Best Management Practices - Red Rock Water Trail


Trail Mission Statement

The Red Rock Water Trail provides outdoor recreational opportunities in an environment that is diverse in its geology, history, and living organisms. The trail is broadly supported by local and regional groups who work to improve the quality of the environment and promote the educational and recreational opportunities it provides. We work to encourage the safe use of this trail and its integration into the broader trail system across Iowa.


Recreation Opportunities

The entire Red Rock Water Trail loop is 36 miles but can easily be broken into smaller sections, and passes along shorelines managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Iowa DNR, and Marion County Conservation Board. It has 8 access points: Boxcars, Elk Rock West, Elk Rock East, Hickory Ridge, Whitebreast, South Overlook, Marina, and Cordova. Many of these access points are near or along the numerous campgrounds located around the lake area, most of which include restroom and shower facilities, electric hookups, and parking. Hickory Ridge Wilderness Campground is primitive with no electricity, and is hike or paddle-in only. Elk Rock Campground has equestrian trails with hitching posts and stables along the way. The area also has many natural wonders to discover. Paddlers can marvel at the sandstone cliffs and bluffs as well as the layers of bedrock, till, and loess silt seen in the lake shore.

There are also opportunities to spot fossils of horsetail reeds, lycopods, ferns, and other specimens along the rocks. There is a wide variety of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects to be seen on and around the water trail and lake. Fishing on the lake can be both challenging and rewarding. Cordova Tower, an old water tower converted into an observation deck, is a wonderful way to survey the surrounding panoramic view and natural landmarks. There are two swimming beaches available for use, as well as an extensive trail system on land. Kids Outdoors Program Packs for geocaching, bird watching, bug exploration, and disc golf are available to check out at no charge. Snow shoes are also available in winter months.



The Red Rock Water Trail is along parts of Lake Red Rock, which was constructed over the historic towns of Red Rock and Cordova. Red Rock was known as "a bustling, lawless river frontier town" in the 1840's. It was a significant commercial post on the Des Moines River and embraced a variety of industries, such as quarrying for the beautiful red sandstone. Today visitors can see the box like cuts that still remain in the cliffs from quarrying attempts. The town of Red Rock was also known as one of the last towns on the edge of civilization. In 1842 the Sac and Meskwaki Indian tribes were forced to cede 12 million acres of land to the U.S. government- most of which are now Lake Red Rock. The 'Red Rock Line' was a boundary marking the division between settler and Indian Territory. According to oral tradition, a giant sycamore tree located near the dividing line and used for trading between Indians, fur traders, and settlers. The tree was estimated to be 400-500 years old with a 40 foot circumference. It was the second largest sycamore in the country, and the stump, now called 'Peace Tree Stump,' can be seen from the Mile-Long Bridge near the access point Elk Rock West. Horn's Ferry Bridge, near the dam on the lake, was the first wagon bridge in the county to cross the Des Moines River. It served an important purpose of connecting to rising commercial industries. The remains of the 1881 bridge can still be used today as a viewing deck.

Lectures on local and Iowan history are offered periodically at no charge, and the Marion County History Buffs group provides a map giving the exact coordinates of the now submerged town for paddlers to explore. The nearby town of Pella has a strong Dutch influence which can be seen in the beautiful architecture and good food, and was also the boyhood home of famous US Marshall Wyatt Earp. Tours of his house and the historical village and mill are available for the public. Besides the historical aspect, much can be learned about water resources and management. The lake and dam were constructed to stop the flash flooding that periodically occurred, and now keep many homes and lives in the area safe. The wildlife and local plant species also provide wonderful learning opportunities for people of all ages.



All parts of Red Rock, including the water trail, have many activities working hard to restore nature to its original heath to the best of our ability. The US Army Corps of Engineers does extensive invasive species work, bacteria testing in the water, and educates the public about preservation and stopping harmful practices. Groups pick up litter, and we provide many children's activities to teach and promote conservation in the environment, such as learning how the dam works and protects people, and litter gathering projects. Specific areas have had special attention, such as Hickory Ridge Wilderness Camp with over a thousand hours of volunteer work to remove autumn olive and honey suckle, as well as clean up the 47 acres of primitive campground. Hickory Ridge is now the only primitive campground around Red Rock and one of eight access points for the water trail.


