December 15, 2017
By Dan Anderson
Maybe you and your hunting buddies need a base of operations for a week of serious Iowa deer, pheasant or turkey hunting. Maybe your family needs a summertime escape where you can decompress, fish, swim, hike and actually talk and spend time together. Either way, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has 93 rental cabins at state parks across Iowa with amenities to fit any budget.
The DNR has done a magnificent job of building clean, bright, airy lodging options that range from warm-season, one-room kitchenettes to year-round, heated, air-conditioned two-bedroom units with full kitchens and bathrooms.
"Our cabins are really popular," noted Jessica Manken, DNR reservation system manager. "Some of them are booked a year in advance. There's a revolving 12-month reservation window, which means you can book a cabin for July 1, 2019, starting on July 1, 2018. Some of our guests get done with their visit and book that cabin for the next year using our online reservation system, just after midnight on the day after they finish their rental, to be sure they get the cabin and dates they want."
There is a week-long stay requirements for all modern, deluxe and studio cabins, Manken noted. The camping cabins and basic cabins have a two-night minimum stay.
From clean but rustic camping cabins to a luxury resort, what follows is an overview of what's available in Iowa's state parks.
This large lake also offers a large number and variety of rental options for hunters, anglers and their families. There are two distinct venues available.
Honey Creek Resort is a state-owned hotel, dining and entertainment complex managed by a private vendor. The resort is on the lake's north shore, and offers accommodations ranging from basic, single-bed rooms through luxury suites. Lake access is available, there's a tournament-quality golf course, gourmet dining and a full-scale indoor water park.
Honey Creek Resort also offers alternate housing options in the form of 28 individual rental cottages adjacent to the main facility. The cottages include loft-style one-bedroom units and two-bedroom, full-featured luxury rentals. They're all equipped for year-round use, with heating and air conditioning. Cottage renters get access to the water park at the main resort.
A second set of rental opportunities at Rathbun Lake are at Honey Creek State Park, across the Ham Creek Arm south of Honey Creek Resort. The DNR has four year-round heated and air conditioned camping cabins that each sleep five to six people. The cabins have an open floor plan. Sleeping accommodations include a futon and a bunk bed that sleeps two on the bottom and one on top. The cabins don't have running water (as in, no restroom), but visitors have access to a year-round (heated) shower building.
Rathbun Lake offers visitors a spectrum of outdoor activities. Rathbun is famed for its spring crappie fishing and a unique hot-weather, shallow-water walleye bite through the hottest part of July. White bass fishing is consistent through July and August, and catfishing is almost a sure thing from ice-out through early September. Swimming beaches and boat rentals are available at various locations around the big lake.
Hunters have plenty of options within easy driving distance of Rathbun Lake's accommodations. The upper end of the Rathbun area includes the 15,800-acre Rathbun Wildlife Area, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One-fourth of the area is timbered, one-fourth is lake, and one-fourth is upland, so all of Iowa's major hunting species — deer, turkey, pheasants, quail, dove and waterfowl — are available for hunters based at the Honey Creek accommodations.
Sedan Bottoms WMA, located 15 miles southeast of Rathbun Lake, is a state-owned, 6,700-acre area with a diverse habitat mix. Deer, turkeys, pheasant, quail and waterfowl are available.
Honey Creek Resort - 12633 Resort Drive, Moravia, IA 52571 - 866-797-5308
Accommodations: Single beds, double beds, suites, gourmet dining, golf course, indoor water park.
Rates: Main lodge pricing is $139 and up per night. Cottages are $340 and up. Rates vary based on time of year.
Honey Creek Cabins - 12194 Honey Creek Place, Moravia, IA 52571 - 877-427-2757
Accommodations: Four year-round camping cabins, open floor plans, shower facility (heated in winter) located in campground.
Rates: $35 per night. Rates may vary.
BLACK HAWK STATE PARK
There is only one DNR rental cabin at Black Hawk State Park in Sac County, in northwest Iowa, but it's a dandy. It's a four-bedroom, "family deluxe" cabin with heating, air conditioning, full kitchen, full bathroom, and is ADA accessible.
The Black Hawk State Park cabin's claim to fame is the explosive fishing in Black Hawk Lake and thousands of acres of upland game and waterfowl hunting in Sac and adjacent counties. The DNR rehabilitated the lake several years ago, making water quality improvements to the watershed and adjacent marshes. Improved water quality has dramatically improved year-round fishing opportunities for walleyes, crappies, perch, bluegills and catfish. Ice-fishing, in particular, has improved.
