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State Park Series - Pilot Knob

Come along with Notes on Iowa, as we explore Pilot Knob State Park

Known for the 30-foot tall stone tower located atop the geographical land feature known as Pilot Mound some three hundred feet above the Winnebago River, the park also features a floating sphagnum bog known as Dead Man’s Lake.

The final retreating Wisconsin stage glacier halted, allowing sediment to build up and form the large hill on which the park rests. A significant site for Iowa’s Indigenous people, as well as early American settlers who used the site as a guide post on travels west, Pilot Knob’s history stretches into the distant past. Unsuitable for farming given the steep slopes and bodies of water, Pilot Knob represented a great opportunity for preservation.

In August of 1920, citizens from surrounding towns of Forest City, Fertile, and Garner came together to hold a public meeting to discuss the potential of purchasing the lands to form a state park. 162 local people bought into the project, individually paying $70 per acre and donating the land to the State of Iowa. In 1921, the state approved the land purchase and subsequently dedicated the park on September 11, 1924. Henry Taylor served as the first park custodian.

Development proved slow over the first decade as Iowa found itself in the grips of the Great Depression. However, during March of 1934 the Forest City Summit notified citizens a 210 man Civilian Conservation Corps camp would arrive for summer work. The CCC 1757 completed work on Dolliver Memorial State Park near Fort Dodge before heading to Forest City on April 19, 1934.

Camping in tents in the area along the Winnebago River today known as Forest City’s Pammel Park, by the end of April newspaper accounts reported plans for improvements at Pilot Knob. Work got underway to construct a planned 40’ tall stone tower at the park’s highest point, although the final structure only measures 30’ due to winter arriving before workers could complete the structure.

George R. Morgan, camp superintendent, oversaw construction of over a mile of trail during the first week of work alone. The winding trail around Dead Man’s lake finished first, allowing visitors to view the unique floating sphagnum bog. Visitors and scientists still marvel at the five-foot deep, eight acre lake composed of living and dead plants in the southwest corner of the park.

Many rare plants including four species of sphagnum, and one species of pond lily found nowhere else in Iowa, as well uncommon invertebrates occupy the lake. In 1954, botanists R.F. Throne and M.L. Grant first recognized the unique attributes of the lake. In 1968, the state designated the portion of the park surrounding the lake as a State Preserve in order to preserve the significant natural features of the area.

A long list of construction projects awaited the CCC in addition to the tower and trail work. In a report dated April 26, 1934, the list included: “a half mile of wagon road, several miles of foot trails, a shelter house, two vault type toilets, two incinerators, the repair of the barn, two entrance gates…a lookout shelter, the construction of an outdoor amphitheater, planting of trees and shrubs, two foot bridges, lake bank improvement, construction of guard rails, landscaping and plant disease control.” Many of the projects, including the 1,000 seat amphitheater, still grace the park.

The CCC also cleared away diseased trees, cutting 250 during the first weeks of operation. Today, at least twenty-five species of trees stand in the Park. Forest and prairie wildflowers also abound in the park. Fisherman have no luck in Dead Man’s lake, but an adjacent four-acre lake, as well as another 15-acre lake offer anglers opportunities to catch bass, northern pike, and bluegill. Turkeys, reintroducted to the area in 1979, abound in the park, as well as other wildlife. Additionally, a herd of goats help maintain the park by managing the spread of buckthorn and honeysuckle.

11 distinct trails offer roughly 9 miles to hiking or equestrian enthusiasts, and an eighty-site year-round campground offers the chance to escape into North Iowa’s crown jewel. During the winter months, visitors enjoy opportunities to ice skate, sled, and cross-country ski throughout the park.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Pilot Knob 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 Pilot Knob State Park.

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