State Park Series - Big Creek


Tucked alongside the Saylorville Reservoir just north of Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines, a beautiful 3550-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa, as we explore Big Creek State Park

Known for the 866-acre lake, large spillway, and the largest beach in the Iowa State Park system, Big Creek welcomes thousands of visitors each year.


Although advocates suggested a dam north of Des Moines initially in 1939, not until frequent floods along the Des Moines River during the 1940s and 1950s did the Federal Government conduct a study with the intention of building a series of dams to provide flood control along Iowa’s largest internal river. Authorized in 1958, the Army Corps of Engineers started construction on the nearly 7,000 foot long and 105 foot tall dam located just over 200 miles from where the Des Moines empties into the Mississippi.


After the dam went into operation during 1977, a nearly 6000 acre reservoir filled in upstream. The project also includes 20,000 additional acres of woodlands, prairie, and other habitat managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The 26 mile Neal Smith Trail winds from downtown Des Moines through Saylorville, and out to Big Creek, offering a handy route through central Iowa if you happen to find yourself walking across Iowa.


During development of the area, the Iowa Conservation Commission partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers to create the adjacent Big Creek State Park during 1972. An extension of a larger Iowa Conservation Commission initiative to build more artificial lakes near urban centers in order to promote recreation, the legislature set aside $1 million for land acquisition along Big Creek. Building the dam and spill way on Big Creek to protect nearby Polk City from flooding, the nearly 900 acre reservoir filled in to create the principal body of water within the park.


The legislature also approved a whimsical recreation center for Central Iowa called Hawkeye Naturama. With plans to feature activities including water skilling, fishing hiking, and field sports, and a Hall of Prehistoric Animals. Portrayed as a “Disneyland like concept” by critics, the Naturama faded out of plans by 1972 although many of the promised recreational opportunities still await visitors to Big Creek.


Today, the park offers access for recreational and fishing boats at five docks spread throughout the park. The lake, stocked with crappie, bluegill, largemouth bass, walleye, channel catfish and muskie, offers a variety of opportunities for fishing enthusiasts to test the waters. Many ground-bound fishermen also test their luck at one of the fishing jetties or beneath the spill way. The park also welcomes kayakers, paddle boarders, and bikers through rentals offered seasonally at the beach concessionaire.


Twenty-two different shelters grace the park, as well as a sports field, large wooden playground, an eighteen-hole disc golf course, and even an area for remote control pilots. A wildlife refuge with prohibited hunting, a variety of birds and other Iowa animals call the park home. The final three mile stretch of the longer Neal Smith Trail also welcome hikers and cyclists, and the large beach provides the opportunity to cool down during Iowa’s hot summer months.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Big Creek 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, Pilot Knob shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Big Creek State Park.


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