Located between Chariton, Centerville, and Albia in the northwestern corner of Appanoose County, an 828-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Honey Creek State Park.
Resting alongside the massive Lake Rathbun, the creation of Honey Creek State Park tied in with a desire of the federal government to improve flood control throughout the state following the Flood Control Act of 1954. Additionally, at the state level, officials sought during the 1960s and 1970s to improve access to lake based recreation for Iowans by creating a variety of large, artificial bodies of water. As federal offices mulled overarching plans for the state, Rathbun near Centerville gained traction as a potential damming site on the Chariton River. As early as 1954, some locals opposed the dam, however, plans slowly came together at the local, state, and, federal level. On Tuesday, July 27, 1965, the Chariton Leader reported: “a crowd estimated at 2,500…witnessed the ground-breaking ceremonies Saturday marking the official construction start on the $25 million Rathbun Dam project.” A 101’ tall and two mile long earth-fill embankment dam slowly rose over southern Iowa over the course of the late 1960s.
State and local officials pondered the potential of outdoor recreation on the new body of water which slated to stand as the largest north of the Ozarks upon completion. With 155 miles of shoreline at full-pool, and an 18 mile spread bridging Appanoose, Lucas, Wayne, and Monroe Counties, the body of water spreads over 85 square kilometers of surface area at peak. While the Army Corps of Engineers worked to create six parks for outdoor recreation around the watershed, the state focused on developing the site at Honey Creek.
As the dam neared completion in 1968, the park officially opened for use. Development of amenities waited until 1970. Initial work focused on basic amenities, but in 1972 local papers detailed potential plans for a large lodge-cabin complex project totaling between $3 and $5 million. Eager resort-goers would have to wait, however, for nearly half a century to see Honey Creek Resort State Park become a reality. By 1973, the Chariton Herald-Patriot reported: “Honey Creek State Park offers modern camping facilities, an inviting picnic area and a large, concrete boat launching ramp.” In 1978, the state opened a fish hatchery located at the dam, which focused primarily on raising catfish.
In the 1980s, the state experimented with planting food plots for wildlife in the park, as a part of a broader project to plant 52 acres around the Lake Rathbun area. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s the park grew as a favorite outdoor recreation spot for Iowans. Lake access from boat ramps paired with a large campground, established trails, and year-round opportunities to meet the intended purpose of the park.
In 2000, the decades of hoping for a resort started to come to fruition when Governor Tom Vilsack instructed the Iowa DNR to start planning for as many as eight new state parks. Over the course of eight years featuring fundraising, environmental and economic studies, and careful consideration Honey Creek Resort State Park took shape. Featuring a 105-room lodge, 28 luxury cottages, modern camping an indoor waterpark, a golf course, and a beach, the project built on the success of Honey Creek State Park to vault Rathbun Lake to the top of popular Iowa recreation destinations. Honey Creek Resort State Park added an additional 850-acres of state controlled lands to the 828 at Honey Creek State Park and the 15,888-acre Rathbun Wildlife Management Area.
Today, Honey Creek State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in Southern Iowa. Featuring the largest access point on Rathbun Lake at the park’s north boat ramp, anglers enjoy testing the waters for a variety of fish. Five miles of multi-use trails including the Woodland Interpretive trail offer opportunities to hikers. The interpretation features information on seventeen different groups of Indigenous Iowans, some of which built mounds found within the park. Four rustic cabins, as well as an extensive campground, offer the opportunity for those looking to spend a weekend or longer along the shores of Lake Rathbun.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Honey Creek 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, Honey Creek 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 Honey Creek State Park.