Located on the south shore of Clear Lake in the heart of Cerro Gordo County, a 102 acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Clear Lake State Park.
The earliest American records pertaining to Clear Lake resulted from bison hunters meandering into North Iowa and deciding to ultimately settle on the shores of picturesque small lake near the Winnebago River. After a couple of close calls between early settlers and the Wahpekute Dakota including the infamous ‘Grindstone War’ in the early 1850s, enterprising individuals quickly collected lands surrounding Clear Lake. Two communities, Clear Lake City and Clear Lake Village eventually merged in 1871 and development followed rapidly. By the 1890s, a lake community fully equipped with amusement parks emerged in Cerro Gordo County.
With the founding of the Iowa Conservation Commission in early 1900s, Clear Lake stood out as a potential option for a state park. When court proceedings slowed a purchase on the north side of the lake from Mrs. Rose McIntosh, the Iowa Conservation Commission shifted focus to the south shore. With Mason City man Frank Nelson printing poetry yearning for a state park in the paper, the state purchased lands from two local men, E.B. Stillman and C.F. Crane, in 1924 to form the initial parcel of the park. Additional beach front bought in 1925 added to the state’s holdings, and with the lands in hand Clear Lake State Park opened to the public in the spring of that year. The state made C.E. Ferson custodian and small initial planning for picnic tables and restrooms followed. By 1928, the Clear Lake Reporter boasted of “14,500 people visited the park during the month of July,” with crowds in the thousands on Sunday afternoons. The park also provided the office for the state’s pike nursery, located on the northside of the lake and built to help protect and maintain fish populations on the 3,000 acre spring fed lake.
Work largely stagnated on development of the park until the New Deal era of the late 1930s. The Works Progress Administration provided funds for the hire of 52 local men out of work to supply labor for further development at the site in 1938. The construction of a lodge, reported by the Clear Lake Mirror “to be the most modern and completely equipped building of its kind in the state,” proved the major legacy of the WPA workers at the site. Built with stone quarried by other WPA workers at the Quinby Quarry in nearby Mason City, work on the lodge continued apace to result in a beautiful structure representative of the 1930s era of state park development in Iowa.
Over time, significant development of the campground at the park allowed for modern amenities for the thousands of visitors who stayed each summer. The 27-acres at the site which developed into the campground grew to house over 200 sites in the decades following the park’s founding. Additionally, the 900-foot swimming beach provided a public swimming option on the predominantly private-owned lake front. In 1971, the state acquired the 3-acre Scenic Woodford Island, located near the park and accessible by boat, thanks to the donation of the island’s namesake family.
Today, Clear Lake State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in Cerro Gordo County. The lodge, renovated in 1999, still welcomes visitors for a variety of engagements ranging from family reunions to weddings. The beach still proves one of the most popular in the area, and visitors engage in activities ranging from kayaking to windsurfing. A great access point to the lake, fishermen enjoy testing the waters for a walleye, muskie, and northern pike. A variety of picnic areas, open shelters, and modern restrooms combine with trail access, old growth oak forest, and prairie restorations to provide amusement for even the least beach friendly of visitors.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Clear Lake State Park. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Clear Lake State Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Clear Lake State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!