top of page

Shimek State Forest - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 69

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Shimek State Forest.

Consisting of the 2,886-acre Lick Creek Unit, the 2,207-acre Farmington Unit, the 1,330-acre Donnellson Unit, the 2,087 Croton Unit, and the 958-acre Keosauqua Unit, the Shimek State Forest spreads through Lee and Van Buren county in the Des Moines River Valley. An area which saw some of Iowa’s earliest American settlement, Indigenous peoples including the Ioway (Báxoje), Sauk, and Meskwaki lived along the Des Moines prior to dispossession by the United States. When settlement arrived in Iowa following the Black Hawk War and subsequent purchase during the early 1830s, Van Buren County quickly populated. Excitement over the potential of farming along the Des Moines River fueled development, and the landscape quickly converted to agriculture. Much of land proved prohibitive for successful farming due to poor soil profiles, and by the dawn of the Iowa Public Lands era of the 1920s and 1930s, officials started considering other plans for the southern Iowa Drift Plain.

In 1934, the Iowa General Assembly allotted $1,000,000 for the purchase of 12,000 acres of marginal lands unsuitable for farming in southeastern and northeastern Iowa. The first state purchases occurred in 1936 with the acquisition of tax delinquent lands. Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service bought 6,400 acres as a part of a plan aimed at creating what officials dubbed the Hawkeye National Forest. The proposal planned a forest including over 800,000 of acres of lands stretching across 13 counties. In 1935, the state planning board considered a broader proposal which would have expanded the Hawkeye State Forest to a mix of state and federal public lands covering 900,000 acres in 24 Iowa counties. However, as agricultural land prices started to recover from historic Great Depression lows and the onset of World War II demanded federal attention the plan quietly fell apart before coming to fruition. A portion of the lands initially acquired for the ambitious plan found their way into today’s Shimek State Forest during 1960, while more westerly portions also entered the Iowa public lands system as a part of the Stephens State Forest.

The Iowa Conservation Commission initially dubbed the first units of the holdings the Lee and Van Buren State Forest before briefly renaming the site the Farmington State Forest. In 1950, the state officially dedicated the forest in honor of far-famed University of Iowa botanist Bohumil Shimek. A professor of botany and the director of Iowa’s Lakeside Laboratory, Shimek extensively cataloged the flora of Iowa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The body of knowledge created and cataloged by Shimek helped to start the Iowa conservation movement, and his scientific work stills provides the foundation of understanding about Iowa’s natural landscapes.

The largest development of the forest occurred with the aid of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the late-1930s. The CCC arrived on site and planted pines and native hardwoods over the marginalized lands. Even after the CCC era ended, state workers continued the task of planting and maintaining the massive forest.

During the post-war era, Iowans eager for recreation advocated for state development of improved access and recreational opportunities at the site. During the 1956 an inmate labor program provided a labor source, and development at Shimek focused on the construction of roads, trail work, and the construction on limited recreational facilities. The workers constructed campgrounds, and in 1982 the state formalized the camping guidelines throughout the forest to better align with other areas throughout the state.

As the forest matured, forestry education started to provide a major focus of the state at Shimek. Programming started in 1960 as a joint effort of the forestry industry, the Iowa Conservation Commission, and other interests. During the year, the additional of previously held federal lands added to Shimek allowed the forest to become Iowa’s largest as the footprint officially eclipsed northeastern Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest.

During the winter of 1965-1966 the state sought to reintroduce wild turkeys to Iowa with a plan centered on the southern Iowa state forest parcels. The state released 3 toms and 8 hens captured in Missouri, and the birds successfully reestablished to form communities as large as 50 birds by the early 1970s. In the mid-1980s, calls for a revitalization of the previously abandoned “Hawkeye National Forest” plan reverberated, but the plan again faded into obscurity without meaningful action. Despite the plans failure, the state forest continued to grow and provide a backdrop for recreation and education throughout the late 20th century.

Today, the Shimek State Forest offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in southeastern Iowa. Nearly 60 miles of trails welcome hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrian enthusiasts throughout the forest’s various units. Four small lakes provide opportunities for Iowa anglers eager to test the waters for a variety of fish species. Hunters enjoy traversing the forest in search of deer, turkey, and other small game. Four campgrounds welcome visitors hoping to spend the night.

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

Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Shimek State Forest.

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!


bottom of page