Located a little ways south of Dubuque on the Great River Road in at Bellevue in Jackson County, a 788-acre State Park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Bellevue State Park.
The Might Mississippi River flanks the eastern border of Iowa, and from a time immemorial people have been intrigued by the sites and scenery along America’s largest river. The Silurian age dolomite bluff projects over 250 feet above the river below, and evidence of Iowa’s Indigenous peoples abound in Woodland Era mounds in the park. Elgin Member Maquoketa Formation shale also abound throughout the park. Local history holds the namesake of the Maquoketa River, an Indigenous woman of the same name, rests in one of the park’s mounds.
In 1835, over a decade before Iowa’s statehood, American settler John D. Bell established the town of Bellevue along the river. Just to the south of the town stood a massive bluff, and local people designated the area as a park in 1908. During the 1800s time-period prior a quarry and lime-kiln operation took part in the northern portion of the park, as well as a mill-site known locally as Potter’s Mill dating to 1843.
With the passage of the 1917 Park Act, locals eyed placing the park in state-level public lands status and started to sell parcels to the Iowa Conservation Commission in 1925. One of the earliest state parks in the system, the original parklands consisted of today’s Nelson Unit just south of Bellevue. Featuring a rugged topography and diverse habitat including bottomlands forest and prairie restoration, the park offers opportunities to observe a variety of flora and fauna.
On May 21, 1926, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported ten convicts on lease from the Anamosa State Penitentiary working under the supervision of a guard named Effeld to construct a road from the top of the north unit bluff down to the preexisting stone quarry below. During the late 1920s, the state constructed a fishery at the park to be used as a location for releasing fish from overpopulated lakes and ponds into the Mississippi.
The imprisoned workers found a great deal of work during the early era for the park, and constructed a peeled-log lodge characteristic of the pre-Civilian Conservation Corps era state park development of Iowa’s parks. Additionally, the men built picnic shelters and a nine-hole golf course. With development largely completed in the 1920s, Bellevue stands alongside Wapsipinicon State Park as a prime modern-example of the earliest era of state park development in Iowa.
The 1960s saw the park move closer to its current size with the addition of the Dyas Unit roughly two-miles to the south. Bough from local landowner Wilbur Dyas, the expansion allowed for the creation of campground and other amenities not included in the more northerly Nelson Unit. During the time-period, local Presbyterian Minister Lawrence Nelson served on the Iowa Conservation Commission and helped in the park’s expansion.
The 1970s saw the destruction of the peeled-log lodge by fire, as well the expansion of the Nelson Unit to provide better access for public hunting. The late 20th century also saw the construction on a new lodge, reminiscent of the previous structure but constructed on Western Red Cedar. Additionally, the park phased out the golf course during the early 1980s, converting the former clubhouse to a nature center.
The former fairways offered a unique opportunity to create a bluff-top prairie reconstruction, and local volunteers created an incredible and handicap accessible 1-acre butterfly garden. Judy Pooler led efforts to create the largest butterfly garden in the Midwest starting in the mid-1980s, and over 100 different volunteers helped annually to help make a home for 53 species of butterflies recorded during the garden’s first years.
Today, Bellevue State Park offers a variety of amenities between the Dyas and Nelson units. Both offer great opportunities to view the Mississippi. The Nelson Unit overlooks the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge, as well as Mississippi River Lock & Dam #12. The South Bluff Nature Center, The Butterfly Garden, a variety of lodges and picnic shelters, as well as the Dyas Unit Campground. Several miles of trails provide diverse habitat viewing opportunities, and public hunting is allowed in the western edge of the Nelson Unit.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Bellevue 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, Bellevue 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 Bellevue State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!