Mines of Spain Trail Running & Hiking in Dubuque, Iowa | Trail of the Week
By Joshua Sun - trail runner, race director and proud QC-TUR(d).
Unless you're from the area, most of the trail and mountain running enthusiasts perusing this article right now will read Iowa and think "hmmmph...nothing but flat cornfields and cows there". While we've certainly got plenty of those, we also have some of the most beautiful and challenging trails to be found anywhere in the Midwest. And sure...we don't have 3,000ft climbs up jagged mountain peaks but what we do have will keep your lungs pumping and legs burning for countless hours on the trails. One of the best examples of 1st rate Midwest trail running can be found at the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area located in Dubuque, Iowa.
Often referred to as the Mines of Pain, this beautiful 1400 acre park offers over 15 miles of trails and sits alongside the banks of the mighty Mississippi River at the southern end of the Driftless Area. The steep and rugged river valley terrain in the Driftless region stands in stark contrast to the rest of Iowa and it's neighboring non-Driftless landscapes.
One of the biggest draws for trail runners at the Mines is the incredible variety and eclectic mixture of steep technical single track, wide rolling dirt trails, sweeping prairie double track along with plenty of other connecting trails to provide endless routes throughout. Add that to the fact that we have four distinct seasons, all beautiful in their own right and all adding their own spin to the trail running experience and you will never be bored at the Mines of Spain!
Some favorite trails include:
Catfish Creek - This fun 1.5mi loop gives runners the option of staying low along Catfish creek and then climbing high to return or vice versa depending on what you're feeling. The climb up on either side will burn the quads with it's steeply graded sets of large wooden stairs intermixed with runnable stretches before hitting the top and running this "Iowa style" ridge line before a fast descent down to the lower trail.
Eagle Scout Trail
This 6.2mi (round-trip) route starts at the Cedar Ridge trailhead parking lot with a little prairie trail into a long fun descent on dirt that's just a joy to run down to a small creek crossing at which point you can either choose to take the short Cattesse trail (0.8mi round-trip) out to another trailhead/parking lot and back or you can continue on Eagle Scout back uphill and onto the rest of the trail that mixes wide dirt double track with some rolling hills through beautiful stretches of prairie. You'll also pass some scary dilapidated farmhouses and a possible killer clown hangout so make sure to keep your headlamp on bright and your turnover fast if you're out there for a night time run in the dark.
Horseshoe Bluff Trail
This ~1mi trail winds up to and through the iconic horseshoe bluff area and it contains incredible views of the Mississippi with a short steep climb and subsequent descent through the "canyon" itself. Limestone walls soar up around you as you run "out" of the horseshoe and back towards the center of the park and the other trails.
If there's one section at the Mines that sticks with most folks after they've experienced all the trails the park has to offer, I think it's safe to say it'd be upper Calcite. The entire trail is about 1.5mi and while it's fast and flat lower side is a lot of fun to run alongside train tracks and the Mighty Mississippi, the short but brutal climb up and over Calcite on the south side has scarred many a runner especially late in the MoSTR half marathon put on every August. Approaching from the east picnic area side, runners go STRAIGHT up a very technical and steep trail laced with broken stone steps and rough dirt before hitting the top ridge for a nice runnable stretch that's smooth in comparison before hitting the other side and the screaming descent back down to Catfish Creek.
Parking & Access
There are two vehicle entrances on Mines of Spain Road into the park, one on the north side and one on the south side. Within the park itself, there are numerous trailheads w/ parking lots scattered throughout providing easy access. On foot, you can easily jump on the trails from any of those trailheads within the park as well as from Riprow Valley via a straight climb up to the iconic Julien Dubuque Monument or from the EB Lyons Interpretive Center. If EB Lyons is open when you visit, make sure to take time to go inside and look around at the variety of informational displays & exhibits. The DNR staff and the non-profit group the Friends of the Mines of Spain do an incredible job of maintaining this center and the entire park itself despite constantly shrinking state budgets.
Mines of Spain Trail Races - August 10th 2019 - half marathon/7mi/4mi - Ultra Sign Up / Facebook Page
The 6th year of this event just took place this last August and continued an established tradition of grassroots trail racing and good times surrounded by friends, beer and pizza.
Devin Allbaugh's impressive course record run at the 2016 Mines of Spain 1/2 Marathon on Strava.
Mines of Spain 100 - October 19th-20th 2018 - 100mi/100k - Ultra Sign Up/ Facebook Page
This October is the inaugural year for the event and features 100mi and 100k races with ~14,000ft and ~8,400ft total elevation gain respectively.
Course scout for the inaugural Mines of Spain 100