Over the past few years my wife and I have become active hikers and trail enthusiasts. My family and I recently hiked though the Black Hills and Badlands out west, and just last year visited the Smokey Mountains. Trips like that are not always possible, but our own local area has plenty to offer in that department, and I have compiled a list of places that you can enjoy right here in the Dubuque area.

5) White Water Canyon

One of my favorite places to visit is located in Dubuque County just outside of Cascade, IA. A short 30-minute drive takes you to White Water Canyon; truly a hidden gem in the country side. Boasting an impressive view of the Maquoketa River from the overlook, this area has also had a recent Big Foot sighting. People often kayak and canoe there as well. My personal favorite trail to take is called the valley of the 13 caves (one cave seen with 2 of my kids below). This well-maintained trail takes you along a flowing creek and several explorable caves. My family and I often see wildlife including bats, frogs, eagles, and more. It is a must hit trail for people in Dubuque County.

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4) Buzzard Ridge Wildlife Area

This one is the hidden gem on the list. Not difficult to find, but sometimes hard to pinpoint in Jackson County. Just 40 minutes away in Monmouth, IA, this wildlife refuge boasts 2 different hikes with parking areas just off highway E17. One trail is poorly maintained and features several creek crossings before reaching the river. The other, and my personally suggested trail, leads to primitive camping by the river and is also a convenient stop for canoeists traveling down the Maquoketa River. I am a huge fan of what’s known as Bear River overlook (below), it's only a short way off the main trail and allows you to see down both sections of the river. This is a great quick hike with an amazing view as the pay off.

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3) Mines of Spain

The Mines of Spain Recreation Area and E.B. Lyons Interpretive and Nature Center are located in a beautiful wooded area and prairie land just south of Dubuque, IA. Featuring the Julien Dubuque monument, overlooking the mighty Mississippi, this area by Catfish Creek boasts family and pet friendly trails. My family’s personal favorite is Calcite Trailhead, which finishes by a beautiful area of catfish creek where we often see frogs, turtles, and large water birds. The Horseshoe Bluff Site, pictured below, is another favorite of local hikers and features a stunning look at the limestone cliffs. People are often found kayaking, canoeing, and fishing in the area as well.

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2) Swiss Valley Nature Preserve

Another often visited Dubuque favorite, this recreation area is a great place to meet other nature lovers and enthusiasts, have a nice picnic, or check out the nature center. Stocked trout fishing is another great offering of this beautiful forested area, which also features over 10 miles of well-maintained trails. And winter doesn’t stop your outdoor fun, with many of the trails converted to groomed cross-country ski trails, and the nature center has snowshoes for visitors to use, free of charge. I highly recommend the big loop starting at ridge trail, featured below, and finishing up with the woodland ecology trail or the hanging bog.

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1) Maquoketa Caves

Not just a must stop for Dubuque area residents, but for all travelers through the area, Maquoketa Caves State Park contains more caves than any other state park in Iowa. Just 30 minutes from Dubuque, Maquoketa Caves easy to follow trail system links the caves, limestone formations, and scenic overlooks; while the Interpretive center provides information on the cave formations and the park history.  Whether its Dancehall Cave, or the view seen from it (below), the natural bridge formation above Racoon Creek, or one of the other 12 caves; you're sure to find a day of adventure and natural beauty. Try to take in all of the over 6 miles of trails and dress to get messy, because cave spelunking is no joke and the mud is always free.

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Whether you are an avid hiker, trail master, or just looking for free, fun, family activities, try one or all, of these great places and enjoy the natural beauty of Iowa. Not only is it a great way to stay in shape, it's a great way to get to know Dubuque and your local community.

Hiking Trails and Nature near Dubuque, Iowa

Nature and hiking areas around the Dubuque, IA area.