Iowa does not have any National Parks.
We have a National Monument or two with Effigy Mounds National Monument along the Mississippi River in Clayton County being the prime example.
However, we do have an extensive system of State Parks that are overseen by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). One of crown jewels of that system is Maquoketa Caves State Park in Jackson County, which is in the "nose" of the state in Eastern Iowa.
Earlier this Fall, a friend and I made the journey to the park. It's roughly an hour east of Cedar Rapids and we happened upon this increasingly famous hula-hoop tree outside the community of Amber in Jones County on the way.
We spent a couple of hours hiking the trails and exploring the caves. It was a great afternoon, but this park is also one where you can spend a lot more than a few hours if you are so inclined. There's just a lot of amenities to enjoy.
Near the highway that runs along the east side of the park is a lovely visitor center that provides a modern place to learn more about the area, the park, the geologic history, and utilize the restrooms before heading out and about.
The facility has been very nicely updated and when I stopped, there was a local volunteer manning the building. There is ample parking and an additional building that is utilized as a restroom.
The walls are filled with information and other museum-like relics. There are spots to sit down as well.
Once you head further into the park, you find an area where there is a fair amount of parking availability. This particular area was recently re-done and the park was closed for awhile this summer while these improvements were made.
Near the parking is a restroom facility and some picnic tables. There is also a small shed where the "Friends of Maquoketa Caves" were selling items and refreshments and dishing out some great suggestions about what to go see first. I don't know how often this group sets up their shop, but they had a number of patrons while we were there.
The restrooms near the visitor center are nicer than these restrooms. I would encourage you to use the ones closer to the road but these are an option, if needed.
As you head toward the hiking paths across the road from the restrooms, there is a small covered area where maps and more information about the State Park are posted. Much of the same information is available in the welcome center.
Once on the trails, you find that there is excellent signage to help keep you on track.
Everywhere you look, there is magnificent natural beauty to enjoy. I especially enjoyed going into one of the larger caves, which had some artificial lighting added. Sometimes you need to even duck your head. It's also a good idea not to wear your Sunday best, have good footwear, and bring a good flashlight.
Other times, you find yourself bounding up (or down) many flights of winding stairs.
There's no shortage of incredible and varying rock formations. What has been chiseled over millions of years by Mother Nature certainly could not be replicated with the same attention to detail by man or woman.
Sometimes the scenery is just beautiful forestry.
There is a 17 ton (34,000 lbs) "balanced rock" that seems to be just as the name suggests...balancing. It's a spot for many a funny photo op of park-goers "pushing", but despite efforts to feeble efforts...it just keeps balancing.
There are many other state owned (taxpayer owned) properties to explore and I hope to hit a few more in 2019. I applaud the DNR for making much needed improvements to this park. The DNR has a tendency to acquire thousands of acres of land every year while often neglecting or deferring the upkeep and maintenance on their existing properties and parks. Fixing up aspects one of the crown jewels of our state park system in 2018 was a good move. Let's hope that continues in 2019 and beyond at other sites.
Parks like Maquoketa Caves are a massive economic development driver for the area. If you look up and down the parked cars, you'll see license plates from all over.
Iowans should be proud of their parks and I hope you will make it a point to enjoy them a bit more in the year ahead.