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Lewis & Clark State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 87

Located near Onawa in Monona County, a 176-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Lewis & Clark State Park.


Named for the far-famed leaders of the Corps of Discovery expedition up the Des Moines River during the early 1800s, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark lingered in the vicinity of the park for several days during August of 1804. Blue Lake, the central feature of the park and referred to as Jacques’ Cut in the journals of the expdition, actually existed as part of the main channel of the Missouri River at the time of Lewis & Clark.


The current park sits alongside Blue Lake, a body of water formed when a flood during the mid-1800s shifted the river further west.


An early entrant into the Iowa State Parks system, the Iowa State Board of Conservation included the Blue Lake site on a listing of potential state park sites in 1919. A popular recreational spot during the early 1900s, the site already boasted amenities like a swimming beach and the adjacent Onawa Country Club prior to the official formation of the state park system in Iowa. However, as the state started to acquire lands at the site the golf course moved to a different location closer to town. Exchanging farmable land in the former lakebed for much of the current parklands, Lewis & Clark covered 286-acres when dedicated during August of 1924. Initial park development focused on simple amenities like picnic grounds and trails. During 1928, local groups came together to provide funding for a new bathhouse to service the popular swimming beach. The Iowa Board of Conservation also funded construction of a lodge. Featuring black chert and Pennsylvanian-age fossiliferous limestone, the Works Progress Administration constructed lodge represents an excellent example of the CCC-architectural style.


During the post-World War II era water quality issues started to plague the park. As common to oxbow lakes along the Missouri, siltation leads to lowering water levels on Blue Lake. When the Missouri angrily rose out of its banks during 1952, over five feet of silt remained in Blue Lake when the waters receeded back to the main channel. In response, officials and engineers came together to devise a dredging and pumping plan. Using a nearby well, the improvements helped to stabilize water levels temporarily. Again in the 1980s, dredging and installation of newer pumps helped to ensure water levels stayed stable within the lake. In the aftermath, the main lake actually shrank leaving a smaller lake for boating. Areas left intentionally undredged during the renovation now exist as marshlands in an adjacent wildlife management area to the west of the main park site.


Also during the 1980s, a group of volunteers came together to construct a historically accurate keelboat representative of one of the watercraft utilized by Lewis & Clark. Patterned after the Corps’ boat Best Friend, the keelboat replica grew to represent a major attraction to the park. Also during the 80s, the park started to host Lewis & Clark Fest. The earliest years of the event featured presentations on the Lewis & Clark Expedition, costumed buckskinners, bluegrass music, and other activities. In 1986, sinage went up in the park to mark the site as part of the national “Lewis and Clark Trail.”


During the early 2000s, a major fundraising effort paired with $100,000 in state funding for the construction of a modern educational and interpretive center at the park. Housing displays related to the expedition, the center features a variety of Lewis & Clark era replica boats. A major renovation project of the Visitors Center and Lodge kicked off in 2023 and will extend into 2024 to help ensure Iowans can continue to enjoy the facilities for years to come.


Today, Lewis & Clark State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in western Iowa.  Each June, the park’s Lewis & Clark Festival brings people together to celebrate the unique history and culture embodied in the site. More than 30-acres of picnic grounds pair with a large modern campground for visitors hoping to enjoy an afternoon or spend the night. Trails offer options to observe wildlife, while fishing proves a popular pursuit with anglers testing the waters of the lake.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Lewis & Clark 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, Lewis & Clark 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 Lewis & Clark 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!


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