The Best Caves in Iowa: Complete List

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Sitting comfortably between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the Hawkeye State was named after the Ioway people. This Chiwere-speaking nation was one of many Native Americans that once resided here before European colonization. Today, Iowa boasts some of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls, natural parks, and over 1000 caves. It makes a great destination to experience the classic American landscape and go spelunking with some friends.

Many of the caves are open for exploration by the public. You can also find the largest grotto on the planet here, which you’ll learn about shortly. Some Iowa waterfalls are unforgettable, and all cavers will appreciate the limestone formations of Maquoketa Caves State Park.

In this article, I’ll cover some of the most popular and interesting caves to find here, but there are certainly more than this. Many caves are unnamed and there are perhaps still a few undiscovered. If you end up going, don’t forget to share your findings with us. So, which cave would you like to visit first?

Backbone State Park Cave

Backbone State Park is Iowa’s oldest state park, established in 1919 and located in the valley of the Maquoketa River. This is not to be confused with the Maquoketa Caves State Park, which I’m covering later.

People come to Backbone State Park for the exquisite trout fishing, as there’s no shortage of shady and easy trails along the stream. The Backbone Trail features a rugged limestone ridge, called the Devil’s Backbone. Looming 80 feet over the ground below, people often think of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings when they see it this area. Backbone Cave itself is rather small, but offers a cool break from the sun for hikers and travelers alike.

Most people go for the trails, but you can cross this cave off your list quite easily. Be prepared for a muddy crawl, if you’re planning to explore one of the deeper rooms. This room features a unique sputtering sound; some say it’s like “listening to the sea in a seashell.”

Bixby State Preserve

Bixby State Preserve features a trout stream, picnic areas, and leisurely trails. There’s a lesser-known cave here too, though visiting is limited.

At the ice cave at the Bixby State Preserve, scientists found a species of snail once thought to be extinct for thousands of years. In the 1970s, Snail expert Allen Solum found the Ice Age-era “Iowa Pleistocene” snails near the cave. In addition to the endangered snails, several plants and other small animals here are extremely fragile. Visitors are warned to avoid the region, and to stay on paved paths.

The cave is interesting because of its shape. Air that is chilled by the ice seeps out through ice vents in the rock, and establishes a microclimate as much as 40 degrees colder than the surrounding weather. The snails have persisted thanks to this microclimate. Please be respectful and don’t attempt to catch or hunt any animals here.

An image of various colored rocks found at the Bixby State Preserve Ice Cave.

Coldwater Cave

Coldwater Cave is Iowa’s longest cave, spanning over 17 miles in just officially surveyed passages. This places it at #32 on the list of the longest caves in America. From northeast Winneshiek County to southeast Fillmore County in Minnesota, Coldwater Cave connects the two states, as well as a spring of the Upper Iowa River.

There is only one natural entrance, called the Historic Entrance. But using it is not easy – it’s a water-filled spring at the base of a bluff that’s 100 feet (30.5 m) high.

During Prohibition, bootleggers used Coldwater Cave and brought it some notoriety. These were only rumors, but farmers in those days seemed to lose livestock to mysterious sinkholes in the general area. Two University of Iowa students investigated. Once they discovered Coldwater Cave in 1969 it became evident that this explained the sinkholes. At the time, Ken and Wanda Flatland were running the farm that was directly on top of the cave.

The Iowa Geological Survey drilled a 94 foot (28.6 m) hole through the ground, so that cavers could descend into it from above. The state was planning to add further accommodations, like concrete walkways and artificial lighting for public viewing, but ultimately decided against it. With 17 miles of open passageway, and likely more, it was too difficult to manage and also protect the caves from the damage people would inevitably cause.

Crystal Lake Cave

Older than the state itself, Crystal Lake Cave can be thought of as Iowa’s first hidden treasure. Currently the longest living show cave in the state, it’s also growing to this day. Guided tours through well-lit passages present some of the more intricate formations in the Hawkeye State.

James Rice found the cave in 1868, and discovered an assortment of beautiful minerals inside. Argonite, travertine, satin stalagmite, and more provided a good enough reason to name it Crystal Lake Cave.

Unfortunately, as of now, Crystal Lake Cave is temporarily closed. A 2021 wildfire has brought significant damages to the road and trail nearby, and weather conditions have not improved enough to permit the typical hordes of tourists.

An image shows the variety of unique cave formations to find in Crystal Lake Cave of Iowa.

Decorah Ice Cave

The Decorah Ice Cave State Preserve features one of the largest ice caves in the Midwest. These caves are open to the public as an attraction, but enter at your own risk. The caves were quite large at one point, but sometime in the last 20 years, a massive rock fell and blocked off much of the cave. Now, only about 10 feet of cave can be entered comfortably.

Visitors reported that it doesn’t feature much now, and while you can enjoy the natural scenery, it won’t be a long trip if you do go. Even in the summer, it’s quite cold, so dress appropriately.

An image of the ice on the walls at the Decorah Ice Caves in Iowa.

Grotto of the Redemption

The caves at the Grotto of the Redemption are not natural caves. I’ve included them here because it’s still a fascinating site to behold. The Grotto itself is a religious shrine located in West Bend, in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux City. It’s believed to be the largest grotto in the world, comprising nine separate grottos depicting scenes in the life of Jesus Christ.

