Tucked into Iowa’s extreme southwestern corner at the southern end of the Loess Hills, a stunning 2,058-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Waubonsie State Park.
Located near the southeastern Iowa town of Hamburg in Fremont County, dramatic topography and stunning views draw thousands of visitors to the park each year. Some of the first American visitors to the park, Meriwether Lewis & William Clark, stopped through the area during their 1804 Expedition on July 18 of that year. Today, the park serves as a site on the Lewis & Clark Historic Trail.
The southern anchor of the Loess Hills hold a past predating any American arrival in the area. An important site for several Indigenous peoples, the Potawatomi leader Waubonsie signed an 1833 treaty exchanging homelands in Indiana and Illinois for lands in southwestern Iowa including the parcel making up the modern park. Waubonsie died in the area during 1848, and continued dispossession pushed the Potawatomi further west into Kansas.
Horse thieves also allegedly plied their trade in the park’s boundaries during the pre-park era. Horse Thief Hollow, located at the northern edge of the park garners name from a supposed tendency of early Iowa horse thieves stashing herds in the hollow before blocking the entrance with brush fires to keep the herds in place until sale. Legendary Confederate guerrilla leader William Clark Quantrill. Leading a group featuring famed American outlaws Frank and Jesse James, Quantrill’s raiders allegedly hid out in the park while hunting escaped slaves during the American Civil War.
An early entrant into the Iowa State Parks system, local citizens from Hamburg banded together in 1926 to assist the Iowa State Board of Conservation with a purchase of 200 acres of woodlands and grasslands. The lands, bought from first park superintendent C.E. “Ed” Mincer, entered the state park system in 1930. Named for the Waubonsie, the park started welcoming visitors following a public dedication.
Development of the park accelerated with the arrival of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp stationed at Shenandoah. In addition to contract work with farmers to assist with ditching and soil conservation work, half of the CCC camp eventually found their way to Waubonsie to build the park’s roads, many of the miles of trails still in use today, the unique toadstool-shaped shelters, as well as many other features of the park.
The Works Progress Administration also helped develop the park. First, the WPA provided grant funds to add an additional 640 acres of land to the original tract, and later WPA workers arrived to build footbridges and the park’s entrance portals.
The WPA expansion stands as only the first of many over the decades. The most recent expansion resulted from the annexation of 646-acres formerly held by the Girl Scouts of America as Camp Wa-Shawtee. Adaptive reuse of many of the camp structures helped to facilitate park services, and the staff living quarters transitioned into rental cabins while the nature center became a year-round day use lodge.
Lake Virginia, a seven-acre game fish lake, also joined the park with the Camp Wa-Shawtee annexation. A concrete boat ramp offers opportunities for anglers, kayakers, or paddle sport enthusiasts to launch into the lake’s waters.
An extensive trail system serves shuttles park visitors between scenic vistas and pristine hardwood timber forests. The Sunset Ridge Trail might be the most popular way to survey the heart of the park while surveying stunning prairie ridges with sweeping Missouri River Valley views. An equestrian specific unit in the northern stretches of the park also features an equestrian campground.
Other campers find comfort in the separate non-equestrian campground or the series of cabins throughout the rest of the park. Modern shower and rest room facilities service the main campground.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Waubonsie 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, Waubonsie shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Waubonsie 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.