Starr's Cave Park and Preserve
Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve is a 184-acre state nature preserve and park area owned by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and managed by Des Moines County Conservation.
The area features two miles of scenic hiking trails and is a place rich with natural and cultural history. It is also home to Starr's Cave Nature Center, the headquarters of Des Moines County Conservation's award-winning Environmental Education Program.
Rock formations along Flint Creek in Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve are found no where else in the world. The bluffs are composed of limestone and dolomite and contain hints of the area’s past, frozen in time as fossils. These fossils include brachiopods, crinoids, cup coral, and gastropods.
Besides Starr’s Cave itself (which is closed indefinitely to protect bats, see below), there are two other caves: Devil’s Kitchen and Crinoid Cavern (pictured above). Unlike Starr’s Cave, these two were not formed naturally but instead are manmade. Word has it that mineral prospectors were looking for zinc back in the 1920s. To see what lay behind the surface, they blasted the rock with dynamite, creating large openings for future park explorers to marvel at and explore.
Starr's Cave Nature Center
Within Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve is also Starr’s Cave Nature Center, a building bearing a striking resemblance to a barn. That is because the original use of the nature center was as a barn. Estimated to have been built around the 1910-1920s, the barn belonged to William Starr (from whom the park is named after). Starr was a German immigrant who homesteaded the land of present day Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve around the 1860s. The Starr family lived in the limestone house which still stands today next to the nature center. Along with horses, cows, and other livestock, the Starr's ran a winery. The hilltops now shaded by trees were once covered in grapevines.
In the early 1970s, the barn was renovated and made into a bar and restaurant named the Sycamore Inn. Present Starr’s Cave Nature Center staff often hear visitor accounts of the good old times that were had at the Sycamore Inn. Later, in the late 1970s, the barn and 184 acres of land surrounding it, was purchased by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). It was at this time the land was designated a Park and Preserve and made open to the public. Although Starr's Cave Nature Center is owned by the DNR, up to present day it has been managed by DMCC since the DNR purchased the land. Presently, Starr’s Cave Nature Center is the hub of DMCC’s award-winning environmental education program.
About Starr'S Cave
The main cave within the park, Starr’s Cave, was formed naturally by water erosion and is approximately a football field in length. Those brave enough to venture inside have found themselves having to hunker down further and further until eventually in a belly slither. Upon reaching the small room at the end of the cave, visitors are relieved to find they are able to stand up and stretch their legs.
Along with humans, Starr’s Cave is also a popular bat hangout. It has been tradition for the cave to be closed to human traffic from April 1 to October 1 to let the bats hibernate without being bothered by people. However, Starr’s Cave is now closed indefinitely.
In May of 2009, we had to close the cave to human traffic all year round in order to protect our Starr’s Cave bats from getting sick with a disease known as White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) caused by a fungus that likes the damp and dark cave environment. WNS has wiped out bat populations in many U.S states and we do not want to take the risk of visitors spreading WNS to our cave. The disease is mostly spread from bat to bat but also by humans unknowingly carry in the fungus on their shoes and flashlights (FYI: WNS is nothing humans can get).
No one knows when the cave will reopen, it depends on scientists learning more about WNS and how to stop its spread. The good news is that those who visit are at least able to peek into the cave through the iron gate.
And though Starr’s Cave is closed there’s plenty else to see and do at the preserve, including exploring Crinoid Cavern and Devil's Kitchen as well at Flint Creek and all the trails.
Restrictions in Preserve Area
- The preserve is intended only for visitor observation and other passive recreation.
- The preserve is open to casual visitors, organized groups, and research visitors. Research permission must be secured in advance from the State Preserves Board and Des Moines County Conservation.
- Visitor activities are limited to walking and observing. Visitors may traverse anywhere on the preserve without special permission from the Board, providing they stay on marked trails and do not disturb the preserve beyond the limit it can support without permanent deterioration.
