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State Park Series - Elk Rock State Park

Located alongside Lake Red Rock between Pella and Knoxville in Marion County, a 997-acre State Park holds natural and historic treasures.

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Elk Rock State Park.

Although Elk Rock joined the Iowa State Park’s system in 1969 with the opening of Iowa’s largest reservoir, archeological evidence proves human inhabitation of the site dating back 5,000 years to the Woodland and Oneota cultures of Iowa. With ties stretching to today’s Ioway people, the park represents a significant site for Indigenous peoples predating American settlement along the Des Moines River. Known from a time immemorial for the famed red stone throughout the area, the site’s significance dates into the deep past.

Located roughly along the Red Rock Line, a treaty-created boundary resultant from the Sauk and Meskwaki agreements with the American government following the Black Hawk War, the area stands out in the earliest histories of Iowa. Famed for the Peace Tree, a 450-500 Sycamore tree which served as a notable landmark and the location of trading post, the area stands out on the earliest American maps of the region.

Settlement followed throughout the Des Moines River Valley over the 1800s and early 1900s, however flooding along the river caused officials to start planning a Flood Control Dam in 1938. By 1960, the Army Corps of Engineers started work on a massive dam featuring passenger van-sized submerged baffles in the stilling basin, fourteen hydraulic 5’ x 9’ sluice gates, and five massive 41’ x 45’ tainter gates. Initially costing $88 million, the dam took eight years to build and flooded out several towns and historically important landmarks including the site of the Peace Tree.

The dam holds back the massive Lake Red Rock reservoir which collects drainage from a 12,320 square-mile area in Iowa and Minnesota. The dam serves as a major check on the flooding potential of the Des Moines River, boasts a flood control pool measuring over 33 miles long, and covers 65,500 acres. The towns of Red Rock, Fifield, Cordova, Dunreath, Coalport, and Rousseau all sleep beneath the waters of the modern reservoir.

Each of the now submerged towns suffered from catastrophic flooding from at least 1851 onward, and the desire of the state to attempt to control the river ultimately led to the dam project which spelled their demise. Aside from Red Rock finding representation in the name of the reservoir, Fifield and Cordova serve as namesakes for specific recreation areas surrounding the lake.

Elk Rock sits on the south shore of the reservoir, and represents just part of a much larger public lands complex featuring property managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Marion County Conservation Board, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Development of facilities at Elk Rock started after the reservoir filled in 1969, however, officials uncertainty about high water levels slowed initial development of the park.

In 1973 the first picnic shelter in the park opened to the public, and many other improvements followed. Over time steady development led to the construction of two campgrounds, a three-land boat ramp, modern restrooms, trails, and a variety of habitat development. Since the 1970s, scientists have recorded over 200 distinct species of birds, 43 species of fish, and 35 different mammalian species in the area. Additionally, 54 species of trees and 62 species of wildflowers can be found in the public lands surrounding the reservoir.

During the late-1980s and early 1990s the park made a list of parks targeted for reduced funding by the Iowa DNR. The Pella Chronicle from February 17, 1989 alerted readers: “Our state park, Elk Rock State Park, is one of the parks significantly affected by the proposed plan,” before going on to detail the state’s desire to transfer large portions of lands to county or federal status. As a result, an area formerly known as North Elk Rock State Park, across what locals call “the mile-long bridge” ended up under the jurisdiction of Marion County and left the state system and became Cordova Park.

Today, Elk Rock State Park offers a 13-mile multi-use trail system radiating out from a large equestrian campground. A separate modern campground welcomes other outdoor enthusiasts hoping to enjoy the Red Rock area. Two separate boat ramps provide easy access to the reservoir, and anglers enjoying testing the waters to catch a variety of fish. A variety of picnic shelters and areas allow tired hikers or riders great opportunities to soak in Iowa’s natural beauty.

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