If your idea of an adventure is to head off chasing waterfalls or wander through some caves, then you need to make the trip up to Decorah.
To the outsider, Iowa is just flat with never ending rows of corn and soybeans. While we do have plenty of ground that is perfect for crop production and we do lead the country in corn and soybean output, we are certainly not all flat. In fact, there are parts of eastern and especially northeast Iowa that look like they are from an entirely different part of the country altogether.
On a recent Saturday, my buddy and I spent a full day in and around Decorah. In previous posts, I highlighted our visit to Mabe's Pizza and Magpie Coffeehouse as well as stops in downtown, Luther College, and the Winneshiek Farmers Market.
On the north edge of Decorah, two great examples of Iowa's diverse natural beauty are ready for your visit: the Ice Cave and Dunnings Spring Park.
The Decorah Ice Cave and Dunnings Spring Park are essentially next door to each other but the road that runs along them is partially and (temporarily?) closed for maintenance. We drove as far as we could and then parked. The few minutes of walking to the cave was worth it as you pass some beautiful scenery.
Once you get to the entrance to the cave, there is a little area with a picnic table and a sign about the history of the cave. This cave has been an important area of research for decades and that research actually lead to some significant scientific discoveries. There are some good resources on the web to learn more about it before you plan your own visit.
Once you've read about the cave, there is a long brick stairs that takes you from the road up to the cave entrance. It's not in great condition and it's certainly not handicap accessible so watch your step.
However, once you've made the trek up the steps - it's worth it. You immediately feel as though you are being welcomed into a natural air conditioner of sorts.
You will definitely need a flashlight in order to see and the ground is either wet or slippery (it's an ice cave, after all!). There are also a couple of tight spaces to maneuver through. With the dark conditions inside the cave, it is hard to get great photos.
You won't be able to go too far in but on a hot day, it was a nice five minute cool off.
Dunnings Spring Park
Dunnings Spring Park might be one of the prettiest attractions in all of Iowa. It has a rich history in both commerce and now as a place of recreation. Before it was donated to the City of Decorah, it was once the site of a grist mill and a marble quarry. Per usual, there are plenty of other resources on the web that do a better job explaining that history. I would encourage you to read a little more before your visit. I am glad that visitors can now enjoy this extraordinary spot. In the nearly ten months that I have been publishing posts on this site, I would put this as one of my top five spots so far.
As you can see, there is no shortage of natural beauty.
There were a number of others (of all ages) there and some were even doing some hiking up along the waterfalls to get some better views or to dip a toe in the water.
My friend and I also climbed up the side of it but we both had "poor" shoes on. I had Sperrys and he has Birkenstocks. You will want better shoes if you choose to attempt this.
You can cross over a newly restored rock bridge to get to an elaborate wooden stairs structure. This will take you up to an overlook of where the water comes out of the spring and the rocks before heading down the 200 foot waterfall.
Once at the overlook, you see the water before it heads down the water fall.
All around the wooden stairs structure is moderately dense forest.
It's a truly beautiful place to have a picnic, do a little hiking, or just enjoy the majesty of nature.
After the water heads down the waterfalls, it runs through a stream and all the way into the Upper Iowa River. The stream runs parallel with the paved road that leads into the park.
There is a small roadside park where the spring water runs into the river. We happened to park there. There are great views of the river as well.
In the photo below, you can see the water heading into the river.
Spending a combined hour visiting the Ice Cave and then Dunnings Park is worth every second. It's truly beautiful. The water is extraordinarily clean and cold and on a hot day, it was a refreshing place to be.
I know there are other waterfalls and caves in Iowa and I look forward to visiting those on future adventures. However, no trip to Decorah is complete without visits to these two attractions.