Located about an hour’s drive north of Cedar Rapids, Backbone State Park is Iowa’s oldest state park. Established in 1920, it was named for a narrow limestone ridge—the Devil’s Backbone—along the Maquoketa River. At its founding, it was one of the largest state parks in the U.S. to offer camping, picnicking and hiking opportunities. Since that time, the park has expanded to 2,100 acres—almost double its original size—and offers even more opportunities for locals and visitors to get outdoors and enjoy some time in nature. Whether it’s wandering the woods, fishing on a quiet creek, lounging by the lake, or just napping in shade under a swinging hammock, there’s something for everyone here.
The two campgrounds at Backbone State Park offers 125 campsites for tent and RV campers. The large South Lake Campground has nearly 100 sites, about half with electrical hookups, with flush toilets and showers. The smaller Six Pines Campground has 27 primitive tent sites with vault toilets. Most sites are open and grassy, but there are plenty of shade trees around. Both locations have drinking water faucets and trash receptacles; a dump station is located at the South Lake Campground. The park also offers a few 1- and 2-bedroom cabins for those visiting sans tent or RV; bedding not provided. Many sites and facilities are ADA accessible. A small store in the park sells bait, firewood and some concessions. Reservations are accepted, but some sites are held open for first-come, first-served campers. Seasonal campsite rates range from $6–$16/night; cabins range from $50–$100/night.
There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy at Backbone State Park. The park features several playgrounds, picnic areas, an outdoor auditorium, and a museum. More than 21 miles of multiuse trails explore the woods and waterways within the park. Taking a hike or ride is the best way to see some of the park’s natural rock features, including the Stone Arch, Balance Rock, and the Devil’s Backbone. In winter, many of these trails are open for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Swimming, paddling and boating can be enjoyed on Backbone Lake, with kayak and canoe rentals available from the park, and angers can fish for trout on the creek out of Richmond Springs. And rock climbers will find several challenging routes on the park’s many limestone cliffs.
There are two campgrounds at this park (the first state park in Iowa): a primitive one and a “modern” one. The primitive one (Six Pine) only has a pit toilet and each site has a fire grate and a picnic table. The modern campground (South Lake) has 30 amp, 50 amp, and tent sites. The electric sites are very close together (too close for our liking) so we opted for a tent site. We were in a loop with about six sites, and while the site size was generous and spaced a decent distance apart, there was no delineation between sites and no specific place to park your vehicle (and you cannot park on the road). These sites were also decidedly bumpy and not level; it took us about 15 minutes of maneuvering our van around to find a reasonably level spot.
The restrooms were six separate rooms, each complete with toilet, sink, and shower; they were clean.
We drove around the park and saw the balanced rock (meh) and I walked the short distance to the mouth of the cave. There was good signage to find the cave but once there, no information about the cave and its safety (or not) was available so I opted not to explore its dark and wet interior! There are seven trails in the park; the East Lake trail was a treat to hike. It hugs the lake for about two miles and while you can veer off onto the Bluebird Trail, I enjoyed hiking out and back for a different view. You can also hike from the South Lake campground to the beach– about a mile but the trail does start and stop, and you have to walk on the road for a bit. You can rent kayaks, canoes, and paddleboats but we did not take advantage of this. We also did not swim so I cannot speak to the quality of the lake (other reviewers took issue with this). There is also a CCC museum, but it was not open while we were there.
We stayed one night which was sufficient for us. It might have been nice to stay longer if we decided to rent kayaks or hike different trails.
This park is perfect for families or anyone looking for plenty of activities. They have boat rentals, amazing trails, a camp store onsite, a swimming beach and super clean bathrooms. Stayed at tent site #24 in the Southlake Campground, and it was fairly quiet even on a busy holiday weekend.
I tent camped at Six Pines Campground for 3 nights in August. The park has two campgrounds and this one is non electric with pit toilets and water. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring with a really nice grill. The sites are large and flat and the ones on the outside of the loop are well shaded. Two trails can be accessed from the tent campground - Six Pines trail and West Lake trail. There are two shower houses that you can use at the RV campground but it takes about 15-20 minutes to drive across the park to that campground. The park is very large with about 20 miles of trails. There is a spring fed creek and, if you stay away from the trout fishing area, you can play and wade in the creek. It has a sandy/rocky bottom and sandy banks. It felt wonderful on a hot day. There is a swim beach on the lake but it was closed due to E. coli in the water. There’s a small camp store too. At night in this campground there are no lights except in the registration kiosk so it’s perfect for star gazing. The Field of Dreams movie site is just 45 minutes away and makes for a fun side trip. There is a town about 10 minutes away with a couple restaurants and coffee shops. The Six Pines trail can be taken from the campground to the Backbone trail. The Backbone trail is along a rocky ridge. There are side trails down to the base of the cliffs and lots of rock climbing to do. Very fun to explore the side paths and climb up the rock walls.
We stayed here two nights. That was plenty, although it's not really the park's fault. The lake was super gross, with excessive floating moss (probably a weather issue) and EXCESSIVE goose poop everywhere. The beach was basically unusable, with goose bombs everywhere. It was better when we kayaked, but still gross.
So why the five stars? 1. The bathrooms were fantastic. 2. The camp site was really nice and plenty of room. 3. The hiking was superb. Felt like we were not in Iowa. 4. The driving through the park was also really great and I will go back this fall to look at leaves. 5. There is a cave you can explore on your own. We did. It's awesome. It's muddy. It's super cool. 6. There are some decent bouldering spots. 7. Cheap, huge bundles of firewood at park entrance. 8. Really friendly at the camp store. 9. Close to Strawberry Point. Go to town to Clayton's Pharmacy and get an old fashioned soda. Fantastic. 10. Close to Edgewood and the Edgewood Locker. Go visit and stock up on meat on the way home.
Lots a hiking trails… nice trout fishing.
Kids love the river crossing.
Be aware of night life, the raccoons like to come and join you at the camp fire.
All been said., nice little gem in Iowa.
Nice sites. Bathrooms clean!
Lakewater often unsafe for swimming. To the extent the beach had weeds growing on it. Campsites are close together w no privacy.
Have camped here twice with large groups (12-25 people) of college age friends. Was a great time with plenty to keep everyone interested.
My favorite memory was definitely swimming in the river. Also enjoyed hiking along the backbone trail, and climbing around some wooded areas.
This campground has many things to do. This place has tent, rv and cabin camping, you can choose modern or non modern camping. Fun activities include fishing, swimming in a lake and also ground fed springs, boat rentals on the lake, hiking also horse trails, rock climbing, caves, playgrounds shelters for events and parties. I am sure there are even more things to do that I didnt have the time for.
Absolutely love Backbone! Beautiful hiking trails and a great place to camp with good bathroom accommodations!