The Backbone

One of Eastern Iowa’s natural treasures is Backbone State Park, located about five miles south of Strawberry Point.  Established in 1919, Backbone holds the distinction as Iowa’s first state park. It’s named after the impressively steep and narrow ridge of rock carved out by a loop in the Maquoketa River. Its 1,200 acres were donated by E.M. Carr of Lamont, Iowa.

Between 1933 and 1942, Backbone State Park was enhanced with several work projects undertaken by two camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a work relief program initiated by FDR to get Americans back to work during the Great Depression. The Corps built cabins, trails, picnic spots, and recreation areas throughout Backbone.  They also built the low-lying dam in the months between August 1933 and October 1934, creating Backbone Lake at the southern-most end of the park.Contract: IA Park: 610105

At the east end of the lake, the CCC built a bathhouse and boathouse out of rough-hewn limestone. The boathouse includes an iconic round tower, together with a sundial, bench, and flagstone patio located at the south end of the bathhouse. The entire project lasted from September 1934 and March 1936. 

Say what you want about the implications of government bailout programs like CCC, but I’m glad these facilities are here. They are solid structures, weathering years of storms, freezing cold temperatures, and blistering hot summers.  They are constant reminders of fun moments I spent at Backbone with my kids.  On one sunny July afternoon, I took my son, Joel, and daughters, Gina and Sarah to the Backbone for a little hiking and general goofing-off. We were on our way north to Decorah for our annual father/son/daughter canoe trip. It was a Friday morning, very few people around that day. We trekked around the trails and ended up at the boathouse.

This painting shows the beautiful view from the beach of Backbone Lake, looking north toward the boathouse.  If you do some exploring here, watch your head as you climb to the lookout of the stone tower–it’s easy to get grossed-out by the countless tangles of cobwebs on the ceiling. The kayaks and boats are available for rent, perfect excuses for wasting time as you paddle across the lake and take in the scenery.  On the other side of the boathouse, there’s a lakeside trail that takes you all the way to the Backbone.




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