Sightseeing in Dubuque

In lieu of planning a themed birthday party for Al this year, I suggested an overnight camping trip to someplace interesting. I had been looking at places to see in Dubuque when planning our anniversary trip (though we ended up going to Hannibal, MO instead), and found some that I knew Al would enjoy. Our older son was working, and Jon’s back would not tolerate sleeping on the ground, so it was just Al and I who set out for Dubuque Friday morning.

Our first stop, just south of Dubuque, was the Crystal Lake Cave. I forgot my jacket in the car (the 45-minute tour conveniently started only minutes after we arrived), but the 52 degree temperature underground felt surprisingly comfortable. Unlike the Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, this cave has the stalactites and stalagmites I’ve always associated with underground caverns. Some of the formations are so beautifully formed, you would think they had been carved by human hand out of the rock.

The formations continue to grow (albeit very slowly – up to an inch in a century), and just about every stalactite seemed to have a drop of water (full of dissolved calcite) hanging from it. I was careful not to touch the formations (a sign posted on the wall said the fine for breaking one was $50, which seemed surprisingly low to me), but when I leaned against walls to take pictures they seemed rather wet also. And perforated rubber mats in the muddy puddles on the floor didn’t stop our shoes from being soaked through by the time we finished the tour. But the visit was more than worth it.

Whoever owns the cave has placed signed here and there, naming various formations for objects they resemble. There was Oscar the Ostrich and Elmer the Elephant, though the details were only a general approximation of those animals. Lot’s Wife as a Pillar of Salt was much better, though I imagine any number of other pillars in the cave would have served as well. I did like the dragon’s head with its many teeth (see photo at left), and the pipe organ, as well as the chandelier and the helmet.

After leaving the cave, we drove on into Dubuque, found the Hoot Owl Hollow Campground, and pitched our tent. If Al likes doing this kind of thing enough to plan future trips, I think I’ll go buy us a better tent. Our family has a big three-room tent purchased through ebay several years ago, but that was way too big for just the two of us, and the little supposedly 2-person tent that I used with Al when he was a Cub Scout doesn’t work so well now that he is a teenager. (Well, he wasn’t a teenager while we were in Dubuque but he is now officially, as of today.) I had found what I thought was a nice pup tent at a yard sale, not realizing until later that it was missing the poles. But I managed to make do with that this weekend, using a length of plastic pipe (a replacement, as I remember, for a broken pole to another tent) and a piece of wood I trimmed from the saplings my husband and older son have been cutting down around our driveway.

Our shelter for the night established, we headed out to do some geocaching. I had put fresh batteries in the GPS, and printed out notes for finding four different caches in the Dubuque area. I picked the one closest to the campground, and after driving around in circles for a while, finally managed to get on the right road to bring us to within a few hundred feet of the cache. The description of the cache at had said it was well hidden from the road, but I was amazed at just how well hidden it is. You would think that whoever owns the property containing an old beer cellar might want to make money from attracting visitors – but then, perhaps there are too many liability issues from inviting people into an area where the structure is not maintained.

I had read in the description that it usually required waders to explore the beer cellar itself, but I thought – foolishly – that the ground looked relatively solid. As a consequence, I spent the rest of the day with muck-soaked sneakers. The cache itself is not in the cellar, so once I had gotten back on solid ground (grateful that the muck was at least only ankle-deep), we searched around until Al found the cache itself. Unlike most caches we have found previously (in and around Muscatine), this one had been well-designed and well-placed and was completely dry. For once the logbook was dry and one of the pens in the box worked, so I was actually able to log my visit on the spot, rather than just waiting until I got home to log it online.

On Saturday morning, we tried to go geocaching again, but those new batteries in my GPS had already died. I’m used to newer electronic devices that go into power-saving mode when you’re not using them, but apparently this one doesn’t have that feature. At any rate, when we got to the area of the next cache and I tried to punch in the coordinates, it told me the batteries were low and turned itself back off.

I tried experimenting with using the GPS logging feature on my camera, but the coordinates it displayed were rounded off to two decimal places, which wasn’t enough to get me to the specific location. (I discovered later, at home, that the log actually records the coordinates with the needed level of precision, but the screen display did not show that.) We did, however, get to have a breathtaking view of the Mississippi river from the bluff hundreds of feet above.

Our next visit was to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. One could spend hours examining every exhibit, but our interest was primarily in the aquarium part. Or rather parts, because instead of one large aquarium, as I was expecting, there are a number of smaller ones, displaying a variety of underwater habitats. I had seen catfish and alligators before, but if I had seen coral and anemones (except in pictures and movies), I don’t remember it.

I was especially surprised at the size and variety of the sea stars. I remember seeing lots of starfish when I was growing up, when we went to the ocean in Maine. Those were all relatively small, and had five arms. I knew that starfish could regrow an arm that had been lost, but I never knew that the number of arms varied, depending on the species. I’m not sure what species the red one was that I saw yesterday, but it had nine arms, each of which must have been at least four inches long.

I especially liked watching the turtles. Partly it’s just because they are interesting creatures, but also because I like taking pictures, and they are easier to photograph than some of the faster-moving animals. Taking pictures at an aquarium can be tricky, because of reflections both off the glass of the aquarium and the surface of the water (where it is not built into the wall). But turtles come up onto the land, so I could get a few shots without either of those limitations.

Of course, I couldn’t resist trying to get some shots of the fish swimming around underwater as well. I had a lot of trouble getting this one without the reflection of a window from somewhere behind me, but I think this shot captures his ugly mug reasonably well (the fish, that is).


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