Iowa State Parks History, Trails & Photography

Iowa Outdoors | Episode
Apr 15, 2020 | 27 min

Iowa Outdoors celebrates the 100-year anniversary of Iowa State Parks by showcasing park history, varied trail experiences and photographic inspiration found in state parks.


´╗┐Hi, I'm Kellie Kramer.

And I'm Scott Siepker.

Welcome to an Iowa State Parks Special --

On this edition of Iowa Outdoors.


Coming up on this State Parks episode of Iowa

Outdoors, we'll go back in time 100 years to learn how and why the Iowa state parks were created.

We'll venture out with an artist in the 20 Artists,20 Parks program to see how she captured the state parks.


We'll lace up our boots and hike the thousands of miles of trails offered in our state parks.

Finally we'll follow three photographers who focus on three very different subjects in Iowa's state parks.

We'll have all that and more.

So sit tight, Iowa Outdoors is about to begin.

Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.


Funding for this program was provided by the Claude P. Small, Kathryn Small Cousins and William Carl Cousins Fund at the Quad Cities Community Foundation to support programming on Iowa PBS.


And by the Alliant Energy Foundation. Many of Iowa's natural wonders you'll find on Iowa PBS can be found in Iowa Outdoors magazine, the Iowa DNR's premier resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.

Subscription information can be found online at


Iowa's state parks began 100 years ago with the creation of Backbone State Park.

Since their inception, our state parks have left a trail of history, adventure and scenic beauty.

As we celebrate this centennial anniversary, Iowa Outdoors is taking an in-depth look at the historic impact Iowa's state parks have left for Iowans.



Andy Bartlett: The State Parks Act was passed in 1917 and then 3 years later our very first state park is dedicated in Backbone. Public land hardly existed in Iowa.

At the time of the passing of the State Parks Act I think I read there was 10 acres of public land in Iowa.

And so people often times would trespass to find areas to recreate in.

So the importance of people being able to get out and utilize and experience nature and make memories in a setting like this was growing ever increasingly important.

Andy: And so that is why the Board of Conservation realized that hey, we need to start developing some state parks or setting aside areas as state parks for this purpose.

You have this handful of state parks through the first decade and into the 1930s that are set up in Iowa to preserve and enhance these really unique natural areas that we have.

And at the time, we were working on what was called the 25 year conservation plan.

It was a road map for these newly formed state parks and for future state parks on their development on the conservation of the resources that they had.

Andy: And one of the major players in the 25 year conservation plan is John R. Fitzsimmons who is a landscape architect from the Iowa State College in Ames.

He really designed some of the early landscape architecture plans for our first Iowa state parks. And some of those facilities and plans that he designed actually did get constructed before the Civilian Conservation Corp was established.

But then when the Conservation Corp was established, it was the catalyst for that plan.

Andy: So out of the Great Depression in 1932 we had Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected President and one of the first things he did in 1933 was through a series of executive orders and some enacted legislation, he started the New Deal.

But the CCC was formed and what it did was it provided manual labor for the unemployed in a natural resource or conservation setting.

Andy: So Franklin Roosevelt is basically quoted as saying to the President, the National President of the Civilian Conservation Corp, give Iowa what it wants because we were ready, we had this incredible plan that said what we were going to do when these resources became available.

So camps would spring up near state parks that needed development or in communities where projects would start.

Andy: The interesting story behind the camp that worked here at Ledges is actually they came here with the orders to develop a 5,000 acre national park, but yet the ground had not yet been secured for that park.

So in the meantime, they commuted every day down here to the Ledges and worked here at Ledges.

Well, we don't have a 5,000 acre national park in Boone County, so they spent the duration of that camp's existence building the facilities we have here at the park.

Andy: So the State Parks Act allows the state to begin purchasing property for state parks, it creates the Board of Conservation.

The first head of the Board of Conservation was Louis Pammel and he had an extremely deep passion for these areas.

His four principles really were the home, the school, the church and his fourth principle was the park. It was a place to come and forget all the worries that you had in your daily life and just enjoy time with your family or enjoy time in nature.

And that is really what it still provides today.

And that's the cool thing about state parks is, even though time has changed, the purpose of state parks is still the same as it was 100 years ago, and it will still be the same in another 100 years, providing a place for people to come and enjoy nature and spend time with their family and friends.


Many Iowans have fond memories and family traditions of spending summers enjoying the parks, the water and outdoor adventures around Okoboji, often called Iowa's Great Lakes area. For artist Paula Streeter, it's also home.

