Iowa is known for many things, but underground caves is one that didn’t make it on our list. You can imagine our surprise when we learned that Dubuque is home to Crystal Lake Cave. Located near the Mines of Spain Recreation Area, this underground attraction offered us a chance to satisfy some spelunking urges. Visiting caves is a fun way to learn the history of a city from the ground up. As a matter of fact, this stop would give us a peek below the ground, as well.  

We want to thank Travel Dubuque and Crystal Lake Cave for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own. 

Amateur cave explorers may want to wear a bump cap when spelunking at Crystal Lake Cave.

Spelunking Equipment

Crystal Lake Cave is a living attraction, which means that many of the formations are still growing. It was originally discovered in 1868 by James Rice,  a lead miner looking for ore. The lands around Dubuque are known for being rich with this mineral. Much to Rice’s surprise, the cave was filled with an amazing array of minerals. In those days, access was made by being lowered down 45 feet in a bucket. Not exactly the type of transportation method we would prefer. They could have used an elevator, like the one found downtown. (You can read about it here.) These days there is a staircase that leads into the cave.  The gift shop offers spelunking helmets, which we decided to pass up. In hind sight, I wish I would have gotten one. It would have kept the drips off of my head, and made a great souvenir of our visit.

Our guide showed us the amazing formations that continue to grow.

Shining a Light on Dubuque History

Our guide led us down the stairs and into the cave. As we made our way through the twisting tunnels, she explained some of the history of Crystal Lake Cave. From its early start as Rice’s Cave, it passed to Charles Linden. Renamed Crystal Lake Cave, in the 1930s, Linden’s son-in-law developed it as a tourist attraction. It stayed in the family’s possession until 1978. James and Doris Rubel became owners at that point and had the lighting system completely refurbished. Using theater style lighting techniques, it created less heat and increased the dramatic impact for visitors.

Watch for falling drips from these beautiful structures that are still alive in Crystal Lake Cave.

Live Spelunking in Dubuque

Being a living attraction means that Crystal Lake Cave has many formations that are continuing to grow. To accomplish this, it requires water to seep through the ground. That means that many of the formations continue to “weep” with mineral-rich moisture. As we made our way through this spelunking adventure, we would periodically feel a drip on our heads. That’s where the mining caps would have come in handy. There are also some low ceiling ares, that would favor a bump cap, but our guide was always warning us of any potential danger.

The author celebrates his return to above ground.

Back Above Ground

I’m not claustrophobic, so our spelunking adventure was fascinating to me. With our visit complete, and our souvenirs in hand, it was time to move along. Before heading out, I took a moment to celebrate our spelunking adventure with the zest of an old-fashioned prospector. We certainly hit the mother lode when it comes to seeing some beautiful formations.

The entrance to the Mines of Spain leads to a vast network of trails.

A Quick Stop at a Major Landmark

Before heading back into downtown Dubuque, we decided to make a short detour into the Mines of Spain Recreation Area. With over 1400 acres of wooded hillsides to explore,this is the perfect place for hiking, canoeing, wildlife watching or just a picnic. The space is home to a variety of creatures including; bobcat, deer, turkey, hawks, and various songbirds. It also boasts around 21 miles of trails that can be explored year round. For those cold weather fans, roughly 6 miles of them are designed for cross-country skiing.

A monument to Julien Dubuque offers breathtaking views of the Mississippi River valley below.

Honoring Dubuque’s Pioneer

Since our time was limited, we decided to visit the Julien Dubuque monument. Located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, it affords breathtaking views of the surrounding area and the city of Dubuque. The site, as well as the city, are namesakes of the first European settler to the region. Julien Dubuque had received a grant to work the lands, which were owned by Spain in 1788. He built a trading post, as well as his residence in what would become Iowa territory. Trading with the native peoples, he established a collection of buildings and named the site the Mines of Spain. Today, the 25 foot tower stands as a monument to this pioneer who saw the value of the surrounding lands. Have you ever seen the view from this historic spot?

the authors signatures.

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