Paddle-in Campsites: Lake Red Rock

Jun 22, 2013  | 7 min  | Ep 303

Welcome to Van Buren County and Lacey Keosauqua State Park, a southeastern Iowa destination located along the meandering Des Moines River near the Iowa-Missouri border.

Visitors often call this corner of Iowa big bend country where the Des Moines River contorts itself in a peculiar “U” shape around the nearby town of Keosauqua.

In just a few minutes we’ll tell you more about the 1600 acre park. 

But, first, we’ll travel upstream to Lake Red Rock.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, state parks across Iowa are filled with campers.  Some set up tents.  Others bring massive camper trailers.  

But have you ever wanted to venture out with just the bare essentials?  Conservation groups in central Iowa have teamed up together for a unique kayak adventure with a catch.

You not only paddle in yourself but also all of your gear.  Known as Iowa’s largest lake, Red Rock is navigated on this day by some of the smallest and most nimble water vessels -- kayaks.  With more than 15,000 acres of surface water, you just may be able to isolate yourself from other lake visitors and feel as if you’re in the wilderness and not in a manmade reservoir.  But these kayakers from Waverly are not in search of the wonders of modern flood control technology.  They’re here to observe the natural beauty of south central Iowa.

This is actually considered a globally important bird area.  We have a lot of migratory birds that spend time here.  A large number of gulls, a different species as you can probably see from behind me and even the white pelicans that migrate through are a strong interest to people.  I think there were 200 of them below the dam yesterday if not more.  And the bald eagles are a strong attraction to people, usually in the winter months.

Last year was our first year coming to Lake Red Rock near Pella, Iowa.  While we’re down here we get to see the cliffs along Highway 14, which are very beautiful.

Today rocks here seem to be used as a chalkboard for graffiti.  But down at the water’s edge you can see where sand stone was cut for commerce in the late 1800s.

There is a house in Des Moines on Grand Avenue that has this red sand stone on it.  Red Rock felt they were going to be famous for this.  Turned out to be too soft and didn’t pan out.

Will Prather is with a group who wants visitors to know the area’s history before Red Rock Dam was completed in 1969.  They even published a map with GPS coordinates of all the towns now buried under the lake in case curious boaters want to search for them.

We probably paddled over several of them today but we didn’t realize it probably.

With such a windy day, Darren and his fellow paddlers focus more on staying on top of the water than pondering what’s underneath.

The wind today was challenging.  The waves were different than what I’ve experienced before since they were crossing each other and it was pretty choppy, but it was fun.

With the potential for adverse conditions on the lake, Darren recommends paddling a kayak at least 13 feet long with a double bulk head for buoyancy.

I would not suggest Lake Red Rock as a beginning paddler lake.  When the wind comes up, and it doesn’t take much wind to get white caps here, it can really be rather challenging for experienced paddlers even.

Ranger Spry recommends less experienced paddlers first try out a body of water adjacent to the lake called Robert’s Creek.  If you stay on the main lake and the water is low enough, you can get a view of what many paddlers head for.  The remains of the historic and much photographed Peace Tree.

According to what is written, the treaty of 1842 in which the U.S. purchased twelve million acres from the Indians, I might add for a penny an acre, was signed under that tree because there were no buildings.

You can only get to it by boat.  So you can paddle right up to it and touch it and you can feel like you have a connection with history.  And, at least in this case, that’s not something you can do while sitting in your car.  So that’s why we like it.

Kayaker Diane Lawry has taken photographs of the paddlers having fun in every season at Lake Red Rock.  She’s an active volunteer and advocate for the lake’s first paddle-in campsite, one of a just handful of paddle only sites along Iowa waterways.  Paddle-in means no cars allowed so campers must load up their kayaks with sleeping bags, tents, food, water and whatever else they may need and paddle to the campgrounds.

This is really a group effort from a lot of people who really wanted, who thought it was an important project.

The $400,000 project came from the efforts of the Red Rock Lake Association, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Iowa DNR and the Army Corp of Engineers.  And thanks to a slew of volunteers who helped clean up this piece of shoreline, there are now eight tent sites.

Primitive camping in our sense of Hickory Ridge means they have a fire ring, they have a small wood chipped pad in order to put a tent. I think there’s one that can maybe put two tents. 

I was excited about having a paddle-in campsite.  There’s other places in Iowa that you can camp on sand bars.  You can camp in county parks.  But it’s a little quieter here, a little bit more rustic.  It’s a very beautiful campsite.  It’s hilly.  It has great scenery.  Wild flowers here in the spring.  There’s a red tail hawk nest just about 50 yards from here so that’s nice to have here as well. 

Iowa finally has a paddle-in campsite.  It’s a good practice for groups before you go to the boundary waters to check out, see what it’s like to paddle in with all your gear and how to pack your gear and everything.

As the sun slowly sets in the west, these paddlers seem content with the one campsite the lake provides.  They have their own private campfire and the sites and sounds of Lake Red Rock.