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Pine Lake State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 54

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Pine Lake County Park.

Pre-Illinoian glacial drift cut through the soils and bedrock of early Iowa to create Pine Creek as a tributary to the Iowa River. As centuries passed, old-growth white pines started to grow along the meandering stream, and drew attention from locals. As American settlement advanced into the north central portion of Iowa during the mid-1800s, the area of steep hills surrounding the small proved difficult for farming. Instead, a different fate awaited the Pine Creek Area.

With the formation of the Iowa Conservation Commission and the inauguration of the Iowa state park system around 1920, Hardin County yearned for a state park. Locals hoped the state might construct an artificial lake through damming Pine Creek, and after over 150 individuals and businesses donated nearly $19,000 and 29 acres to the ICC a plan started to take shape. Although the ICC later built many artificial lakes in Iowa, the damming of Pine Creek represented the first artificial lake construction undertaken in the Iowa State Park system when work began in 1922. As workers completed construction on the dam and waters started to pool, Pine Lake State Park started to welcome visitors with an official dedication on September 6, 1926.

One of the first state parks in Iowa, the 1920s saw significant development at Pine Creek. Local limestone provided rock for a beachside concession building, and local musicians thrilled audiences from a bandstand on summer evenings. A waterslide allowed visitors to take a plunge into the state park system’s first artificial lake, and other development flanked the park to provide cottages and a golf course. Although the good times rolled, water quality issues due to siltation plagued the lake.

With the dawn of the New Deal programs of the 1930s including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the second decade of Pine Lake saw significant development. Construction of a second dam to alleviate siltation while creating Upper Pine Lake got underway in 1933, and the CCC planted over 300,000 trees to help check soil erosion on the steep hills flanking the lakeshore. Miles of trails included 10 foot bridges, and construction of a stone shelter overlooking the lake paired with the addition of four cabins near the Iowa River to round out the CCC work at Pine Lake. 1939 the state purchased an additional 11 acres of land directly north of the beach area.

With two decades of amenities done by 1940, Pine Lake quickly entered the annals of Iowa as a favorite state park for many visitors. However, water quality issues continued to demand attention for officials hoping to preserve opportunities at the site. A 1958 project raised the dam on Upper Pine Lake in order to again put a check on siltation in the lower lake. The raised dam also increased the size of Upper Pine Lake, leading the state to undertake further development of a new campground and other amenities. Again locals and visitors alike settled into successful seasons making memories at Pine Lake. Although officials mulled repairs to the dam during the 1970s, the 1978 reclassification of the dams from “high danger potential” to “significant danger potential” proved enough for authorities to shelve the project.

By 1990, water quality again provided a challenge at Pine Lake and led officials to undertake a massive rejuvenation project starting in 1991. A complete draining of lower Pine Lake allowed a complete reconstruction of the dam to take place, and other measures aimed to help improve water quality. Building on the momentum, locals gathered to form the Friends of Pine Lake State Park who helped to raise funds for renovations of the CCC built cabins and the park’s stone entrance portals. A decade later, modernization work remade the CCC-era lodge for the new millennium. Unfortunately, a 2009 hailstorm obliterated the old-growth pine trees at the park, the southernmost extension of the boreal trees in the United States. However, hundreds of seedlings reach skyward in the hopes of one day putting the Pine back in Pine Lake State Park. Water quality still proves a challenge at the park, and as of early summer 2023 water quality concerns at the lake closed the beach to swimming.

Today, Pine Lake State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in north central Iowa. A variety of trails wind through diverse habitats to offer lake views and wildlife sighting opportunities. Current efforts will extend a 10-mile paved loop trail through the park to connect Eldora and Steamboat Rock. Jetties, docks, and shoreline options await eager anglers hoping to test the waters of either Pine Lake or the Iowa River. Cabins and modern campground options pair with the lodge and picnic shelters to offer options for those hoping to visit for the day or spend the night.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Pine Lake 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, Pine Lake 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 Pine Lake 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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