Located just northeast of Fayette in Fayette County, a 5700-acre State Recreation Area holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa, as we explore Volga River State Recreation Area.
The initial 5,324 acres of the recreation area came together during the late 1960s. However, major plans for improvements didn’t come together until the following decade. The initial lands incorporated the rugged topography of the ‘Little Switzerland’ landscape surrounding the Volga River, while also incorporating the Big Rock Wildlife Management Area.
In 1967, the State of Iowa started the large lakes initiative with a stated goal of creating more water-related outdoor recreation opportunities for Iowans, especially around urban centers. Although Fayette, the only town in the United States with a college but no high school, doesn’t necessarily strike many as urban, the Iowa Conservation Commission selected the Volga River as one of three initial sites for the project.
Geologists had other plans, and concerns related to the porousness of underlying bedrock on the Volga forced plans for a nearly 1,700 acre lake on the river to change. Focused instead on damming Frog Hollow Creek, a tributary to the Volga, officials settled on a much smaller reservoir. Still concerned about the ability of the areas soils and bedrock to hold water, the project including coating the bottom with a layer of clay. Although many pushed to call the lake ‘Lake Eisenhower,” officials eventually stuck with Frog Hollow Lake.
Building on momentum created by the completed construction of the 135-acre Frog Hollow Lake in 1979, a series of public meetings culminated in the unveiling of a master plan for a massive new recreation area just northeast of Fayette on October 1, 1979.
Designed to “maintain and enhance a highly diverse ecological mix of forest, savanna, grassland, marsh, pond and other natural environments,” the plan also called for picnic grounds, shelters, a modern campground, primitive camping areas, and a laundry list of other amenities.
A unique aspect of the plans for the massive recreation area focused on the inclusion of an ecosystem management plan involving local farmers leasing lands to produce food and ground cover directed at specific wildlife populations. An initial soil suitability survey focused on determining the potential of the area’s landscapes for agriculture before setting aside a few hundred acres to participate in the project. Dividing areas into primary, secondary, poor, and unsuited statuses helped to enhance plans for habitat maintenance and rehabilitation throughout the park.
Starting with three-year leases to local farmers, conservation officials developed specific programs focused on crop rotations between corn, oats, and hay. Developers of the program paid special attention to soil conservation practices, and requirements on farmers dictated 10% of all crops must be left in fields as food for wildlife populations.
In primarily forested areas initial development focused on areas adjacent to developing trails, with a special emphasis on leaving much of the forested lands undisturbed. 75% of the site stood forested prior to settlement impacts according to studies, and large areas of pre-settlement forests still resided on the steep slopes of the recreation area prior to public lands status.
Prairies and savannahs, located throughout the Frog Hollow Creek and Volga River valley areas, largely fell to the plow in the pre-Public Lands era, and efforts to reestablish those specific habitat types continue to develop in the recreation area.
Today, Volga River Recreation Area offers visitors a wide-variety of amenities. Bluegill, crappie, largemouth bass, and channel catfish await eager anglers at Frog Hollow Lake, and a three-lane boat ramp, a floating fishing pier, and a jetties provide accessibility. Canoeing and kayaking prove popular pastimes throughout the park, either on the lake or on the Volga River itself.
Over 22 miles of hiking trails wind through diverse habitat, and seasonal hunting offers opportunities for a variety of hunters throughout the year. Modern, primitive, and equestrian campgrounds invite visitors to spend a weekend or longer taking in all the recreation area has to offer.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Volga River State Recreation Area. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Volga River State Recreation Area shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
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