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Crystal Lake State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 93

Located in Hancock County, a 25-acre former state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore what used to be Crystal Lake State Park.


A remnant of the retreating glaciers of the distant past, the sixteen to eighteen foot depth of Crystal Lake was carved out 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. Part of the distinctive prairie pothole region of the northern Des Moines Lobe, the site welcomed human inhabitation well into the pre-American past. As settlement from the United States spread across the northern portion of Iowa, the lands surrounding the pristine glacial lake quickly underwent conversion to accommodate agriculture. While eager farmers sought to drain out other areas lakes, as exemplified by the history of nearby Rice Lake State Park, the depth of Crystal Lake prevented any attempts to erase the lake from the map.


Even prior to the inception of the Iowa State Park System, notable early Iowa conservationist Thomas Macbride identified Crystal Lake as a suitable site for a state park. With the formation of the Iowa Conservation Commission and subsequent start of land acquisitions, other priorities prevented Crystal Lake from coming under state control during the ICC’s early decades. A small park, known as Ellsworth College Park and a legacy of early Iowa land speculator Eugene S. Ellsworth, formed alongside the lake’s eastern shore. During the 1950s, local citizens came together under the guise of the Crystal Lake Commercial Club to obtain a long-term lease on the 15-acre park site. When the Hancock County Conservation Board officially organized during 1958, the park site came under the new body’s jurisdiction. Some initial development of the park provided basic amenities, while the site still existed outside of the state system.


During 1969, over fifty years after Macbride initially identified the site, a 130-acre parcel came under state control when the Iowa Conservation Commission bought the existing park site and neighboring lands. In a unique agreement, the state allowed Hancock County to continue developing, maintaining, and overseeing the park. With Hancock County empowered to “develop the land as it saw fit,” amenities including a modern campground, playground, shelter, swimming beach, and boat dock soon blossomed to form a great park on Crystal Lake’s eastern shore.


During 1996, the Winnebago-Hancock chapter of Pheasant’s Forever partnered with the conservation board to plant more than 800 trees and shrubs in the park. In 2007, the Hancock County Board of Conservation completed a project to add three cabins to the park.


Eventually, the state officially moved part of the site into the Crystal Lake Wildlife Management Area, but kept the county in control of both the park and the wildlife management area. Development of the Wildlife area paired with an early 2000s dredging and lake restoration project to attempt to improve water quality at the lake. Siltation greatly impacted the lake over the 20th century, lowing the lake level from the original 16-18 feet to a maximum depth of roughly eight feet. The $3 million project spanned 2006-2009 and removed 1.6 million cubic yards of sediment while deepening the lake to an average of 14 feet. Work in the contributing watershed also sought to limit future water quality issues at the lake. Despite the large-scale effort, issues with siltation and overall water quality have continued to represent a significant challenge at the lake and park site.


Today, Crystal Lake Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in north Iowa.  Primitive, modern, and cabin camping options provide an array of opportunities for visitors hoping to spend the night. A disk golf course, playground equipment, and a shelter house provide quality amenities for people hoping to put together a pleasant outing. Boat ramp, dock, and shoreline options offer Iowa’s anglers places to test the waters of the lake for a variety of fish species. The beach continues to an offer a great place to cool off during the state’s summer months.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Crystal Lake 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, Crystal Lake Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore what used to be Crystal Lake State Park.


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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