As part of the 20 Artists, 20 Parks Project, Streeter spent some time in her favorite areas of Gull Point Complex, inspired by decades old artwork she brings to life again in her own way.


Water is often the focal point of the Iowa Great Lakes area in far northwest Iowa. The clear water lakes of East and West Okoboji and Big Spirit provide vast opportunities for boating, fishing and scenic views.

But the shores around the Okoboji region are equally as beautiful and entertaining.

Paula Streeter, who teaches in the College of Design at Iowa State University, has been coming here for decades.

Her family brought their travel trailer and camped at Gull Point State Park.

Paula: Because of our initial stay here and our relationship with other family members, I have been associated with the Lakes area my entire life, a pretty wonderful place to grow up, a pretty great playground.

Over the years, tourists flocked, development boomed and some of the landscape transformed. Gull Point remains an important natural oasis, a break from everything else.

Paula: We see change. The Gull Point is the little bit of an isolated island in the Lakes area that hasn't changed.

I can come here, take my dogs for a walk and feel like I've gone back in time.

There's so many wonderful areas for people to go explore the outside and kind of step back a little bit and not get into the hubbub.

Streeter looks to history as a basis for her work. One recognizable old landmark of the park is the stone boathouse on the shore of West Okoboji.

It now houses DNR law enforcement, which patrols the lakes.

But the gem of Gull Point is the iconic lodge.

The rustic stone and wood structure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the early 1930s, the largest CCC project in Iowa.

It has long been a popular location for weddings, family reunions and other get-togethers.


For more than a year and a half, Streeter visited the park drawing ideas and inspiration from her experiences.

Paula: I'm an artist. I believe I'm a maker. And the time kind of distinguishes what is art and what isn't.

I come and walk, I just walk and hike, a lot of times bring my dogs along and do my mental notes, keep this with me all the time, which is my constant companion in life, and will sit down if I see something and do some sketches.

Very, very infrequently do I use photo references but occasionally do. Then I go to studio and pretty much call on my resources and some of my paintings aren't all that accurate, they're from recall, trying to do more of the experience than actual visual replication.

Those memories get painted on canvases back at Streeter's home studio, surrounded by her pets.

Paula: Part of what doing a series of these paintings is that I'm trying to show that not only the diversity of activities up in the Lakes area, but also it's not seasonal.

There's something going on year round now in Okoboji, and not just Okoboji, but in the state parks.

The concept and style is modeled after the Works Project Administration Poster Project in the 1930s and '40s.

The WPA posters promoted and celebrated parks, including some of the CCC projects that employed artists and craftsmen.

In addition to the lodge, Streeter painted the boathouse, which she says is one of her favorite structures in the entire state.

And she had a little fun creating a camping scene.


Paula: I don't consider this one completely done either because the WPA posters typically had things that were representative of the area.

So I've been putting birds in all of them or different kinds of trees or flowers that are local to the area.

o that has been fun.


Gull Point State Park is just 1 of 28 different parks in the Iowa Great Lakes area, all referred to as Gull Point Complex.

Streeter was inspired to create a map featuring some of those parks.


Paula: Abby Gardner Sharp's cabin, Pikes Point, which is more of a seasonal but it does have a really beautiful CCC construction that is back into the side of a hill that is pretty interesting.

And of course the Gull Point and Pillsbury Point.

This is probably one of my favorite parks that I've been to in Iowa and it's pretty non-descript.

Okamanpeedan on Tuttle Lake.

There's the iconic bench at Gull Point that I can't tell you how many photographs I've seen from that location that will be included in the painting as well as some burr oak that are coming up, the state tree.

The small vignettes show the wide range of outdoor activities that can be enjoyed at Gull Point Complex.

Streeter used old postcards for her ideas.

Tim Richey: People that do see the work that these artists are doing, maybe if they haven't visited that particular park they'll see a picture and go oh, that's cool, that's beautiful, I'd like to go there.

So yeah, I think anything that can draw attention to our state parks and get people out to enjoy them I think is fantastic and I think this program will do that.

Land around Okoboji isn't cheap, but the Iowa leaders in the 1930s had the foresight to acquire this property and preserve it for all Iowans to enjoy.

Artists and makers like Paula Streeter help showcase and celebrate its continued importance today.


Paula: I think mostly though it is the exposure for people and the opportunity for all economic groups to come and experience these places.

