In Jackson County, between Dubuque and the Quad Cities, a beautiful outdoor summer weekend awaits in Maquoketa. Conveniently located on Highway 61, the attractions of Maquoketa are an easy drive from anywhere in Eastern Iowa, so pack up your camping gear, bring a flashlight, and get ready for adventure!
Have your car packed on Thursday and get on the road to Maquoketa as early as you can on Friday afternoon—on fine summer weekends, campsites can fill up quickly. You’re heading for Maquoketa Caves State Park, just a few minutes northwest of the charming city. Set up your tent or camper in the well-equipped campground, but don’t get too comfortable! You’re heading for a night of old-fashioned fun at the 61 Drive In Theater.
The classic American icon of the drive-in is still alive and well right here in Iowa. On steamy summer nights, you can catch a double feature of summer blockbusters from the comfort of your front seat. Alternatively, bring your lawn chairs and blankets to stretch out under the stars. Arrive early to get a good “seat” in the terraced viewing area, watch the sunset, kick back with some popcorn, and enjoy the movies.
After a night at the movies, grab your flashlights and headlamps to explore the famous Maquoketa Caves. The bluffs and valleys of the park are crisscrossed with well-maintained hiking trails, allowing for easy access to the entrances of the many caves and rock formations cut into the soft limestone.
The largest (and most accessible) cave of the park is Dancehall Cave, named for dances once held in its massive main chamber. There are three entrances to Dancehall, and much of the cave is lit and is easily explored with wooden walkways and stairs.
From Dancehall in the center of the park, two looped trails lead to the other, smaller, caves of the valley. Most of the caves are at least partially accessible by caving novices of moderate physical ability; more advanced passages are reserved for those with some caving experience. Durable clothing and footwear are required, and headlamps with helmets will certainly make your cave crawling much more comfortable. You’ll see local youngsters wearing skateboarding pads on their knees and elbows as they fearlessly dive into tight passages—not a bad idea.
Each cave has its own unique features and character; Rainy Day is drippy and often muddy, Ice Cave is naturally chilly. Hernando’s Hideaway is a local favorite, requiring some belly crawling to access its main chamber. It was rumored to have been used as a hideout by smugglers and fugitives in the past.
After a long day hiking the trails and exploring the caves, relax and stretch out your sore crawling muscles around the campfire.
After breaking camp, depending on your schedule, you can enjoy a short visit to Downtown Maquoketa or find more outdoor adventure on the Maquoketa River nearby. This small river flows through much of Eastern Iowa, and is well known for its fantastic floating and paddling. A number of rental services offer canoes, kayaks, and inner tubes with which to enjoy this shallow, lazy river. After the hiking and caving of Saturday, an easy Sunday float down a beautiful river is the perfect way to kick back and take in a long Iowa summer day.
This whirlwind weekend in Maquoketa is a step back in time—from the bygone days of the drive-in, all the way back to the geological time of the caves. When enjoying this busy weekend away in Maquoketa, you’ll almost forget you’re in twenty-first century Iowa.
Cory Hanson grew up in Dubuque and graduated from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake. He lived in Coralville for six years before becoming a travel writer and relocating to Dublin, Ireland. Find more travel writing and his free eBook The Frugal Guide: Dublin at his website.