Back in 1897, Father Paul Dobberstein became ill with pneumonia, and vowed to build a shrine to the Virgin Mary if he survived. Once he recovered, he kept to his word and began to stockpile rocks and precious stones. From 1912 to 1954, this work continued everyday, amounting to over $4,300,000 in rocks and minerals alone (today’s value). After Dobberstein passed in 1954, Matt Szerensce and later Deacon Gerald Streit took over and contributed to further development.

This incredible shrine attracts over 100,000 visitors per year, and includes a museum. People come to see the variety in precious stones and to marvel at the construction.

An image across the water of the Grotto of the Redemption in Iowa.

Maquoketa Caves State Park

The Maquoketa Caves State Park is located in Jackson County, about seven miles northwest of Maquoketa. By traveling on the main park trail, visitors can explore 13 separate caves in just 6-7 miles. The caves are interconnected and there are maps available at the visitor center.

To explore the caves fully will require appropriate clothing and caving boots. Some areas are quite muddy and require cavers to crawl.

Some of the caves here have their own names: Dancehall Cave, Hernado’s Hideaway, Shinbone Cave, Wye Cave, and Steelgate Cave, though Steelgate Cave is an unmarked cave found within Dancehall Cavern.

Spook Cave

Spook Cave is named appropriately. This is a privately owned display cave, that was accidentally discovered when Gerald Mielke heard spooky noises coming from the bluff in 1953. Tours were made available since 1953, but the cave still has some unchartered territory.

On the popular boat tour, visitors witness a frozen waterfall, along with stalagmites, stalactites, and other cave formations. The cave’s temperature is a chilly 47 degrees Fahrenheit (8 Celsius), but depending on the time of year, you might find the warmth inviting. You will get your feet wet here, so dress accordingly.

People who visit Spook Cave also enjoy the Beulah Falls at the campground’s entrance.

You can learn more about Spook Cave here.

Starr’s Cave

Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve is managed today by the Des Moines County Conservation. There are some strict rules here, albeit for your safety, such as no hunting, trapping, fishing, or rock climbing on your own. The area features some scenic hiking trails and a rich natural and cultural history.

The rock formations along Flint Creek are not found anywhere else in the world. If you’re going caving for the fascinating history you find at times, this is one of those places that will surely be more memorable than most. The limestone and dolomite share clues about the unique past here, with fossils of brachiopods, crinoids, cup coral, and gastropods. 

Starr’s Cave is indefinitely closed, however. The bat population inside has seen enough disturbance, it seems. But you’re not out of luck. Two other caves are still open and available for the public. Devil’s Kitchen and Crinoid Cavern are manmade caves that formed due to dynamite blasts in the 1920s. Mineral prospectors allegedly searching for zinc blew open massive openings in the rock that now attract tourists year-round.

An image of a sign at Starr's Cave shows some history and the Little Brown Bat that is found here.

Wapsipinicon Caves

Horse Thief Cave

Horse Thief Cave is perhaps the most interesting cave in Iowa, although not the largest. A legend persists that two horse thieves used the cave for a camp site, and before them it was used by prehistoric American Indians.

The cave is about 15 by 30 feet (4.5 by 9 m) and 100 feet (30.5 m) deep. It’s enough room for a couple men and their horses to sit tight and build a fire while avoiding their chasers and the weather outside. Further inside, a small gap leads to another chamber, that could easily fit another few seated people.

Wapsipinicon State Park offers a beautiful view along Dutch Creek, but most people are interested in the caves instead. It’s believed that the thieves did successfully escape with their prize.

Some decades ago, further digging into these caves revealed nine human skeletons, mostly children. Evidence of cannibalism sheds a tragic light on the discovery. Pottery, bison teeth, spearheads, and other antiquated items were found here, dating back to when the Native Americans stayed in Horse Thief Cave.

Ice Cave

The Wapsipinicon Ice Cave is named due to the chill air you feel when you enter. During the summer heat, tourists are thrilled to experience a brief respite from the outside. It’s probably becoming clear that Iowa has a variety of ice caves, so knowing the location is important to discern which is which.

Unlike Horse Thief Cave, the Wapsipinicon Ice Cave has a narrow opening, taking it about 70 feet deep into the limestone bluffs. Kids find Ice Cave a fun place to get on their bellies and crawl around a bit, though there isn’t much exciting history to learn here.

Wildcat Cave

Wildcat Cave is found on a hike in Eldora, and those who venture close to the caves report that it’s easily the creepiest experience on this list. There’s rumors that it was once occupied by the infamous outlaw Jesse James, though there isn’t much proof of this.

At first glance, the trail seems innocent, and easy. But as you go further down the road, you find a large cave network. The steep rock walls quickly rise up and envelop you on every side. Small cave openings are strewn about left and right, but are mostly filled with bat colonies. It’s best to not stick your head in carelessly. Weirder still, you will encounter an abandoned school bus here. I have no idea why or what happened to any people inside.

Other entrances are positioned high on the rock walls, impossible to reach without some physical exertion. Climbers have made their way up and seen some of those caves, but you shouldn’t bother unless you are trained and well-equipped.

The cave known as Wildcat Cave is not more than a small shelter, so you won’t find much. But the trail is interesting and worth experiencing at least once.

An image shows the Wildcat Cave trail that leads to an abandoned school bus.


Some of the nearby states feature many more caves for you to practice with. Try one of these next:

Illinois Caves

Minnesota Caves

Missouri Caves

Nebraska Caves

South Dakota Caves

Wisconsin Caves

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