A record 16.6 million visitors frequented Iowa’s state parks in 2020, according to data from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Iowans turned to the outdoors with indoor activities interrupted or cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Over the last decade, the Iowa DNR saw between 13.7 million and 15.5 million visitors to their state parks yearly. 

The system with 83 parks and forests recorded its 100th anniversary in 2020 just as the coronavirus came to Iowa in March. The Centers for Disease Control has recommended people remain six feet apart and meet outdoors to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, making spacious state parks popular destinations. 

Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs topped the list with an estimated 3.2 million visitors. Next came Gull Point near Milford. Big Creek, Backbone and Walnut Woods rounded out the top five.

Kerstin Egan and Tracy Lacroix of Council Bluffs visited Lake Manawa Jan. 17, 2021, with their dogs. They said the state park was a way to get out of the house while still social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Danielle Gehr/IowaWatch)

The parks still get plenty of use in the winter as the pandemic continues. Kerstin Egan and Tracy Lacroix, of Council Bluffs, walked Jan. 17 around Lake Manawa with their dogs.

This state park has been a way to get out of the house during the pandemic, Lacroix said. 

“You can social distance outside,” Lacroix said. “It’s really the only thing we could do all summer, is go boating and just find things to do outdoors.” 

Lake Manawa State Park, located in Council Bluffs, offers beach activities, fishing and hiking, according to the Iowa DNR website. The Dream Playground, constructed in 2018, is the largest American Disabilities Act accessible playground in Iowa at 18,000 square feet, according to the Iowa DNR. 

Lake Manawa State Park was the most visited state park in 2020. The Council Bluffs park offers beach activities and rentals, boating, fishing and hiking. (Photo by Danielle Gehr/IowaWatch)

How do state leaders know the number of visitors?

They are an estimate, DNR Director of Communications Alex Murphy wrote in an email to IowaWatch. Some parks use car counters while others look at camping and rental use. Weather, events, construction and visual observations also go into the estimate, Murphy said. 

The top 10 most visited parks (estimates): 

  1. Lake Manawa – 3.2 million
  2. Gull Point – 1.6 million
  3. Big Creek – 721,265
  4. Backbone – 637,500
  5. Walnut Woods – 541,079
  6. McIntosh Woods – 535,000
  7. Black Hawk – 515,000
  8. George Wyth – 502,629
  9. Ledges – 492,321
  10. Lake Macbride – 461,000
    Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Lacroix said her summer included many boat rides on Lake Manawa with friends and family. The frozen lake and snow-covered ground make her and Egan’s January visits to Lake Manawa much different from the days of the park’s highest visitation over the summer.  

Lake Manawa State Park was the most visited state park in 2020. The Council Bluffs site offers beach activities and rentals, boating, fishing and hiking. (Photo by Danielle Gehr/IowaWatch)

“Even during the winter, I think it’s just beautiful out here,” Lacroix said. 

Egan said she hopes the Iowa DNR will add camping to Lake Manawa. 

Gull Point State Park, located in the Iowa Great Lakes region, saw the second-most visitors, 1.6 million, in 2020. The lake-side park offers camping, fishing and 1.5 miles of self-guided trails for hiking. 

Of note: The Aug. 10 derecho affected access to several parks and could have changed visitor numbers.

PREVIOUS REPORT IN THIS PROJECT: Lone rangers: Number of state park officers declines despite growth in visitors


This project, Iowa’s State Parks, is a partnership between IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and the Iowa Newspaper Foundation with the goal of looking closely at one of Iowa’s most valued resources (especially in the last year): the state parks system.

IowaWatch led the writing and reporting with state parks visited by Danielle Gehr, a former IowaWatch intern and now an Ames Tribune reporter, John Naughton, a freelance writer and former Des Moines Register reporter, and Emery Styron, a freelance journalist. The Cedar Rapids Gazette staff contributed as well with visits to state parks.

The writer of this piece is freelance writer Danielle Gehr, who spent the summer of 2020 as an IowaWatch reporter. She is a city government reporter for the Ames Tribune and a graduate of Iowa State University.

IowaWatch and the INF will continue to partner on this series.

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