Maquoketa Caves State Park
Subterranean Satisfaction Guaranteed

Don’t believe the propaganda. Iowa is more, much more, than flat land and cornfields. There’s nothing flat about western Iowa’s Loess Hills or the Driftless Area in the northeast part of the state. From the Missouri River to the Mighty Mississippi, beauty and adventure abound. Looking beneath the surface opens you up to a subterranean sanctuary at Maquoketa Caves State Park in eastern Iowa.

The Caves

The park has 13 descriptively or anecdotally named caves, and we explored them all, along with some unmarked ones, on a soggy Saturday that couldn’t dampen our spirits.

Main Attraction


Dancehall Cave


We belly-danced through tight tubes all day, but not in Dancehall Cave, which vaults overhead like a Gothic cathedral entrance.

Dancehall, said to be a venue for concerts and dances 150 years ago, is the largest cave in the park spanning 1,100 feet. Unlike the others, it’s a developed cave with three entrances and a lighted walking path, which makes it accessible for nearly everyone to enjoy.

While Dancehall is enough reason to make a Maquoketa trip, the wild caves offer even more adventure.


Fave Caves


Wye Cave
This Y-shaped cave homophonically poses a question that may be answered during a beautiful, eerie descent. You enter by climbing down driftwood and boulders in the mouth of a sinkhole and continue downward into the abyss for nearly 500 feet.

A rewarding little cave. If you can squeeze through a two-foot cranny, you’ll drop down into a payoff — a roughly 25-foot, standing-height nook.

Steel Gate Passage
While taking in Dancehall’s midsection, we observed an unexpected, unmarked opening. I ventured in ahead of the others to scout it out. After crouching below the low-ceiling entryway, the cave opened up overhead. Straddling a stream as I made my way through winding walls, I called out turns, obstacles and formations until I realized I could no longer be heard (and probably hadn’t been heard for several minutes) — alone in silence in the middle of a mountain.

I hadn’t planned to venture so far ahead of the group, but intrigue had led me hundreds of feet into the passage, past pillar formations and spire remnants, without realizing it.

The Entire Lineup

  • Wide Mouth Cave
  • Dug Out Cave
  • Twin Arch Cave
  • Hernando’s Hideaway
  • Up-N-Down Cave
  • Window Cave
  • Match Cave
  • Barbell Cave
  • Shinbone Cave
  • Wye Cave
  • Dancehall Cave (Upper, Middle, & Lower)
  • Rainy Day Cave
  • Ice Cave
  • Steel Gate Passage

*For kicks: Turn off your headlamp and listen to the cave the way the bats do.


The Natural Bridge


Perhaps the park’s hallmark is not a cave but a bridge. Maquoketa’s Natural Bridge, which bows over Raccoon Creek, is said to be the largest in the Midwest.


The Camping


The park has 29 campsites. Our home for the weekend was site-27, a hike-in spot situated the farthest into the forest.

It was cool and wet, but mature trees provided some relief from the rain and our trusty tarp took care of the rest. We managed a hot fire that started Saturday and Sunday morning with a simple stir. Pine straw that had fallen on the hike-in path proved to be perfect tinder.

We were after a secluded camping experience, and that’s what we got, essentially. We welcomed the deer that passed through early one morning but had to scare off the raccoon that visited late one night.

Coolest Campsite

While we thoroughly enjoyed the remoteness of our camp, I was a bit jealous of neighboring site-28, an evergreen grove with pine straw carpet. It doesn’t lie as deep in the woods but is more picturesque.


One for the Road


Bluff Lake Catfish Farm

Just after leaving the park, we noticed a fading homemade road sign with the words “Bluff Lake Restaurant” and arrows pointing down a dusty road. While we assumed this place was a thing of the past, we decided to take the bait. About a mile down the road — in the middle of nowhere — it looked like our assumptions would be confirmed. Then, after a bend, an oasis.

“Bluff Lake Catfish Farm specializes in All-You-Can-Eat meals that will keep you coming back for more,” the menu reads — an amusing line that gains credibility after downing a dozen shrimp that transplanted me to the Outer Banks.

The restaurant is open Friday-Sunday. Friday is all-you-can-eat catfish, Saturday is haddock, and Sunday is shrimp and chicken. There are other menu options available (but get the special).