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Walnut Woods State Park - State Park Series, Episode 21

Located along the Raccoon River Polk County’s West Des Moines, a 260-acre State Park holds natural and historic treasures.

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Walnut Woods State Park.

The Racoon River dominates the West Des Moines park, and the largest remaining stand of Black Walnut trees in Iowa provides the park with its name.

A site identified as a potential park as early as 1923, the heavily wooded lands on the banks of the Racoon drew interest from conservation officials during initial assessments of potential parklands throughout the state. An early entrant into the Iowa State Parks system, the Iowa Conservation Commission oversaw the $30,000 purchase of lands from the family of tragically deceased local businessman Ben F. Elbert on July 14, 1925. Citizens of nearby Valley Junction (now West Des Moines) and Des Moines contributed over half of the funds for purchase. During the first few years the park was known as Elbert State Park, however, in 1933 the ICC renamed the park Walnut Woods.

In 1931, the State Conservation Commission placed William Tallan in the role of Custodian, and he oversaw the development of the park during an era of growth. He served in the role until his 1944 death. The park initially lacked accessibility until a 1932 roads project opened the door for further development under New Deal Era programs including the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.

The CCC arrived in 1933, and over the course of three years the workers deepened a former channel of the Raccoon to create an artificial lake. Additionally, the CCC started construction on buildings throughout the park, worked on riverbank improvements, and created an initial network of trails. Although the CCC departed for work elsewhere in Iowa in 1936, the Works Progress Administration allowed for the continuation of work through skilled labor. Additionally, the Iowa Conservation Commission started offering a workshop for the development of skilled trades like carpentry, masonry, and metalworking. Work on the park slowed down as America entered World War II and the Great Depression abated, but the legacy of the New Deal workers continues to show in the park today.

In June of 1945 the Carlisle Citizen reported E.R. Birdsall, former assistant custodian at Stone State Park in northwestern Iowa arrive to take over responsibility for Walnut Woods. Maintaining the park in the face of yearly flooding threats served as a major maintenance task. In 1954 newspapers reported severe flooding at several Iowa state parks including Walnut Woods. Accounts consistently relay news of flooding at Walnut Woods each decade from the 1930s forward, often in conjunction with closures of other state facilities at Ledges near Boone and Dolliver near Fort Dodge.

On January 1, 1958 the state transferred care of the park to the City of West Des Moines with a planned lease of the lands to municipality for 25 years. However, only three years later in August of 1961 the city broke the lease, returning the lands to state custodianship. Dean H. Dalziel, formerly on staff at Lake Keomah State Park near Oskaloosa moved in to start a new era of state stewardship at Walnut Woods.

The 1970s again saw significant flooding along the Raccoon, forcing the park to close for several weeks in 1974. During the shutdown workers completed a project to fully enclose and modernize the CCC era lodge within the park allowing for all-season use.

Today, Walnut Woods State Park offers hikers over two miles of trails along the Raccoon, while cross-country skiers enjoy the same pathways during the winter. A small modern campground welcomes overnight guests, and a boatramp pairs with riverbank opportunities for fishermen to seek out fish in the Racoon river. Bird watchers enjoy opportunities to observe over 90 species of birds identified within the parks bounds, and a surprising diversity of wildlife call the park home.

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