Just outside West Union in the heart of Fayette County, a nearly 300-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Echo Valley State Park.
Named for the Silurian Period, Hopkinton Formation cherty dolomitic limestone bluff carved as the meandering Grover’s Creek and Otter Creek, Echo Valley provides a look into Iowa’s geologic past. Glover’s Creek cuts through the northern part of the park while Otter Creek flows through the central and southern portions before the two trout streams meet just beyond the eastern boundary. Picturesque limestone bluffs separate the streams by as little as 15 feet in some parts of the park, forming the ‘backbone’ region of central Fayette County.
As with several other early Iowa state parks, local people came together to raise funds for land purchase before handing the site over to the Iowa Conservation Commission. Local woman Grace Gilmore, a member of the Iowa State Board of Conservation from 1932 to 1934, proved pivotal in the successful efforts to acquire the lands from six residents to make up the initial 107 acres of parklands. Area citizens submitted potential names for the park, and the Fayette County Union reported: “The name is descriptive and brings out the feature of the area. The ‘Echo’ repeated three times, lends great charm to the entire area.”
In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up camp in West Union with workers servicing ten northeast Iowa counties. The construction of a small dam to create ‘West Union Lake,’ later known as Echo Valley Lake, served as a major focus of CCC and Works Progress Administration Workers. Additional projects included road construction, tree planting, and trail work. Utilizing a nineteenth-century lime kiln within the park, CCC workers constructed a large stone and timber picnic shelter. Local efforts, including the planting of trees supplied by the State Nursery by the Echo Valley Future Farmers of America, also added to the park’s initial improvements.
Despite significant development, siltation plagued the lake and by 1950 the Fayette County Union bemoaned “the dam has broken and the lake evaporated” in an article which also described the site as “an overgrown wilderness, littered with refuse, beer cans and the evident wanton destruction of tables, shelters, and fireplaces.” Although the local Lions Club sold new ’50 star American flags’ to help raise maintenance funds, the park’s popularity continued to decline. The once popular park languished as an afterthought in the state system through the 1960s and 1970s as focus on the development of Volga River State Recreation Area and other nearby projects took priority.
With the creation of the Fayette County Conservation in the 1960s, the state attempted handing off control of Echo Valley and nearby Brush Creek Canyon unsuccessfully. However, after transitioning the parks to state preserve status and eliminating maintenance funds during the intervening years, Fayette County Conservation ended up taking responsibility for Echo Valley’s maintenance in 1984. A new life for the park, the initial 25-year management agreement allowed for order to return to the park. In 1985, 25 workers from the Clayton County Iowa Youth Corps joined local volunteers to kick off an extensive era of renewal for the park. Over the course of the 1990s, work to restore the historic CCC-built shelter, construct a new shelter in the picnic area, and other projects helped improve the park. A large land purchase in 2003 nearly tripled the size of the park, through the addition of pasturelands along Glover Creek in order to help improve water quality and trout fishing in the park to state control as the Glovers Creek Fish and Wildlife Area.
Today, Echo Valley State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in Fayette County. Hikers enjoy the 2.5 mile Echo Valley Environmental Nature Trail constructed from a converted railway which ran in the park into the 1950s. Along the trail newly constructed bridges rest on the former railway piers. Trout fishing proves the most popular pastime in the park, and primitive camping provides the opportunity to spend the night. Picnicking also proves popular, either along the banks of the creeks or at the restored CCC-era shelter.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Echo Valley 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, Echo Valley 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 Echo Valley 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!