Community Support

The US Army Corps of Engineers works alongside the IDNR, Marion County, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and many other organizations in order to best serve the area. We have many partnerships in the community, including local businesses and clubs, community leaders, Youth Cadets, Boy and Girl Scouts, Central College, and many others who have helped make many of our projects and programs possible. The Red Rock Lake Association has about 150 members and was the primary driver behind establishing the water trail. Some active members are also part of Central Iowa Paddler and Iowa Rivers Revival. These tight groups of paddlers and supporters across the state ensure our project has community interest. The public came together to raise over $400,000 for the purchase, clean-up efforts, and development of Hickory Ridge Wilderness Campground, which is also an access point to the water trail. Volunteers also worked over a thousand hours on the area.


Public Information

There are 8 access points for the Red Rock Water Trail: Boxcars (N41 27.967/W93 12.650) is at one of the shallowest levels of the lake, and takes paddlers past the historic 'Peace Tree' stump; Elk Rock West (N41 24.160/W93 06.132) and Elk Rock East (N41 24.061/W93 03.619) are close to Elk Rock State Park, which features campgrounds and equestrian trails, and have a beautiful view of the sandstone cliff; Hickory Ridge (N41 21.605/W93 02.027) is near the paddle-in Hickory Ridge Wilderness Campgrounds; Whitebreast (N41 22.923/W93 01.915) is off of Whitebreast campgrounds and Whitebreast beach, and provides paddlers with a view of the bluffs; South Overlook (N41 21.918/W92 59.628) takes paddlers past Red Rock Dam and the visitor center; Marina Cove(N41 23.862/W93 00.042) takes paddlers by the boat marina and a lovely wooded shoreline; and Cordova (N41 25.320/W93 04.027) passes by Cordova Park, which offers many recreational activities for visitors, including trails, an observation tower, picnic spots, and cabins to rent.

All of Red Rock and the surrounding area have much to offer for leisure and educational activities and experiences. The lake itself was built over the two historic towns of Red Rock and Cordova. Red Rock was a lawless frontier town on the edge of civilization in the mid 1800's, and has many historical facts to discover. From the settler and Indian trading post relic called 'Peace Tree Stump' to the box like cuts in the sandstone bluffs left from quarrying attempts, the entire area has a story to tell from days past. There are also many opportunities to learn about wildlife and resource management. The lake is 12.5 miles long and has a water surface area of 15,250 acres, making it the largest lake in Iowa. The dam provides safety from flash flooding to the people living in the surrounding area, as well as providing a habitat for many birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians.

Because of the inherent risks associated with all water sports, the possibility of encountering significant winds on the lake, and the regular use of the trail for night time and cold weather paddling, the brochure, kiosks, and websites stress the importance of safety. Brochures with this information and more details on the water trail can be found at the Visitor Center on the south side of the dam and on the US Army Corps of Engineers website for Red Rock (


Trail Maintenance

The eight access points are existing federal, state and county properties that are actively maintained and managed through collaborative efforts with these agencies. Elk Rock East and West are part of Elk Rock State Park and as such are maintained by the State of Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Hickory Ridge, Whitebreast, Boxcars, Marina and South Overlook are the property of the Army Corps of Engineers and they are responsible for oversight and maintenance in these areas. Cordova Park is owned and operated by the Marion County Conservation Board. With these agencies responsible for maintenance of the access points, they also manage the shoreline around Lake Red Rock (not a private shoreline lake). Local paddling groups and the Red Rock Lake Association have assumed responsibility controlling liter in the areas between the access points.



Because the Red Rock Water Trail was structured so that the access points were located in places where federal, state and county agencies had vested long-term commitments, we have not had a plan for the future of the physical assets that make up the trail. Instead our planning focuses on two areas: promotion of the trail and communication of the recreational and educational opportunities it provides. We also have spent time planning how the Red Rock Water trail will integrate with larger Iowa water trails system. In terms of advertising, we have developed kiosks and placed them at each of the access points. These kiosks describe the respective access point, the trail and the opportunities the trail provides. We have also developed a brochure that is distributed to local outdoor recreation groups, stores and visitor centers. Our remaining advertising goal is to construct a website that will be supported on the Iowa DNR Water Trails website at Iowa presently has 923 miles of Water Trails with another 588 miles under development. We will continue to work with the Iowa DNR to incorporate the Red Rock Water Trail into the entire Des Moines River Water Trail system.


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