Backbone State Park is a state park of Iowa, USA, located in Marion County. The park consists of two adjacent parcels of land; one has the name “Backbone” and the other “Buck Creek.” Together they cover 3,936 acres (1,593ha). A small portion of the property covered by the park was once owned by President Herbert Hoover’s family. His son, Allan R. Hoover, who died in 1923, left the land to his widow, Edith. She later gave 1,000 acres (4km2) to the state for a park.
In 1931, as part of the New Deal legislation, federal relief workers were assigned to work in the park. They built several buildings and roads that are still in use today. One of their most notable projects was an earthen dam that created Lake Buck Creek which provides drinking water for Des Moines residents. The Civilian Conservation Corps also worked at the park between 1934 and 1935. Their efforts included building additional recreational facilities, establishing watershed protection areas, streamlining administrative procedures, and updating outdated maps.
There are 50 miles (80km) of marked trails open year round, 10 miles (16km) of snowmobile routes during winter, and over 200 unguarded campsites. The campground opens on Memorial Day weekend and closes Labor Day. Half of the sites are available on a first come first served basis with the remainder having a reservation system. Advance campsite reservations can be booked through the park reservation system, or reserved directly through the park reservation office. Group tenting is not permitted in the main campground but may be used in the overflow area. An equestrian facility is provided within the park along with modern restrooms and parking.
Backbone State Park features three separate picnic shelters that provide ample space for large groups. Each shelter includes electric heat, restroom facilities, and a kitchen/dining area. Picnic tables are scattered throughout the park in open grassy areas. Two playgrounds are provided near the day use area. The primary playground is designed primarily for children ages 4 through 14, while the secondary playground is intended for younger children. Both have equipment that is appropriate for children of all ages. Other amenities include cabins, camper services, nature center, pool, horseshoe courts, softball fields, basketball court, laundry facilities, vending machines, ATMs, and grocery store.
The park contains four trails that vary from easy to moderate difficulty. Trail ratings are taken from the American Trails website. All trail classifications and descriptions are made by the American Trails organization. Backbone State Park receives about 230,000 visitors annually. It is estimated that 75% of these people drive past the entrance to the park onto Interstate 80. To prevent this traffic from interrupting the flow of local traffic using the highway, it is illegal to enter the park via I-80. Visitors entering the park via private vehicle must either take the exit ramp for U.S. Route 52 West, or follow signs directing them to the Marion Road / Larchwood Avenue Exit. This second option will bring you back into town on streets where your car will be just fine. No matter what method of entry you choose, make sure your vehicle is well traveled before taking the road less traveled.
Backbone State Park does not close for the season, unlike some parks around the state. Open areas are shaded by trees and shrubs. Some patches of ground are white with snow, but much of it is bare soil. Much of the forest surrounding the park has been cleared by fire. A unique feature of the park is the presence of a steep bluffs 400 feet (120m) above the Red Rock Reservoir. These bluffs are formed by sediment deposited by a prehistoric inland sea. Fossils found in the sandstone formations indicate that this sea was shallow, almost stagnant, and fed by runoff from the upper layers of rock. Sediment from this era forms the red color seen in the reservoir. The bluffs are called Poppasquash Bluff by locals, a name derived from the Lenape words popasaqua, meaning red hill, and squash, referring to the shape of the bluff.
There are seven bluffs in the park, ranging from 60 to 100 feet (18 to 30m) high. Five of the bluffs are situated along scenic overlooks atop the 800-foot (240m) ridge known as Skyline Drive. The sixth bluff, Spirit Bluff, is shorter than the others but rises 150 feet (46m) above the lake. Its formation dates back to before the last ice age, when it would have appeared sheer but for the windblown vegetation covering the lower half. The park has 250 campsites, 140 of which have sewer, and 102 of which are walk-in. Campsites range from very basic, lacking even running water, to fully equipped RV residences. Most of the campsites are occupied by tents in summer, but some are maintained as full time residences. Hiking is encouraged at Backbone State Park, and 15 miles (24km) of footpaths lace the park together. Bikes are prohibited on paved pathways but are allowed on gravel paths and roads.
According to Naturalist Dan Morse of the Polk County Historical Society, fires were set off deliberately by man in order to clear out underbrush that had become too thick after years of neglect. Through the centuries, various Native Americans hunted, fished, gathered wild plants, and survived in the region. After European settlement, homesteaders began clearing land for farming. Those who settled in northeast Iowa did so because of the fertile soil. Along with farming came the need to haul harvested crops to market. At first steam powered barges and railroads took care of this need, but soon motorized vehicles replaced both systems. As new roads were developed, tourism became popular and travel agencies began promoting overnight stays in Cedar Falls, Waterloo, and Newton.
A hotel opened in 1927 offering 120 rooms and suites, a dining room, barber shop, beauty salon, bowling alley, billiard hall, toboggan slide, and sun porch. The hotel closed in 1941, but reopened briefly in 1945, until being permanently shut down in 1947. Shortly thereafter, a new hotel was constructed across the river. Called the Governor George Wyth Memorial Hotel, its construction started in 1950 and completed in 1954. It offered 112 rooms and suites, a restaurant, indoor swimming pool, gift shop, concierge, business offices, meeting rooms, and banquet facilities. The city sought to revitalize itself following World War II.
Business owners saw an opportunity to attract tourists with novel attractions like air hockey, skeeball, and jukeboxes. A new hotel complex was proposed for the site of the former governor’s mansion. However, citizens rejected the idea, preferring to preserve the historic feel of the neighborhood. Instead a new attraction was conceived; a waterpark named River City Waterfront. Local advocates promoted the project, overcoming legal and financial constraints over a period of 18 months.On June 5, 1957, a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrated the opening of the Cedar Falls’ largest recreation area ever.
Overcoming initial resistance from landowners, the Cedar Falls Development Corporation acquired the needed 320 acres (130ha) of land needed to complete the park. Additional acreage totalling 640 acres (260ha) was donated by the city of Cedar Falls and the development corporation donated another 160 acres (65ha) bringing the total amount of publicly held land dedicated to the park to 740 acres (290ha).
Backbone State Park offers many different opportunities for outdoor fun including:
- cross-country skiing
- disc golf
- bumper boat rides
- miniature golf