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Discover 10 Top-Rated Caves in Iowa

Iowa is the only state in the Midwestern parts of the United States bordered by two navigable rivers: the Mississippi and Missouri. It offers some of the most beautiful sights and places to explore. The state was ranked in the top five for healthcare, education, opportunity, and infrastructure, leading to its final ranking as among the top states in the U.S.

Are you looking for a memorable adventure and nature escape? Look no further than Iowa. Welcoming you are caving systems with stunning geological features, rock formations, and winding bodies of water flowing through them.

With so many awe-inspiring things to check out and different outdoor activities to explore, Iowa’s caves are truly one of the best and most fascinating places to visit. Choose which place to visit first with our list of the 10 top-rated caves in Iowa.

Ice Cave at Bixby State Preserve

Bixby State Preserve is an ideal place for hiking, playing in the streams, picnicking, and enjoying nature. The preserve is best known for the Ice Cave, located a few yards from the park’s main entrance. It’s a quiet wooded area that consists of Silurian Escarpment, a unique belt of bluffs that mark a stunning Paleozoic Plateau.

Warm air rises from the elaborate system of sinkholes during winter and early spring, causing cold, moist air to be drawn through fissures into the ice caves, where it’s converted to ice on the walls. The system is reversed in summer and fall when cool air vents to the talus slopes, creating a beautiful ecosystem.

Crystal Lake Cave

You are likely missing out on a real adventure if you haven’t been to Crystal Lake Cave in Dubuque, Iowa. It’s an underground cave full of stunning geological features, such as stalactites, stalagmites, and helictites. There are also lots of flowerlike clusters and antholites that spout from the ceiling.

Miners discovered the cave in 1868 while searching for the lead near Dubuque. Crystal Lake Cave was later opened to the public in 1932 for exploration.

  • Address: 6684 Crystal Lake Cave Rd, Dubuque, IA 52003, United States
  • Website: Crystal Lake Cave
  • Phone number: +1 563-556-6451
  • Entrance fee: $20 for adults, $8 for children between ages 4-11, and free for children under 4.
  • Google Maps link: Crystal Lake Cave

Grotto of the Redemption

As depicted by its name, Grotto of the redemption is a religious shrine in Iowa. It’s considered the largest grotto in the world, with a complete manmade collection of fossils, petrifications, and minerals in one place. It’s estimated that over 100,000 people visit the Grotto of the Redemption each year. The shrine has been featured in the David Lynch film The Straight Story.

Maquoketa Caves State Park

Consider visiting Maquoketa Caves State Park if you fancy big and majestic caves that are easy to explore. Maquoketa Caves has been popular for hikers and picnickers, with more caves than any state park since the 1860s. A six-mile trail system connects the caves, formations, and overlooks while providing spectacular landscape views.

Explore Hernado’s Hideaway, Wye Cave, Shinbone Cave, and the 1,100-foot Dancehall Cave for a unique experience. There are about 13 caves in the park, most of which have been explored by persons of average physical ability. A few others are best suited for spelunkers who can crawl in tight spaces.

Decorah Ice Cave

Decorah Ice Cave is a perfect destination for tourists. The cave is dry from fall and into early winter. Ice starts to form near the entrance in January and February and continues down to the lower levels. Several inches of ice transpire towards the end of May and typically remains until late August. The ice on the cave walls is approximately 8 to 10 inches thick, creating a white crust.

Spook Cave

Located approximately seven miles west of McGregor, Spook Cave is a privately owned and operated flooded cave that offers an underground boat past the rock-like tubes. The cave was discovered in 1953 and opened for public exploration in 1955. Geologically, the cave features karst topography, cold springs, and sinkholes.

  • Address: 13299 Spook Cave Rd, McGregor, IA 52157, United States
  • Website: Spook Cave
  • Phone number: +1 563-539-4114
  • Entrance fee: Cave tour costs $16 for adults 13+, $11 for children between ages 4 and 12, and free for children below 3.
  • Google Maps link: Spook Cave & Campground

Wapsipinicon State Park Cave

Wapsipinicon State Park Cave derives its name from the sandstone and limestone bluffs found along the Wapsipinicon River. There are several caves, including an ice cave within the park for your inner spelunker.

The park’s recreational activities include fishing, boating, and camping. The Wapsipinicon River provides campers spectacular views of the caves and wide-open prairies. The park has playground areas and picnic sites, making the it a perfect destination for a family summer camping trip.

Cave at Backbone State Park

Home to the most awe-inspiring cliffs and rocky staircases, Cave at Backbone State Park boasts rugged dolomite limestones and the phenomenal Backbone Lake Dam. It’s characterized by karsts, sinkholes, and active springs.

Learn the park’s history at the Iowa Civilian Conservation Corps Museum located near the park’s west gate. The museum offers interesting and informative exhibits regarding the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) activities in Iowa State Parks.

Take a boat tour on Backbone Lake and enjoy the spectacular views of the park’s surroundings. Fishing for trout in Backbone’s quick-flowing stream is allowed. The stream provides habitat to numerous trout species looking for their favorite spot in the universally accessible trails along the stream.

Cold Water Cave

One of the most protected caves on this list, Cold Water Cave, is an extensive cave system in Iowa. It’s a spring believed to have scoured through cracks and crevices in the bedrock thousands of years ago, leaving air spaces joined by multiple rivulets. As a result, smooth formations were formed from the deposits of the brilliant white calcite and other colorful substances filtered through by the mineral-laden water.

Stalagmites began growing from the floor, while stalactites grew from the ceilings, sometimes meeting to create huge columns. The cave is currently not accessible to the public to avoid shuttering or breaking off some delicate formations. Some cavers have been trashed accidentally or intentionally in the past.

  • Address: Cold Water Springs State Wildlife Area, 2774 Cold Water Creek Rd, Decorah, IA 52101, United States
  • Google Maps link: Cold Water Spring State Preserve

Starr’s Nature Cave Center

Starr’s Nature Cave Center is a 184-acre park area with various recreational opportunities and interactive environmental displays. It’s owned by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and managed by Des Moines County Conservation. The area is rich in cultural history and features a segment of the Flint River Trail and two miles of scenic hiking trails.

Starr’s Nature Cave Center is the best place to be, especially if you want to enjoy a range of activities in nature, along with breathtaking views. Look out for the otherworldly rock formations along Flint Creek. The cave is also a popular bat hangout, so it was closed indefinitely to let the bats hibernate without being bothered by people.

Those who visit can peek into the cave through the iron gate. Nevertheless, while at the preserve, you can still explore other small manmade caves like the Devil’s Kitchen and Crinoid Cavern.

Final Thoughts

There are plenty of caves to explore in Iowa, especially if you are an avid spelunker. They are full of wonders, from incredible geological features to majestic scenery. With habitats ranging from forested foothills to icy glaciers and rocky formations, caving systems are the main source of amusement in Iowa.

Maquoketa Caves is one of the most popular and unique Iowa outdoor attractions since it has more fascinating caves than any state park. There are lots you can view and see in this Iowa’s oldest state park and several other caves within the state.

Top image: Phil Roeder via Flickr / Creative Commons.

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