Trail Run Project Logo

A sampling of some of the best scenery and terrain in Northeast Iowa.

Your Rating:      Clear Rating
Your Difficulty:
Your Favorites: Add To-Do · Your List
Zoom in to see details
Map Key







1,209' 369 m


991' 302 m


490' 149 m


496' 151 m



Avg Grade (2°)


Max Grade (8°)

Dogs Leashed

Features Birding · Cave · Fall Colors · Lake · River/Creek · Spring · Views · Wildlife


This route offers a nice loop route through some really spectacular scenery away from the crowds at Backbone State Park. There are some good climbs spice up the terrain, and this route allows runners to experience amazing vistas along with more intimate lakeside serenity. By itself it is a good distance, but it also has a lot of opportunities to branch off the main route and get some serious trail miles in - not always easy in Iowa.

Need to Know

If you're the climbing type, bring your gear! This is some of the best climbing in Iowa for those able to rope up, but you do need to let the rangers know if you plan on climbing. Outside of the formal climbing areas, countless opportunities for bouldering exist for those creative souls with big forearms.


Upon entering the park, follow signs for the boat ramp/south lake campground. After crossing a bridge near the Backbone Lake dam, turn in towards a park office building and residence. At the shore of the lake, you'll find the West Lake trailhead.

The trail generally follows the lake northwest for almost 3 miles before hitting the Six Pines campground. At the campground turn right (north) and head along the paved loop for a few hundred feet, where you'll find the Six Pines Trail. The Six Pines Trail travels steeply downhill towards a climbing area and some picnic areas. At the end of the Six Pines Trail, turn right (east) onto the road, and follow some steep switchbacks up the hill.

On the road at the top of the hill you'll go past the Backbone Trail, an incredibly fun albeit short lollipop route atop the jagged limestone "backbone" for which the park is named. Step carefully, footing is rugged and the trail traverses a narrow ridge with large drops on both sides.

After passing the Backbone Trail, you'll find on the right side of the road the trailhead sign for the East Lake Trail. The East Lake Trail meanders past some staggeringly beautiful cliffs, along the lake, with moderately technical and eminently pleasurable running. About two miles into the East Lake Trail, there is a junction with the Bluebird Trail heading to the left. It is a worthwhile loop for those looking to pad their trail miles a bit.

Past the Bluebird Trail junction, the trail ends at the "beach," a picnic area with some cabins and interesting stone structures constructed by the CCC in the 1930's. Follow the road around the lake (right turns) a short distance to arrive back at your car.

Flora & Fauna

Backbone State Park has some high quality trout streams. Bald eagles are often spotted fishing the lake, summer or winter when the water is open. This route in particular also travels through some really high-quality woodlands, with rare finds like Yellow Lady Slippers and Northern Monkshood spotted by those with discerning eyes. All of the midwestern wildflower splendor is on display with this route, as it hits pine forest, deciduous forest, upland woods, riparian areas, and a few small stretches of prairie.

History & Background

Backbone State Park is Iowa's first state park. Rugged terrain made it both unsuitable for development, and aesthetically appealing. It has been a recreation destination since long before it's designation as a state park. It has an amazing array of unique architecture dating back to the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the park itself is home to the Iowa CCC museum.


Land Manager: Iowa DNR

Shared By:

Kenny Slocum with improvements by Beth Kramer

Trail Ratings

  5.0 from 6 votes


  5.0 from 6 votes
5 Star
4 Star
3 Star
2 Star
1 Star
Recommended Route Rankings


in Iowa


3 Views Last Month
3,461 Since May 3, 2016



Leaf peeping with my pup at Backbone State Park
Nov 6, 2019 near Strawbe…, IA
Balance Rock - not on trail but in the park.
Oct 6, 2020 near Strawbe…, IA
Wildlife spotted when driving through the park.
Oct 6, 2020 near Strawbe…, IA
East Lake Trail.
May 26, 2016 near Strawbe…, IA



Current Trail Conditions

Add Your Check-In