spring. Total time: 15 – 20 minutes.
After we scrambled around the springs and dabbled our fingers in the cool water we headed down the road to the cave.
Backbone State Park Cave
This cave is a short but fun little hike! You start out on just a flat trail through the woods and the steps leading up to the cave become visible almost immediately. Everyone in our group (two year old included) was able to handle the trail and stairs up to the cave just fine! I always pack a head lamp in my back pack so we were prepared to explore!
My husband went into the cave first, just to check the floor, ceiling, and make sure there wasn’t any wildlife we weren’t expecting hanging out. The cave (like all caves) was a little damp inside but otherwise in great condition for little explorers. We handed our phones with the lights on to the two oldest and strapped the head lamp on my youngest. She thought this was fantastic! We then sent them in to explore.
Being shorter than us, they could get a bit further back in the cave with ease. We simply called them back out once we couldn’t see them any more. I’m not sure how deep the cave goes or where it may channel off, so don’t let little ones get too carried away but overall it was a safe and fun exploration.
There is a trail that leads you around the side of the cave that we followed a little ways but it IS steep and not wonderfully maintained so walk at your own risk.
Total Time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Next was the part I was most excited for – Backbone Loop Trail!
Backbone Loop Trail
There are a lot of trails in this park and they are well labeled. I can’t wait to return and hike more! However, we were just here for an afternoon excursion so I chose to do the Backbone Loop Trail. This trail is GREAT for families and my girls loved it. We did end up putting my youngest in our Ergo baby carrier because she was tired from our previous exploring and some of the edges made me a little nervous – though she was never in any real danger.
This trail has a nice sized parking lot right by the trail head. This is great because you get to drive up the road and park and don’t have to climb to the top of Backbone ridge on foot – but of course there are trails that will let you do this if you want to!
The trail itself hits around a mile if you stick to the main path, has good shade, spots to rock scramble which my kids loved, and spots with great views! Coming here in the fall is high on my to-do list so I can see all the beautiful colors as the leaves change.
This trail is not handicap accessible and has varied footing, especially at the start. The footing becomes more level as you go into the wooded loop section. My four year old and seven year old handled it well and had a lot of fun with it as you can see from the pictures.
We stopped a lot to take in views, study acorns and other findings. We also saw signs of beaver activity which made for a great discussion with my kids!
This trail was a fun preview of the park and one we would love to hike again. It is also dog friendly which is nice for our Doodle who loves a good hiking excursion.
Total Time: 1 -2 Hours
Planning for future visits we knew we wanted to scope out the lake and camp grounds. Our little ones were ready for a break on the legs so we buckled in and drove through the camp ground and past the lake. You actually have to exit the park, drive along side it, and re-enter to get to the south side campground but the route was quick and simple. The campground looked well maintained with wide flat campsites and decent shade. We will definitely be coming back to it in the near future!
After we took a look around it was time to let the girls get wet in the trout stream.
We returned to the spot where we had lunch and went down to the water. My husband and I were able to relax at a nearby picnic table while the girls played in the cool ankle deep water throwing rocks and splashing around. We went down and my husband continued his rock skipping lessons with my oldest and the dog got a nice drink and dip.
The kids would have played here as long as we let them without a complaint!
Eventually we loaded up and headed home! We stopped for dinner on the way back but could have easily packed that as well.
All in all it was a great one day taste of what this park has to offer!
This park is great for:
Young hiking families, fishermen, campers, people with dogs, and also rock climbers – a whole section is known for its climbing and rappelling – just make sure you register at the park office if you are going to be climbing!
Why we will return:
We will be back for more hiking exploration and a camping stay. Within the next few years I would love to haul horses here and try out the horse trails with my girls as they start riding more!
Quick Look 1 Afternoon Itinerary:
- Picnic Lunch near North Flats Shelter
- Drive to the north part of the park and work south to see features.
- Explore Richmond Springs.
- Explore the Backbone State Park cave.
- Hike the Backbone Loop Trail
- Check out the Camp ground and Lake Area for Future visits!
- Play in the trout stream and relax!
- Head Home!
If you are looking for more great Iowa spots to check out I really recommend:
Are you new to hiking with your family?!