How could I live in Iowa for so long and not have visited the Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve? This public land is bordered by the city of Dubuque to the north and the Mississippi River to the east. The Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve is rich in history and rugged terrain.
This land has evidence of Indian cultures as far back as 8,000 years ago. The first Europeans traded with Mesquakie Indians living in a village at the mouth of Catfish Creek. Julien Dubuque is known as the first European to settle in Iowa. He formed a close relationship with the Mesquakie Indians and eventually married the daughter of their Indian Chief, Peosta.
Lead mining was a major activity for Indians and Europeans. Evidence of this can be seen throughout the Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve. The most spectacular result of mining operations is the horseshoe-shaped quarry on Horseshoe Bluff Trail.
Activities at Mines of Spain Recreation Area include hiking, biking, paddling, cross country skiing, hunting, trapping, fishing, and birding. You can also enjoy Mines of Spain Recreation Area by car or motorcycle. There are many scenic overlooks, historic markers and picnic areas that are accessible from the road. There is no camping at Mines of Spain Recreation Area; however, the nearest State Park campground is at Bellevue State Park 22 miles south.
The E.B. Lyons Interpretive Center is a great first stop to help understand the history and terrain at Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve. The interpretive center is full of displays and information about geology, mining, farming, flora and fauna in the area. There is also an extensive interpretive trail at the center.
Download the trail map for this park below:
The 16.46 mile trail system runs the gamut from leisurely strolls to heart pounding climbs. The busiest trails tend to be in the northwest area due to popular geological land forms, historical sites and water access. Trails in this area consist mostly of dense timber and some wetlands.
The southeast section offers long trails through prairie, savanna and forest. These trails provide an escape from the crowds and have some of the best vistas in at the Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve.
I should also mention the 11 mile Dubuque Water Trail. It starts in Dubuque and runs south along the western edge of the Mississippi River. There are five access points including the one at Catfish Creek in the Mines of Spain Recreation Area.
– Cattesse Trail
This is a .4 mile tributary trail that starts at Olde Massey Road and intersects with Eagle Scout Trail. The trail is fairly level and tracks north/south along a ravine through lush timber. The parking area at the Cattesse trailhead would be a convenient place to start a loop hike of the eastern trails if you combined the Cattesse Trail, Eagle Scout Trail, Chief Peosta Trail and a little road hiking on Olde Massey Road.
– Chief Peosta Trail
This is another tributary trail that starts at Olde Massey Road and runs .5 miles before intersecting with Eagle Scout Trail. The trail offers a variety of scenery as it travels through meadow and forest.
– Eagle Scout Trail
At 2.8 miles, Eagle Scout Trail is the longest trail at Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve. The in-and-out trail meanders east/west and is a good route to take if you want to get away from the crowds. The western half of the trail traverses a ravine through dense timber and has some challenging climbs. The eastern half winds through open savanna and occasional wooded areas. Take in the scenic Mississippi River views and look for the old farmstead ruins just off the trail.
– Cedar Ridge Trail and Prairie Ridge Trail
The 1.61 mile Cedar Ridge Trail and 1.7 mile Prairie Ridge Trail are similar in that they are multi-use loop trails through prairie vegetation. They are connected just west of the ravine that separates the two trail systems. Cedar Ridge Trail has a deck structure that serves as a scenic overlook and observation platform for birders. Prairie Ridge Trail has some panoramic views of the Mississippi River. The trails each have a parking lot at their respective trailheads.
– Sauk and Fox Trail
This .5 mile trail connects the recreation area trail system to the preserve trail system. The route runs through dense timber from a high point at the parking lot on the southeast end to the low point by the marsh on the northwest end.
– Horseshoe Bluff Interpretive Trail
This is the signature trail at Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve. The 2.41 mile trail is very popular and consists of the main loop through unique geological features. There is also a smaller loop trail around a marsh area. The rugged terrain was formed by mining, glacial melt and erosion. The result is something akin to Iowa’s version of the Grand Canyon.
– Calcite Trail
Calcite Trail is a 1.41 mile loop hiking trail. The trail is situated between popular destinations in the park such as Horseshoe Trail, Catfish Creek and the Julien Dubuque monument. About one-third of the trail travels through prairie and two-thirds tracks through woodlands. The woodland portion entails a heart pumping hike up and down a ridge — so be prepared.
– Julien Dubuque Trail
Don’t let this short trail deceive you; the .48 mile Julien Dubuque Trail involves a steep trek up to the Julien Dubuque monument. The climb is 151 feet in elevation from the trailhead at Catfish creek parking lot to the monument. The effort is well worth the spectacular vistas of the Mississippi River. Continue down the north portion of the trail to take in the views of the river from a lower vantage point.
– Catfish Trail
Stair climbs through the timber up to a ridge and a level stroll along Catfish Creek make this 1.65 mile loop trail a runner’s dream. Park your car at either the east or west parking areas to begin an exhilarating trail run on a well-worn path.
– Mesquakie Trail
This .97 mile trail connects the E. B. Lyons Nature Center trails to the rest of the Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve trail system. This mostly wooded trail is quiet and feels remote. One of my favorite places to linger was at the bridge over Granger Creek.
– Lead Mine Interpretive Trail and Pine Chapel Interpretive Trail
The .55 mile Lead Mine Interpretive Trail and the .78 mile Pine Chapel Interpretive Trail are part of the E. B. Lyons Nature Center. Both trails have many points of interest related to the history of the area. If you would like to get the most out of these trails, take a tour of the E. B. Lyons Nature Center first. Of course you can simply appreciate their natural beauty and hike several combinations of loops.
– America’s State Tree Woodland Walk
The .7 mile America’s State Tree Woodland Walk showcases a tree from each of the 50 states. 44 trees are hardy enough to thrive in Iowa climate. The other six state trees are represented with interpretive panels. The ADA accessible trail is paved concrete up to a compass rose inspired scenic overlook. You can also explore the featured trees closer on mowed grass side paths.
In addition to the rich history at Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Preserve, the activities in the area utilize the best assets of the land and water. The obvious standout attraction is the canyon at Horseshoe Bluff. I was truly shocked to come upon such geology in Iowa. The other interesting activity that I will return for is the Dubuque Water Trail on the Mississippi River.
My favorite trail was Horseshoe Trail due to the unique terrain. I also enjoyed Catfish Trail, Mesquakie Trail and Eagle Scout Trail for their remote feeling.
The proximity to historic Dubuque and road access to all the best natural features helps make the Mines of Spain Recreation Area a popular destination.