Located along the Dragoon Trail between Boone and Madrid not far from where Kate Shelley crossed the high bridge on the Des Moines River, a 1,117 acre state park in Boone County holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Ledges State Park.
With a past stretching well into the distant past, the 75’ tall, Pennsylvanian Period, Floris Formation sandstone ledges along Pea’s Creek and Davis Creek provide a window into Iowa’s geologic past. The creeks meet in the park’s central canyon to mingle as they make their way to the Des Moines. Between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago the waters of Pea’s creek started shaping the sandstone familiar to visitors today.
In the southern portion of the park, Sentinel Rock stands over Iowa’s largest internal river and offers a glimpse into the area’s pre-American past. The Sentinel Rock site, a name harkening back to when Iowa’s Indigenous peoples including the Dakota, Sauk, and Meskwaki would use the lookout while using the current park grounds as ceremonial site. As dispossession pushed Iowa’s Indigenous peoples out of the area, the Ledges continued to draw visitors during the earliest era of American settlement.
Pea’s Creek, named for one of Boone County’s first American settlers John Pea, enters the park from the northeast, while Davis Creek flows south from the northern boundary of Ledges. Naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts enjoyed the central canyon area well before the state park era of Iowa dawned in the early 1900s. When the state started considering sites for potential state parks, Ledges emerged as a clear candidate early in the process. Local residents banded together to raise and donate funds to make the initial purchase of 644 acres in 1921, and with the land in hand the state officially dedicated Ledges State Park on November 9, 1924.
Development of roads, picnic grounds, and a camping area soon followed, as well as several rough-log construction buildings. The state named Fritz Henning as the park’s first caretaker. In addition to his duties overseeing initial construction and maintenance, Henning built a deer enclosure which eventually contributed to the reestablishment of deer in the central portion of the state following extirpation during the late-1800s. Henning also attempted to reestablish wild turkeys at the site in 1925. Eventually, Henning also constructed other enclosures for small fur-bearing animals, creating a popular zoo-like attraction at the site. In addition to Henning, who finds remembrance in a shelter named in his honor, the park also celebrates the work of the first Director of the Iowa Conservation Commission, Murray Lee Hutton, with a memorial on the north side of the canyon.
Like at many other state parks in Iowa, the Civilian Conservation Corps significantly contributed to the development of Ledges during the New Deal Era. Extensive work on hiking trails including the laying of stone for steps in many steep parts of the park, bridge construction, and work on a shelter-concession building.
One of Iowa’s best loved and most visited parks, the story of Ledges truly illuminates the role Iowans have historically played in the preservation of public lands. In addition to raising the funds for the initial land purchase, citizens successfully protected the site from inundation when the Flood Control Act of 1939 started assessing potential dam sites along the Des Moines River. Public outcry helped protect Ledges from an initial proposal for a hydroelectric dam threatened to submerge roughly 150 acres of the park, and the efforts of the Iowa Citizens’ Alliance to Save Ledges State Park helped to alter plans with an eye on limiting flooding impacts resultant from the damming project downstream. However, following the construction of the Saylorville Dam in 1977, more frequent flooding at the site continues to occur. In 1983, the Ames Tribune reported the park would reopen once workers completed roadwork necessitated by early summer flooding during that year. Also during the 1980s, a major maintenance project poured in over $1,000,000 in funds to ensure the park remained as one of Iowa’s premier state parks.
By the 1990s, the consistently rising waters of the Des Moines forced the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to take make several notable changes, most significantly the move of the CCC-built stone shelter-concession building to higher ground.
Today, Ledges State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in central Iowa. One of the most popular parks, many visitors enjoy splashing along the roadways beneath the sandstone ledges. Hikers find a quality challenge in the 4.5 miles of steep grade trails surrounding the central canyon or around Lost Lake near Sentinel Rock in the southwestern portion of the park. A notable site for observing biodiversity, nearly 600 species of native vascular plants call the woodlands, wetlands, prairies, streams, and bottomlands in the park home. An interpretive trail above the canyon offers insights on the rare lichens living in the park. A boat ramp offers access to the Des Moines, and modern camping facilities welcome visitors to spend a weekend or longer exploring the ledges.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Ledges 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, Ledges 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 Ledges State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!