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Three-Mile Lake Recreation Area - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 73

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Three Mile Lake Recreation Area.

Three Mile Creek, named by Latter Day Saints passing through southern Iowa on the Mormon Trail in 1846 due to the creek’s distance from nearby Mt. Pisgah, winds through the rolling hills of the southern Iowa Drift Plain.

One of the newest recreation areas in Iowa, the drive to create a body of water at the current recreation area site started as a part of a project centered on drinking water. Meant to serve as a backup drinking water supply for nearby Twelve Mile Lake, the initial idea for the reservoir came about during the severe drought of 1988-1989. While the waters at Twelve Mile Lake dropped during the late 1980s to dangerous levels, officials started looking around for options which could help ensure the vital drinking water supply for 30 surrounding communities serving over 13,000 residents. Eight sponsoring agencies, including the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Union County Conservation Board came together, and once selection of the site near Afton took place land purchases started.

Over the late 1980s and early 1990s, grants and donations helped to purchase a total area of around 3,100 total acres including a segment of Three Mile Creek. The severity of the drought in the late-1980s opened the door to utilization of federal PL566 funding for dam construction underwriting the local water supply. Carefully planned with the help of John Tapken and the Union County Conservation Board, all but 34 of 3,100 acres of the land purchases necessary for the project took place without foreclosure. The initial agreements included plans for a dam and reservoir, as well as a 350-acre lease of lands to Union County Conservation to provide for new recreational opportunities in the area. An extensive plan came together prior to dam construction, allowing the county and state to partner together to create a variety of features meant to improve recreation at the site.

Before work on the dam improunded Three Mile Creek, workers constructed the sand beach, laid out extensive fishing features including jetties and habitat structures, as well as other considerations oriented around future projects for the recreation area. Measures throughout the watershed worked to help prevent water quality issues, including the construction of nearly fifty ponds and 60,000’ of terracing. State and federal support helped to provide all 30 drainages above the lake with silt-control structures. The 37’ tall and 470’ long dam soon rose across the soon-to-be southeastern edge of the lake, and the waters started to fill behind during 1995. While the waters rose, work continued to create one of the best-planned outdoor recreation areas in Iowa.

REAP funding provided by the State of Iowa helped to provide for amenities at the new lake, including the construction of eight 14’x18’ cabins and a modern campground. Seeding of hundreds of acres restored a natural prairie landscape while also providing feed plots of Iowa’s wildlife. The DNR oversaw construction of an 8-mile long horse trail encircling the lake, and an aggressive fish stocking plan paired with the thoughtful underwater habitat constructed in advance of the lake’s filling to create one of the greatest angling experiences in Iowa. In March of 2002, the Union County Board of Supervisors approved construction of a 6,048 square foot lodge at Three Mile Lake. The construction of an equal-access fishing pier and other amenities continued to add to the top-flight experience at Three Mile Lake.

During 2016, a draw-down started on the lake as a part of a two-part restoration aimed at ensuring continued water quality. The 17’ draw-down allowed state and local officials to assess potential improvements to water quality measures while also renovating the lake’s fish population. Another draw down, started during September of 2023, plans to continue to ensure future water quality at Three Mile Lake. Scheduled to complete in 2025, the project will include work on the sediment control basin, fish habitat improvements, and replacement of riprap.

Today, the Three Mile Recreation Area offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in southern Iowa. Eight cabins, as well as an additional lakeside cabin, pair with a modern campground for those hoping to spend the night. The High Lake Outdoor Alliance Shooting Range pairs with hundreds of acres of habitat and food plots to make the recreation area a favorite of Iowa’s hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts. The Three-Mile Lake Lodge welcomes large events year-round. The swimming beach offers Iowans a great place to cool off during the state’s summer months. The diversity of fish habitat and fishing options make Three-Mile Lake a favorite of Iowa’s anglers.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Three Mile 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, Three Mile Recreation Area shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.

Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Three Mile Lake Recreation Area.

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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