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"Big Creek State Preserve" - State Parks Series

Located between Arlington and Wadena in Fayette County, a 217-acre State Preserve holds natural and historic treasures.

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Brush Creek Canyon State Preserve.

A rugged and unkempt stretch of public land representative of the ‘hand-off’ preservation strategy of Iowa’s public preserves, Brush Creek’s history holds a different path when compared with more conservation and recreation oriented state parks. The moss and vegetation covered Silurian Escarpment represents the glacially formed edge of “Iowa’s Little Switzerland.” Narrow gorges plunge to form steep ravines home to small streams throughout the preserve.

Tributaries to the Volga River, Allen’s Wildwood Springs, Pine Bluff, Brush Creek, and Moine Creek all wind through the bottomlands of Brush Creek Canyon, drawing interest during the earliest years of American settlement. In 1842 Charles Moe built a cabin in the area and staked out a village called Motown. In 1856, Motown became Brush Creek and boasted over 500 residents by the 1870s. The discovery of gold on Moine Creek in 1878 by two local men accelerated settlement temporarily. The town of Brush Creek eventually became Arlington, located two miles south of the preserve today.

The incredibly rugged topography surrounding the creeks limited agricultural production, and by the time the Great Depression arrived in Iowa local citizens banded together to put the land into the state’s hands. Starting with efforts in Arlington, raised $1,700 f the $4,400 dollars required to purchase the initial 130 acres. Citizens of other Fayette County cities including West Union, Oelwein, and Fayette to come up with the other $2,700 to complete the sale. With lands in hand, the people of Fayette County handed over the deed in order to create Brush Creek Canyon State Park in 1936.

Like many other new state parks of the era, Brush Creek Canyon State Park developed with the arrival of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Working out of nearby Backbone State Park near Strawberry Point, the CCC constructed a stone and timber shelter backing up to the bluffs near the top of the canyon. The geographic placement makes the shelter unique among those built by the CCC in Iowa. Workers also constructed a stone bathroom facility, a set of stone steps running to the bottomlands, signage, and firepits.

In 1941, with the CCC long gone the state transferred the fledgling state park to State Forest status with the intention of leaving the location alone. No state didn’t assign a park custodian for the lands or general maintenance funds, and nature slowly started to reclaim the work of the CCC. Citizens from nearby Arlington earnestly cared for the preserve, hosting workdays and volunteering to provide some basic maintenance. For instance, in newspaper reports suggest the entire town of Arlington shut down to volunteer on May 11, 1958 in order to spruce up Brush Creek Canyon State Forest.

Despite the extraordinary efforts of Arlington’s citizenry, the unfunded and unstaffed park struggled along in the State Forest system into the 1960s. As the Iowa Conservation Commission worked on other area outdoor recreation locations like Volga River, they also mulled transferring Brush Creek Canyon to Fayette County in the hopes of the local oversight improving the park. Instead, the state ultimately decided to leave the site wild for educational and scientific purposes by transitioning the property from State Forest to Brush Creek Canyon State Preserve.

Today, Brush Creek Canyon State Preserve offers visitors a chance to step back to a land before time featuring 351 native vascular plants, dense bottomland forests, border prairie remnants, and over 75 observed species of birds. A chance to see Iowa at perhaps its most wild, Brush Creek Canyon may not be for the faint of heart with unkempt and largely unmarked trails. However, the winding ravines mirror an exceptional Iowa public lands history worthy of understanding.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Brush Creek Canyon State Preserve. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Brush Creek Canyon State Preserve shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.

Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Brush Creek Canyon State Preserve.

Make sure to subscribe to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribe on YouTube, follow on social media, and tune in each Sunday to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands.

I hope I’ll see you out there!


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