Recently, a few friends and I decided to head out on an adventure.  Without having vacation days to take, we decided we would look for something within driving distance of Chicago.  We were looking for something more exciting than a midwestern hike, but not so advanced that we would need guided instruction. We decided to go caving in Iowa. Specifically, we were heading 190 miles away to the Maquoketa Caves State Park of Maquoketa, Iowa. I suppose at some point into this, I should have researched what caving was like, but I didn’t.  I trusted my friends to not do anything too dangerous or reckless and assumed I was in for a leisurely day of hiking underground.  That’s not exactly what caving is like.

If you’ve ever entered a well-lit cave to embark on a guide led tour, you have been deceived into thinking this is caving.  Caving, or spelunking as it is commonly known, is a much less glamorous and more physically demanding endeavor. Caves with lighting and where you can stand up comfortably are unique. While they are ideal for the anxious traveler or individuals with ASD, they are not available at every caving site. These types of caves make caving accessible. Unfortunately for me, I did not know that these types of caves were exceptions rather than the norm.

Chicago Blogger|Travel Blogger|Quiet Travel|Anxious Traveler|Lifestyle Blogger|Caving|Soft Adventure Blogger
An opening at Dancehall Cave, the largest of the Maquoketa Caves.

Preparing Ahead of Time

If you’ve ever wondered what is caving like, to be blunt, it is messy. Caving is a dark, muddy, and cold affair. Before you go, it is important to have all the gear you will need with you for the day.  Waterproof boots or shoes are ideal, but in the event that you do not own waterproof footwear, old shoes will do.  Any footwear that you don’t mind getting muddy or dirty.  You should also wear light, synthetic long sleeves and long pants.  These are breathable when hiking between caves, warm enough while in the caves, and dry quickly in the event of water. Finally,  bring a headlamp.  Some crevices are too small to crawl through, so taking a well lit peak is being safe and smart.

If possible, I’d recommend knee pads and a hard hat. The caves get pretty low and you’ll save yourself a few bumps and bruises with them.

From underneath the Maquoketa Caves.
From underneath the Maquoketa Caves.

 What to Expect once You’re There

Once you arrive in Maquoketa, the trails are not too well marked. It may not be the best place to figure out what caving is like.   I recommend stopping at the house on the left at 98th street.  Marked with flags as the welcome spot for the state park, here you will be able to speak with an employee and get a trail map.

Maquoketa Cave Map
Maquoketa Cave Map

As Maquoketa has six miles of trails between amongst the caves, anything you leave in the car will be nearly inaccessible. This means that you will need to bring the essential items with you, but also figure out what you will do with your things.  Many people brought backpacks with valuables, a change of clothes, and snacks. Unfortunately, many of these backpacks are impediments to caving, so you’ll have to figure out what to do with them. Some people took a risk and just left them at the entrance of a cave.  We decided to designate someone to stay outside of the cave each round to hold/guard the belongings.  This provided one of us with a brief rest during our outing. We realized that re-routing, rest, and oscillating between sweating from heat or shivering from cold is pretty normal in terms of what caving is like.

Figuring out which Caves to Explore

Truth be told, it is difficult to locate caves on the trail.  The post markers that signify the caves are not brightly colored or easy to find. In fact, they are brown, approximately four feet tall stakes in the ground, and not that differently colored than the scenery.  It is easy to walk on the trail and past rock formations and not realize you’ve missed a cave entrance.

We did not make it into every cave.  As we entered through the caves, we noticed a few things that would be factors into whether or not we ventured on or turned back.  One of the most noticeable characteristics of the caves were the glistening minerals.  While some had a subtle glint of iridescence, some had radiant rainbow reflections as we shined our headlamps within the caves.  And those rainbows?  Those were spider eyes.  Tens of spider eyes reflecting the light from our headlamps back at us.  When we’d climb into a dry cave, we’d see flashes showing the variegation of the spectrum and realize we’d be battling spiders to get through the cave.  No thank you!  We stuck to the wet caves where no spiders were visible and we crawled along unhindered.

Tips : What is Caving Like?

Truth be told, I expected to see bats and walk through well lit caves standing upright.  I was surprised that we so no bats as many of the caves close seasonally in order for bats to hibernate. We also were on our knees spelunking through the dark with only our headlamps for light.  After caving, we were hungry and covered in dried mud.  We brought a change of clothes and shoes for the ride back home to Chicago, and used WaterPura wipes to clean ourselves off.  Not only did they wipe off the dirt from our arms, they were gentle enough to use on our faces to freshen up. We stopped for a proper bite of lunch on the way home, and were grateful for our trip to the caves.
In summation, I’ve rounded up a quick bullet point list of how to prepare for caving.
1)Bring a Headlamp, Waterproof Shoes and Long sleeves long pants (at the least)
2)If possible, bring hard hat and knee pads
3)Figure out what you are going to do with your valuables, backpacks need to stay outside the caves
4)Spiders don’t like the wet caves
5)Pack snacks and water for your adventure
6)Bring wipes like these from WaterPura to clean yourself up
What Caving Is Like
Ever wonder what is caving like? I didn’t have the opportunity to research Maquoketa State Park ahead of time, and wish I had. There is so much to prepare for before caving!
 Disclosure: I received samples of WaterPura to use as I saw fit and they definitely came in handy while caving!  I have not been compensated for this post and opinions are my own.