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Swan Lake State Park - Notes on Iowa State Parks Series, Episode 73

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Swan Lake State Park.

The glacial drag of the Des Moines Lobe in the deep-past left behind a series of wetlands throughout north and central Iowa. Swan Lake represents one of the wetlands left behind in the Middle Raccoon River watershed. During the early era of Iowa State Park Development, Senator Jack Chrystal worked with the Carroll Chamber of Commerce to secure funding from the Iowa Legislature. With funds secured in 1933, the state started buying up wetlands south of Carroll.

During the mid- 1930s, several New Deal era federal relief programs helped to develop the Swan Lake site. Construction of a dam allowed for the formation of a shallow lake, while tree planting, road work, and other efforts created initial park amenities. With popular picnicking grounds and a variety of trails, the park grew as a favorite of people throughout west-central Iowa.

Although the park proved popular, the state struggled to keep up with maintenance as tight budgets and an abundance of parks statewide provided a tall-task for the Iowa Conservation Commission by the early 1950s. In 1953, the state transferred management of Swan Lake to the Carroll County Wildlife Conservation League. One of the first state parks transferred to local management, the agreement predates the 1955 Iowa law which allowed for the creation of county conservation boards and the utilization of tax funding for maintenance of parklands. When Carroll County put together their first county conservation board in 1958, the group officially overtook responsibilities for Swan Lake State Park.

Across the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new era of development bloomed alongside the shores of Swan Lake. Installation of a sand beach, construction of an enclosed shelter house, and improvements to modernize camping facilities all quickly followed. Carroll County Conservation also worked with the state to create new development by using state funds to add an adjacent farm to the park. During 1967, the Carroll Junior Chamber of Commerce helped to establish exhibits of live animals and birds in the park.

During the early 1970s, another local organization, the Carroll County Historical Society, worked to create the Farmstead Museum in a barn at the former-farm site. As local efforts ushered in an era where the park thrived, the water quality in the lake started to pose a significant issue. However, during the early 1980s, a major project focused on improving the lake’s water quality and restoring fisheries remade the lake. Additionally, the Iowa Conservation Commission built an all-weather and universally accessible fishing shelter during 1986. Also during the late 1980s, plans started to come together on a large project to construct a 33-mile multi-use trail connecting Black Hawk State Park and Swan Lake State Park. Completed in 1990, the Sauk Rail Trail represented a major early rails-to-trails success story in Iowa’s public lands history.

During the early 1990s, the park faced another challenge: a new state law sought to limit the types of animals which could be displayed in wildlife exhibits. Swan Lake’s exhibits featured a variety of exotic animals, including an escape artist chimpanzee named Elvis. When the Iowa Natural Resources Commission officially adopted guidelines limiting animal exhibits to native species, a transition started which eventually resulted in the construction of a modern conservation education center. Opened in 2004, the locally funded center continues to serve as a regional environmental education center.

Today, Swan Lake State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in west central Iowa. The park offers extensive camping facilities to present a variety of options for those hoping to spend the night. Boat rentals, dock access, fishing jetties, and the all-weather fishing station all offer great options for Iowa anglers hoping to test the waters of Swan Lake. Native species including bison, bald eagles, and trumpeter swans all call exhibits within the park home. Extensive hiking and biking trails provide quality options for outdoor recreation. The Swan Lake Conservation Education Center represents one of the highest quality regional environmental education facilities in the state.

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