It doesn't cost a lot to enjoy life.


The best way to get out and experience a state park is to lace up some sturdy boots and start exploring.

Trail hiking is the number one activity in Iowa's state parks system and every state park provides its own unique experience.

Of course, not everyone has the time or is physically capable of hiking a Loess Hill's bluff or biking across a Southern Iowa grassland.

But we're here to help.

We don't have time to show you all 8,000 miles of Iowa trails, but we can certainly give you an idea of what is waiting for you in Iowa's state parks.


[nature sounds]


In a word, the trails you can hike in Iowa's state parks are diverse.

There are thousands of miles of dirt trails, paved or blacktop paths, gravel roads, woodland treks, some famous rocky caves, bridges and valleys and special water hikes.

But if water is what you want, then your first stop should be the canyon of Ledges State Park.


If you're headed to Ledges State Park, the absolute must hike is waiting through the refreshing waters of Pease Creek.


Starting at the arch stone bridge, the creek winds along Ledges' canyon, giving creek walkers a firsthand look at the picturesque bluffs Ledges is known for.


It's not a traditional trail hike, but when it comes to creek walking there is no better location in the state.


Creek walking is easily the most popular activity in a park.

So on a warm day be prepared to share the waterways with families and other outdoor adventurers.


One thing to keep in mind is people aren't the only animals in the stream.

So be prepared for encounters with fish, turtles and yes, the occasional snake.


After six-tenths of a mile, Pease Creek lets out at the Des Moines River.

If you've had enough, there's a convenient parking lot nearby.

However, for such a short hike, why not do the same hike in reverse.


We're in Bellevue State Park in Bellevue, Iowa at the Dyas Unit.

A lot of the trails, especially in this park, are four foot wide mowed paths.

And so this one isn't.

It's a two foot wide bench that we're hiking on that dips and meanders through the landscape to make it more sustainable so that you don't have to put a lot of time and effort into maintaining it.

As you head off down a trail, chances are you're not focused on the engineering required to forge your path.

To build a trail with the necessary grading, drainage, structural integrity, not to mention making it safe for all kinds of adventurers, you're looking at a four year process.

Sure, you could simply mow a four foot path, but after thousands of boots, bikes and even bare feet stomp it into the Earth, there's no way your trail will last.

The best trails allow for up close experiences with Iowa's wonders tailored specifically to last for decades of hikers to enjoy.


Any visit to Wildcat Den State Park wouldn't be complete without a stop at the Pine Grist Mill.

So let's get that out of the way as one of Iowa's best trails beckons.


Wildcat Den Trail has something for everybody.

First off, it's a roller coaster of rises and falls, so pace yourself.

Second, it starts with a trip through wildflowers and a lush forest and that's not even scratching the surface.


Passing over the first guard rail bridge, you reach a major fork in the road.

You can't go wrong either way, but we'll go right, as we prefer the other side for the loop back.


Wildcat Den is full of side trails, with some taking you right to the lip of Pine Creek.

And unless you're in a rush to feel the rocks, there's no need for up close bluff encounters.

The main path provides plenty, we guarantee.


At nearly the halfway point in the 4 mile loop you'll discover Fat Man's Squeeze.

While not having the most friendly name, the bluff pass is one of the park's most famous features.


If you've been keeping track, we've gone well past a minute at this point.

So instead of giving away the rest of Wildcat's secrets, we'll save them for your adventure, a hike that is certain to take far more than a minute.


The trails of the Iowa state parks system are full of discoveries waiting for you to uncover.

From the Mines of Spain riding the Mississippi River with its towering bluffs and overlooks, to Eastern Iowa's Bixby State Preserve Ice Caves that breathe hypnotic mist in the late summer, to Central Iowa's Springbrook Conservation Education Center with treks meant specifically for outdoors learning, and finally Western Iowa where Brent's Trail rides the ridges of Loess Hills State Forest.

These are just a small sample of the thousands of miles of trail waiting for you to explore.

So, if you're feeling the itch of cabin fever, know Iowa's state parks are waiting for you to lace up your boots and go for a hike.


Iowa's state parks have provided photographic inspiration for over 100 years.

And we have featured those images for nearly a decade on Iowa Outdoors.

So let's take a look at how Iowa photographers have found that perfect shot in their own back yard.


Over the years, Iowa Outdoors has showcased dozens of artists enraptured by Iowa's natural beauty with Iowa's state parks, prairies and preserves being of particular interest.

