Iowa State Parks at 100 Years: Backbone's Legacy

posted by Alicia Vasto on Thursday, July 2, 2020

Iowa celebrates the 100th anniversary of the state parks system this year. Iowa has 72 state parks that span the breadth of Iowa’s geological and biological diversity. As one of the lowest-ranking states in the nation for public lands, each state park is precious to Iowans for appreciating nature and the benefits of time spent outdoors. 

Hiking, cave at Backbone State ParkBecause of Covid-19, many anniversary events have been postponed, including the celebratory Centennial kickoff at Backbone State Park in Eastern Iowa. Dedicated in 1920, Backbone is Iowa’s first state park. It is one of the most outstanding parks in the state, offering diverse activities including: camping; a large beach and swimming area; challenging hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails; rock climbing; and more.  

Backbone consists of 2,000 forested acres surrounding Backbone Lake and a portion of the Maquoketa River in Delaware County. The predominately oak and maple woodland serves as habitat for a variety of wildlife including deer, raccoon, fox, turkeys, ruffed grouse, and many species of songbirds. The park is named for the “Devil’s Backbone” – a distinct narrow and steep ridge of bedrock carved by the Maquoketa River. It is one of the highest points in northeast Iowa. 

Ampitheatre at Backbone State ParkAnother unique aspect of the park is the many historical buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) between 1933 and 1941. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal following the Great Depression. The CCC put many Americans to work on public projects that endure to this day. Among the projects completed at Backbone were the dams on the Maquoketa River forming Backbone Lake, a cluster of rustic family cabins, a beach and boathouse, auditorium (pictured), bridges, roads, picnic shelters, restrooms, and trails. Some of these structures are currently being restored. 

Despite the park’s beauty and special features, Backbone has a more recent legacy that is not as admirable: chronic E. coli contamination on Backbone Beach.  

Backbone LakeBackbone Lake was first listed for an E. coli impairment in 2004. Since 2014, when IEC began tracking beach monitoring data from the DNR, Backbone has experienced 85 swim advisories for E. coli – far more than any other state park beach monitored by the DNR. In the seven (7) weeks since Memorial Day weekend, Backbone has been under a swim advisory for five (5) weeks. Locals know the water is not safe to swim or wade in, and the beach often sits empty week after week.  

The lost potential of this recreational resource is further highlighted as local swimming pools remain closed due to Covid-19 and park visitation is up as Iowans venture outdoors in lieu of other summer activities.  

While we join in the celebration of the 100-year milestone of Iowa’s great state parks, IEC continues to call for greater investment in these special places and in Iowa’s water quality. It diminishes the call for celebration when not enough is done to protect the few public lands the state has, and when Iowans cannot enjoy these places to their full extent. Iowans deserve more opportunities to enjoy our diverse landscape and natural resources, and our historic parks deserve more protection and respect.  

Backbone LakeYou can hold our state leaders accountable for cleaning up our beaches by talking to them about the Impaired Waters List and asking for more funding for watershed planning and Water Quality Improvement Plans. Public lands and waters are for all of us, so you have a right to know they are being protected. Thank you for joining us in our efforts to improve Iowa’s water quality and continuing to call for greater investment in Iowa’s natural resources.  

  1. beach advisories
  2. clean water
  3. dnr
  4. water quality
  5. water recreation

About The Author

Alicia joined the Council in 2019. She grew up in Adel, Iowa. She previously worked as the director of the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition, where she supported environmental educators and advanced environmental literacy. Alicia holds a Master of Environmental Management degree from Duke Uni ... read more