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State Park Series - Wapsipinicon State Park

Nestled alongside the Wapsipinicon River in Anamosa, a diverse and intriguing 394-acre State Park holds natural and historic treasures.

Come along with Notes on Iowa, as we explore Wapsipinicon State Park.

Featuring stunning formations of Silurian age Dolomite lining both the Wapsipinicon River and Dutch Creek, Wapsipinicon state park offers an incredible array of sights and activities. Varieties of mosses, lichens, liverworts, and ferns complement old growth deciduous forests indigenous to the region. Managed forest and prairie plantings also shape the natural landscape at Wapsipinicon.

Following the introduction of the State Park System in 1920 with the founding of Backbone State Park, the Iowa Conservation Commission continued to assess other potential locations throughout the state. Eyeing the Wapsipinicon River in Jones County, local efforts started with a February 1921 public meeting seeking to raise funds to support the project helped make the founding of the park a reality.

In the weeks after the initial meeting, local citizens raised over $20,000 of the $22,936 necessary to purchase the tract of land on the southern edge of Anamosa from Asa W. Smith. With the 183 acres secured, the citizens handed the land over to the State of Iowa, making Wapsipinicon one of the first ‘gift’ state parks.

Local banker Clifford Niles proved pivotal in the creation and development of the park during the 1920s. A member of the Iowa State Board of Conservation from 1923 to 1927, Niles helped to guide a significant amount of development during the park’s first decade. Utilizing prison labor from the nearby Anamosa State Penitentiary, the park quickly came to life.

Adding to the deciduous forests already present along the Wapsi and Dutch Creek, the inmates also planted the oldest white pine planting in the state on lands formerly put into agricultural production. The steep topography which made the lands poor for farming allowed for the development of significant amenities throughout the park tied together with an extensive network of roads.

Picnic areas, a campground, and a nine-hold golf course situated on the bluffs above the Wapsi quickly remade opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts during the early 1920s. Additionally, a peeled-log community building representative of the 1920s era of state park development welcomed visitors for various social engagements.

Prisoners also used locally sourced stone and timber to construct the entrance piers to the park, as well as two stone arch bridges over Dutch Creek. Additionally, an ‘Upside Down Bridge’ familiar to visitors to other Iowa State Parks like Ledges offered opportunities for children to play in the creek and wait for the thrill of a splash from a passing car. The combination of 1920s developments serve as a unique representation of the pre-Great Depression Iowa State Park system and joined the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District in 2014.

Crews also worked to remake the landscape in ways aside from created amenities. Blasting throughout the park helped to pave the way for road and trail development, and proved a popular attraction for interested audiences. On one such day in 1923 with a bevy of local school children in attendance, blasting crews uncovered at least nine human skeletons at Horse Thief Cave. Dated the Archaic period roughly 4,000 years ago, the site also contained a variety of pottery and other artifacts.

Horse Thief Cave, named for the alleged tendency of early frontier-era bandits hiding out in the location, continues to draw visitors in droves to the park today. Additionally on the same rock face, the smaller Ice Cave, also draws the curious and brave hoping to scramble into the earth under Jones County.

Bridges, perhaps most notably the Hale three-span bowstring truss pedestrian bridge, also grace the park. Designed by the King Bridge Company, the distinctive bowstring trusses of the bridge originally reached across the Wapsi in 1879. The 296’ bridge almost met its end in the early 2000s before Rose Rohr and the Jones County Historic Preservation Commission stepped in to save the structure. First lifting the trusses off the piers with cabling and moving them to a local form for rehabilitation work. Later, as the project gained support throughout the state, the Iowa National Guard stepped in to provide Chinook helicopters to reset the bridge. Today, visitors to the park can utilize the 15’ wide pedestrian bridge to venture out over the Wapsi.

Hikers also enjoy the 3.5 miles of multi-use trails spread throughout the park, while two boat ramps provide those hoping to snag a big catch access to the Wapsipinicon River. Fishers on the Wapsi often find luck angling for channel catfish, flathead catfish, bullheads, crappies, northern pike, largemouth bass, and walleyes.

Other modern amenities, including a campground, golf course, shelters, playgrounds, and other amenities also await visitors to Wapsipinicon State Park.

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

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