Located on one of the highest bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River just south of McGregor in Clayton County, a 970-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Pikes Peak State Park.
Harkening back to Iowa’s deep past, Pikes Peak offers a glimpse into the geological and human past of the Mississippi River Valley. Bluffs within the park showcase Ordovician period dolomitic limestone, sandstone, and shale, as well as quality representations of the Oneota, Shakopee, Saint Peter, Platteville, Decorah, and Dunleith formations. Native plants including red oak, white oak, and sugar maple provide a picture of plant life in Iowa’s past and present.
For at least 13,000 years humans have enjoyed the heights above the Mississippi, and Wooldand Era effigy mounds dating back as far as 800 BC grace the central and southern portions of the park. The first Frenchmen to visit the area, Marquette and Joliet, noted “a large chain of very high mountains” as they passed headed south during June of 1673. The seat of European power in the region across the river at Prairie du Chien illustrates shifting global dynamics as lands passed through the hands of the areas Indigenous peoples, the French, and the English before officially coming under American control with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. As Lewis & Clark headed west, Zebulon Pike, the park’s namesake, headed north from St. Louis to find the headwaters of the Mississippi, scout for military fort locations, and meet the areas Indigenous peoples. In Pike’s report upon return he noted the location now named for him as an ideal place for a military fort. Although the American military did not take his advice, the area still stands out for the dominating view of the river valley which drew Pike’s praise.
The next ‘almost’ occurred in the history of Pike’s Peak when the federal government considered the site for National Park Status starting in 1916. Enthusiastic local descendants of nearby town founder Alexander McGregor donated lands to the cause in 1928, and the Northeast Iowa National Park Fund drew contributions from area civic clubs to help speed things along. However, the NPS eventually passed on the site and turned the lands over to the state of Iowa. As early as 1925, the Iowa Conservation Commission mulled taking on the sites and eventually agreed to take control a decade later in 1935. The Northeast Iowa National Park Fund did purchase some lands in 1933 which eventually found their way into the NPS system, north of Pike’s Peak at the popular Effigy Mounds National Monument Site. The state subdivide the lands to found two state parks in 1935: Point Ann and Pikes Peak. Often paired with the McGregor Heights areas just to the north in early state brochures for the state parks, private land separated Point Ann and Pike’s Peak during the early era of state control. In the late 1960s, the state acquired the dividing lands and unified the parks to create the Pike’s Peak State Park familiar to visitors today.
Early development of the parks followed during the 1930s with the construction of roads to provide access to Point Ann and Pikes Peak. Civilian Conservation Corps workers provided the labor while stationed in the Tourist Park in McGregor below Point Ann. In 1936, Margo Frankel and several other representatives of the Iowa Conservation Commission surveyed the parks and started plans for a modern shelter and concession stand, additional trail work, and other developments for the parks.
As the CCC departed and the park’s development slowed, newspaper accounts from the 1940s and 1950s abound with reports of enthusiastic campers enjoying the woods, hopeful couples drinking from the waters of Bridal Falls for good luck, and other enjoyable outings to one of Iowa’s most beloved state parks. The 1960s saw the completion of the first major improvement project at the park in decades, mainly focusing on improving camping opportunities at the site and acquiring the lands to link Point Ann and Pikes Peak. Small improvements continued across the close of the 20th century and early 21st century to continue to maintain and improve the park, including the development of equal access facilities at the scenic overlook at Pike’s Peak and in the boardwalk trail past the Bear Mound and on to the beauty of Bridal Falls.
Today, Pikes Peak State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northeastern Iowa. The equal opportunity access at the peak near the historic concession-shelter. 63 identified Woodland-era mounds grace the park, and over 11 miles of hiking trails will wear out even the most enthusiastic visitors. Recently updated camping pairs with picnic shelters and other modern amenities to allow visitors the opportunity to enjoy the park for an afternoon or longer. The hummingbird feeders near the shelter provide a glimpse at the incredible bird and wildlife watching available throughout the site.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Pikes Peak 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, Pike’s Peak 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 Pikes Peak State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!