But before you grab your camera and head to your nearest park, consider all the variety of subjects waiting for you.

Here we'll reflect on three artists, each with a different focus examining Iowa's state parks, landscapes, wildlife and hidden natural treasures.

Jim Frink spends much of his free time here in the wooded hills of Wildcat Den State Park, nestled along the eastern rim of Iowa.


With his trusty assortment of cameras, Jim is looking for something tucked near the miles of trail, something many park visitors or hikers would never even pause to explore and might even walk past without knowing it was even there.

It could be attached to the side of a dead and decaying tree or sprouting along the rocky hillsides, a fungi that Jim has documented for years.

Jim: Well, I like to think I do, but most likely it's just what I happen to stumble into.


Jim: There's quite a variety of shapes and colors, red, blue, orange, green, yellow, black, a little bit of everything.

Some are tall and thin, some are short and squat, and everything in between.


Jim: I like the, well I always like to find the bright, colorful ones, but a lot of the real common ones are brown and look great depending upon the light.

Sometimes the light is really what makes the picture.


Jim: I don't think we'll ever see it all.

You just look around and take it as it comes.

If fungi doesn't quite grab your interest and you're in need of something grander, then head west and look east.

For many photographers, there are few things more rewarding than a captivating landscape shot of a state park sunrise.


Buck Christensen: I just love it, it's like the greatest place to start your day.

That's the biggest motivation I have.

It's not necessarily about photography, it's just when you get there and you kind of settle in and you stay still and the geese start gliding past you and the frogs all start ignoring you, you just kind of become part of the scene.


Buck Christensen starts his day a short drive from home in Council Bluffs here at Lake Manawa State Park where sunrises have been captivating him for years.

His signature photo collection is actually focused on a small narrow strip of land seemingly floating in Lake Manawa.

It is known as Boy Scout Island to locals, who generations ago as young boys spent summer nights camping along the shoreline.

It's that personal history combined with striking sunrise reflections that have caught the attention of Buck's lens and his many fans.

Buck: I do a lot of photography shows and as soon as someone sees it they instantly recognize it.

I've never had someone say, where is that? They're always like, oh that's Boy Scout Island.

And then almost everyone has had a wedding there or their kids used to play there 40 years ago.

I hear that all the time, I hear that from friends who want to go take pictures, they think they want to take pictures and then when it comes time to go just run out and do it I don't think they understand how accessible everything, how easy it is, how little time you need to take to just go out and five minutes away find a state park or something and just go do it.


Finally, if a challenge is what you're looking for, look no further than wildlife.

Pulling together the perfect shot of any animal in the wild is equal parts determination and sheer luck.

Justin Rogers often marches into the Iowa outdoors fulfilling a passion of not only photography but in search of a very specific creature.

Justin: I've kind of been on a mission to try and photograph all of the owls that are located here in Iowa.

The Iowa DNR says that there are 9 different species of owls that reside either part or full-time here in the state and I have now photographed 8 of those species with only the burrowing owl remaining that I have not yet photographed here.

Justin: So, every owl they kind of have a different color of eyes and size.

The Great Horned Owl I think are the most unique because of their bright yellow.

Barred owls and some of the other owls, they just have kind of a dark tone to them and it's just kind of like a hollow cavity.

But when you lock eyes with the Great Horned Owl they're almost like a cat where they have a vertical sliver to them.

And if it might be coming into a branch to land at that moment where its talons are sticking out, almost right before the moment of impact, it's neat to see just how big those talons actually are.


That wraps up this special Iowa State Parks episode of Iowa Outdoors.

We encourage you to get outside and enjoy Iowa's state parks and recreational opportunities.

If you're planning any outdoors travel, check out our extensive video archive of adventures at

As our episodes continue to bring you outdoor adventures over the Iowa airwaves, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for extended features and extra content.

And feel free to tag Iowa Outdoors in your online posts.

We'll leave you now with more images of Iowa's state parks. [music]

Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.


Funding for this program was provided by the Claude P.Small, Kathryn Small Cousins and William Carl Cousins Fund at the Quad Cities Community Foundation to support nature programming on Iowa PBS.


And by the Alliant Energy Foundation.

Many of Iowa's natural wonders you'll find on Iowa PBS can be found in Iowa Outdoors magazine, the Iowa DNR's premier resource for conservation, education and recreation activities.

Subscription information can be found online at