Updated: Sep 28
Located near Council Bluffs in Pottawattamie County, a 1,529-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Lake Manawa State Park.
Centered around an oxbow lake of the Missouri River likely formed during the flood of 1881, locals initially called the body of water “Cutoff Lake.” By the close of the 1800s, the lake proved a popular location for recreation for residents of nearby Council Bluffs and Omaha. At some point the lake came to be known as Manawa, a word which closely resembles an Ojibwe word meaning ‘again, more, or anew.’
The popularity of the location quickly led to development, and soon the site was known as ‘The Coney Island of the Midwest.’ The lake’s Manhattan Beach featured a resort, and a two-story Dance Hall called the Kursaal welcomed Iowans hoping to dance the night away. While children slid into the lake on a massive tobaggon slide and gamblers tested their luck at a Ben Marks owned casino, electric streetcars connected the lake to visitors from greater Omaha and beyond.
The good times didn’t last, and after a 1913 tornado ripped through the lake and a collapse of a portion of the dance hall into the lake, the early heyday of Lake Manawa started to come to a close. The prohibition of alcohol and a 1926 fire at the resort helped to speed along the decline of Lake Manawa. Nearly annual flooding of the nearby Missouri River also led to additional problems with lake depth and water quality.
As early as 1919, the Iowa Conservation Commission eyed the lands surrounding Lake Manawa as a potential state park, and during the 1930s Iowa officially brought the lands into the state park system. In 1934, the lake’s depth stood at only 4’ due to silt deposited by flooding, and one of the state’s first projects focused on dike construction and dredging. The spoil from the dredging provided the basis for the lake’s peninsula. Later in the decade workers put in a pump to additionally fortify the lake’s depth through pumping in water from the Missouri River and nearby Misquito Creek. Initial work focused on establishing trails, restoring the beach, and creating picnicking facilities.
Over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, Lake Manawa again grew to represent one of the most popular recreation sites in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area. By the 1960s, officials recognized the need to improve facilities, and a project kicked off in 1966 to provide better day-use facilities and a supervised beach facility. While the amenities surrounding the lake improved, lake-depth again proved an issue. Starting in 1983, a $2.5 million provided dredging for the lake and construction of levees surrounding the 660-acre lake.
During the 1990s a unique project came to fruition as the Dream Playground. Local elementary school students submitted ideas for the playground, and volunteer labor helped their dreams become reality. The playground opened in 1993. For over twenty years children enjoyed the popular playground before a 2015 committee formed to update the playground with a new generation of dreams contributing to updates. In 2018, workers finished updating one of Iowa’s most uniquely designed playgrounds which features over 18,000 square feet of ADA accessible surface.
Today, Lake Manawa State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in central Iowa. Eight miles of unpaved trails paired with a variety of paved options which link into the Wabash Trace Trail connecting nearby Council Bluffs. A newly constructed campground offers lakeside opportunities for those hoping to spend the night. Three boat ramps pair with pier and shorelines access for those hoping to test the waters for a variety of fish species. The well-developed beach facility pairs with quality picnicking options for those hoping to pass an enjoyable afternoon. The Dream Playground still welcomes children of all ages to Iowa’s largest ADA accessible playground.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Lake Manawa 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, Lake Manawa 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 Lake Manawa State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!