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Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 85

Located just northwest of Cedar Rapids in Linn County, a 1,927-acre state recreation area holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area.


Initial envisioned during the 1960s, Pleasant Creek came out of a desire for the Iowa Conservation Commission to provide a centrally located water recreation facility to serve the I-380 corridor of eastern Iowa. Envisioning a large reservoir attracting traffic from Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and points in between, official set out to find the right location. When the Iowa Electric Light and Power Company expressed the need for a secondary water supply to cool the Duane Arnold Atomic Energy Center located between Palo and Center Point in Linn County, the state struck a deal to locate the artificial lake near the plant. The only atomic energy facility ever built in Iowa started construction during May of 1970, and came online on February 1, 1975. While workers toiled to build the nuclear power plant, construction also got underway at the proposed reservoir site along Pleasant Creek. Although the Cedar River provided the primary waters necessary for cooling the plants reactor, the reservoir at Pleasant Creek offered an alternative source should the river run low during a dry spell.


Pleasant Creek, unique for the public-private partnership between the Iowa Conservation Commission and Iowa Electric Light and Power, also represented another a historic first as the inaugural ‘state recreation area.’ With the power company providing the backing for the land purchase and development of the park’s amenities, the state agreed to a finalized deal during 1973. Land acquisition took place over the following two years, bringing together the funding from Iowa Electric Light and Power as well as matching grants from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. During 1975 the 73’ tall and 2,450’ long earthen dam started to rise over Linn County to the northwest of the newly completed atomic energy plant. Although slowed by dry conditions during 1976, dam work completed during 1977, and soon the 410-acre lake at the site started to fill. Reaching capacity in 1978, the waters found use at the power plant almost immediately while the Cedar Ran low. The only time the power plant ever drew water from the reservoir before decommissioning in 2020, Pleasant Creek soon proved well-utilized for outdoor recreation if not atomic reactor cooling.


Starting in 1978 and running through the 1980s, extensive development helped to make Pleasant Creek one of the most thoughtfully developed recreation areas in Iowa. Stocking helped to provide the 60’ max depth lake with a variety of aquatic life including largemouth bass, channel catfish, tiger muskie, bluegill, and crappie. A variety of fishing jetties provided extensive shoreline access for anglers, while boat ramps provided ease of access for watercrafts. Construction of a beach in 1983 offered a quality option for Iowans hoping to cool off during the state’s summer months. While the Large Lake Initiative of the Iowa Conservation Commission specifically sought to provide water access, a careful development plan also unrolled other amenities at Pleasant Creek. The construction of four pine-log cabins paired with extensive modern camping facilities, and construction of a day-use lodge and picnic shelters offered options for other activities. Eight miles of initial trail construction wound around the lake. By the close of the 1980s the park stood well-developed and grew to popularity with Iowans from throughout the state.

In 1991, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources started an ambitious prairie project at the site. Partnering with the Linn County Roads Department, more than 400-acres of tallgrass and shortgrass prairie restoration took place at the site, creating vital habitat for wildlife. The recreation hot spot soon also gained a well-earned reputation with hunters who took advantage of specific areas set aside for seasonal hunting and dog training. Controversy erupted during 2004 when the DNR proposed restricting dog use at the recreation area as a part of a new ecological management plan meant to protect the endangered Henslow’s sparrow. Although the compromise sought to balance the interests of different groups, the result left many unsatisfied.


Known for water quality, especially when compared with other large bodies of water throughout the state, a 2014 project saw a reservoir draw down to line the shores with rock. Meant to ensure the continued clarity and quality of the water, the project soon reached completion and water levels returned to normal.


Today, Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa.  Four boat ramps and numerous fishing jetties provide excellent access for Iowa’s anglers. Water sports enthusiasts, including windsurfers, paddle boarders, and kayakers frequent the park, as well as scuba divers interested in exploring the reservoir’s depths. Eight miles of multiuse trails provide options for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Three campgrounds with modern facilities pair with seasonal cabins for those hoping to spend the night.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area.


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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