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16.6 million visit Iowas state parks in 2020; Lake Manawa, Gull Point top the list

Lake Macbride comes in 10th

COUNCIL BLUFFS– A record 16.6 million visitors frequented Iowa’s state parks in 2020, according to data from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
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 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.
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.
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):
Lake Manawa– 3.2 million
Gull Point– 1.6 million
Big Creek– 721,265
Backbone– 637,500
Walnut Woods– 541,079
McIntosh Woods– 535,000
Black Hawk– 515,000
George Wyth– 502,629
Ledges– 492,321
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 lakeside 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.

This project, Iowa’s State Parks, is a partnership between IowaWatch– the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and the Iowa Newspaper Foundation (INF) with the goal of looking closely at one of Iowa’s most valued resources (especially in the last year): the state parks system. IowaWatch- The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news outlet striving to be the state's leading collaborative investigative news organization. Read more at iowawatch.org. IowaWatch and the INF continue to partner on this series.