Maquoketa Caves State Park

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When I was in college, some friends and I went to southern Missouri for a little getaway, and we wound up touring a cave. About halfway through the tour I discovered for the first time that I’m claustrophobic.

Being inside the tight, dark confines of a cave is not a good time to learn about a fear of enclosed spaces. I’ve managed to avoid caves ever since, but I know my claustrophobia is alive and well, because I’ve had near-panic attacks in large, immovable crowds of people; at concerts; on an airplane; and on a ride at Epcot Center in Disney World.

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So I’m not exactly sure what drew me last weekend to Maquoketa Caves State Park, except that this place is always listed in the top five state parks in Iowa and is said to be the state’s most unique park environment. I’ve seen pictures of some of the caves, and they’re huge, so I figured I could at least experience the cave entrance if not much more.

It turns out that the park has 14 caves with varying levels of accessibility. Some can be walked through, but others can only be experienced by crawling. (Um, those caves are not for me.) A terrific, well-marked trail system links the caves and other attractions, such as the 17-ton Balanced Rock and the dramatic Natural Bridge (above).

I was pleasantly surprised at the beauty of this park. It’s incredibly lush and green – almost otherworldly when you start exploring.

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I started my trek at Dancehall Cave (above). This cave is more than 1,000 feet long and has three entrances, concrete walkways, and a lighting system. I made it as far as the upper entrance. It’s huge! Mist was rising out of it; it was damp and cool … and very dark when you peeked inside. I could see stepping stones leading the way into the cave. But the large, initial entrance room was as far as I was willing to go.

These caves, I learned, were formed by the underground flow of water slowly dissolving the lime-rich dolomite. The process results in rounded or oval-shaped passages with smooth rock surfaces.

The coolest area, to me, was right next to the upper Dancehall Cave entrance: The Natural Bridge. This area seems to attract a lot of visitors. I was a little nervous to explore the area too much, since there were lots of slippery boulders and flowing water.

Maquoketa Caves have been around for hundreds and probably thousands of years, judging by the Native American artifacts found in the area, mostly consisting of tools and pottery. The caves were discovered by European settlers in the 1830s, and the area became a state park in the 1930s.

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The park features six miles of trails, picnic tables, and a campground with 29 campsites. To get to the park, take Hwy. 61 north out of Maquoketa and follow the signs to the west. Currently, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources requires visitors to attend a short lecture before entering the park’s caves to help prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome to the caves’ resident bats. (I did this, and it’s no big deal. The young rangers are very helpful.)

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