- Park hours are 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
- No hunting or trapping
- Rock climbing on cliffs is dangerous and illegal
- Pets must remain under control
- Fires in grill or fire ring only
- No collection or destruction of plants, animals, fossils, rocks, or artifacts
- No motorized vehicles on or off trails
- Cross country skiing is allowed when there is 4" or more of snow on the trails
- No littering or defacing natural features or park property
- Report all accidents to Des Moines County Conservation 319-753-8260
From Highway 61, take Sunnyside Avenue or Upper Flint Road to Irish Ridge Road. Follow signs to Starr's Cave Road. Nature Center is at the end.
11627 Starr's Cave Rd.
Burlington, IA 52601
History of Starr's Cave Park and Preserve
Even prior to settlement, the area was a popular place among Native Americans. The flint from the Burlington area is some of the best there is and the bluffs around Starr’s Cave offered the prized commodity in abundance. Hence the name Flint Creek, which flows through the site.
Burlington flint has been discovered all over the continent so it must have been extensively traded among the tribes. What is believed to be the remnants of a Native American trading post still exists on the Starr’s Cave property today.
With its close proximity to Burlington and its unique geographic features, the area around Starr’s Cave has always been a popular place among residents and visitors. An article from the April 1, 1877 edition of The Hawk Eye called it “quite a romantic spot” and notes it “is visited every summer by picnic parties.” The area is named after William H. Starr who established the original homestead and farm on the site.
But some visitors used it for more nefarious purposes. The 1877 Hawk Eye article goes on to describe the discovery of a number of items found in the cave “which doubtless had contained stolen goods” dating back to the 1840s. It noted some suspected horse thieves were arrested in the fall of 1858 the trials for which drew much attention. Two of the thieves were convicted, but two were acquitted on account of testimony provided by an out-of-town witness who was “doubtless a confederate” and who was later hung by a mob for killing a man in Denver.
The cave itself was mentioned in a Saturday Evening Post article in June of 1888. The article notes the cave was formerly called Wild Cat Cave “by this party of adventurous young men, as there was a monster wild animal of that species killed in the neighborhood about that time and many people believed that its lair was somewhere around in the bluff.”
Fast forward to 1924 when a group of Burlington businessmen raised $10,000 in an effort to secure 329 acres of the area as a state park. Unable to convince the owner to sell, the effort was scrapped.
Fifty years later, a group of local middle school students again raised the issue. According to a 1973 article in The Hawk Eye, the exchange took place at a back yard cookout. One of the boys caught the attention of a guest that happened to be a member of the State Conservation Commission at the time.
“It’s such a really cool place and it was being ruined by beer parties and people painting their names in the cave and stuff,” one of the boys said in the article.
So convincing were these “real Huckleberry Finn types” that the state approached the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Dunn, who had owned the farm for the past 65 years.
Mr. Dunn offered the 140 acre “heart of the farm” to the state for $100,000 despite having recently been offered $50,000 more by a local businessman. “I decided I’d like to see the place as a public recreation area while I’m still around,” Mr. Dunn told The Hawk Eye.
The purchase was made and in 1975, the state signed an agreement for the county conservation board to manage the property. In the years since, land has been added and the barn, which was the Sycamore Inn restaurant at the time, has become the county’s iconic nature center.
Most of the land has been returned to natural vegetation intersected by miles of hiking trails. The main cave is closed indefinitely to protect threatened and endangered species of bats. The two smaller caves are still open.
Today, Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve is an even more popular destination. Through the nature center, Des Moines County Conservation delivers environmental education programs to tens of thousands of people every year. Programs range from summer camps to concerts, creek stomps to trail hikes. Visitors stop by year-round to hike the trails, visit the caves, or view the incredible scenery offered by the unique limestone bluffs towering over Flint Creek.
As predicted in a 1924 article in The Iowa Magazine, it truly has become a park of “statewide pride, and of more than statewide interest.” Thanks to past generations of Burlington residents, the area is available for future generations of “Huckleberry Finn types” to explore and enjoy.