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Emerson Bay State Recreation Area - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 47


Located alongside West Okoboji in the Iowa Great Lakes chain of Dickinson County, a 12-acre state recreation area holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Emerson Bay State Recreation Area.


Emerson Bay proved a popular site along the nearly 4,000 acre glacial lake from the earliest years of American settlement in the era. During the 1860s, a father and son both named Tom Emerson homestead at the site. By the late 1800s, many residences flanked the wind protected bay and the Illinois Central Railroad even considered placing a station at the site during the early 1900s. In 1912, the Spirit Lake Beacon reported the formation of Lakewood Park to offer a beach at the site of today’s park. Eager swimmers flocked to the popular beach over the course of the late 1910s.

During the early era of State Park development, Iowa started to acquire and develop lands throughout the Iowa Great Lakes. While parks like Gull Point saw significant development with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s, sites including Emerson Bay added to the state’s holdings later in the 20th century.


1971 saw the appropriation of funds for a new and improved boat ramp at the site as the Iowa Conservation Commission started to improve facilities at what the local paper referred to as Emerson Bay State Park.


In 1978, the state acquired a small five-acre parcel just a mile south of Gull Point at Emerson Bay. Adding to the pre-existing campground and boat ramp facilities at the site, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources sought to use the additional lands to construct a day-use area while creating a state recreation area. In 1980, the state worked to purchase an additional 542 acres of shoreline at Emerson Bay. Projects to provide a day-use shelter, playground equipment, and an observation tower soon followed, adding to the amenities at Emerson Bay. In 1987, the state electrified sixty campsites at the location. Additionally, the state allotted $180,000 for development of a 28’ tall observation tower at Lighthouse Point along the park’s shoreline.


In the late-1990s, Emerson Bay hosted WaterFest, an event featuring scuba diving demonstrations and presentations related to water quality. In 2012, the state closed the campground as major modernization work took place at the site to provide improved amenities for those utilizing one of the most popular campgrounds in the Iowa Great Lakes. The $640,000 project improved water access, increased the number of electric sites from 60 to 82, and new gravel paths.


Today, Emerson Bay offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa. The boat ramp continues to prove popular for anglers and watersport enthusiasts hoping to find a calm entry point to West Okoboji Lake. Campers find modern amenities and electric hookups in the large campground. Those hoping to soak in the sun still flock to the popular public beach, while others enjoy taking in scenic views from the top of the observation tower.


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


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Emerson Bay State Recreation Area.


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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