"Improved water clarity in the summer translates into clearer water under the ice," said Ben Wallace, DNR fisheries management biologist. "Guys are sight-fishing for bluegills and crappies around Ice House Point and doing really well in recent winters. Walleyes are going good through the ice, and perch are becoming more common."
The recent lake and watershed renovation has also improved waterfowl hunting in the area.
"Improved water clarity has led to increased aquatic vegetation in the lake, and that has attracted more waterfowl," reported Clint Maddix, DNR wildlife management biologist. "There's a lot of both waterfowl and pheasant habitat within one or two miles of the rental cabin at Black Hawk."
Maddix directed waterfowl hunters to the marshes and gravel pits associated with the Black Hawk Lake inlet and Black Hawk Marsh areas due south of the main lake.
"We're now managing those marshes for waterfowl," noted Maddix. "We drain them, let weeds grow, then flood them in the fall before the ducks and geese start to migrate. The birds have really been using them in recent years. It's always dependent on weather during the migration, but waterfowl hunting in this area has been good, and is getting even better because of some of the management changes we've made."
A strong population of resident giant Canada Geese, strengthened by the annual migration, are popular with a small but dedicated group of local field hunters.
"It's a specialized kind of goose hunting, but the guys who do it are really dedicated and have a lot of fun," said Maddix. "Local landowners are pretty open to guys who ask permission to field hunt geese — some of the farmers aren't especially fond of the geese because they feel they damage their crops."
Other public hunting options in the area near Black Hawk Lake include the 1,081 acres of Kiowa Marsh that harbor pheasants, waterfowl and doves. Burrows Pond is a 685-acre marshy upland tract just north of Kiowa Marsh in northern Sac County, and Tomahawk Marsh offers nearly 400 acres of marsh and upland habitat approximately 5 miles north of Black Hawk Lake.
228 Blossom St, Lake View, IA 51450 - 877-427-2757
Rates: $100 per night. Rates can vary.
Accommodations: One family deluxe cabin, four bedrooms, heating, air conditioning, full kitchen and bathroom.
LAKE OF THREE FIRES
Far southern Iowa's Lake of Three Fires State Park in Taylor County offers six "studio" cabins that sleep four to six people. The cabins have an open floor plan, with a futon and bunk bed, along with a kitchenette, bathroom, and heating/air conditioning.
"Fishing at Three Fires has been good in the past few years, and the cabins have been really popular with hunters in the fall and winter," said Manken. "There's a lot of public wildlife areas in that part of the state, and the cabins make great base camps for hunters to explore different hunting areas within a short drive."
Josh Rusk, DNR wildlife technician, pointed out hunting options related to the Three Fires cabins.
"There's some public hunting at the south end of Three Fires State Park that has waterfowl, and enough timber to hold deer," he noted. "North of Three Fires there's the Simmons Area, only 84 acres, but we put in dove food plots every year and it's good for doves and pheasants. Go east of Three Fires, into Ringgold County and there's a lot of public hunting at the Mt. Ayr Wildlife Area, the Ringgold Wildlife Area, and the Kellerton Area."
The CRP pollinator program has added a lot of upland habitat in the past few years in this area, and pheasants and especially quail have responded well, reported Rusk. "We had the highest quail count (during the 2016 late summer population surveys) that we've had since the mid-'80s," he added.
2303 Lake Rd, Bedford, IA 50833 - 877-427-2757
Accommodations: Six studio cabins, kitchenette, bathroom, open floor plan, heating and air conditioning.
Rates: $50 per night. Rates may vary.
BACKBONE STATE PARK
Perhaps the most family-friendly, year-round rental opportunities are at northeast Iowa's Backbone State Park, in Delaware County. The combination of beautiful, rugged terrain, nearby trout, walleye and smallmouth streams, wintertime snowshoeing and cross-country skiing provide outdoor options to keep visitors entertained every season of the year.
"The Backbone cabins are some of our most popular rentals," noted Manken. "There are 16 units. Four, deluxe two-story family cabins with two bedrooms, full kitchen, full bath, heating and air conditioning. Then there are twelve 'family modern' cabins, which are also year-round units with full kitchen and bathroom, heating and air conditioning. Eight of them are one-bedroom, four of them are two-bedroom units. All but two allow pets. Cabins A through D, and Cabin 10 are ADA accessible."
Backbone Lake is an 80-acre lake in the park that offers traditional bluegill, bass, and crappie fishing. One of the big draws for anglers at Backbone is its proximity to many of northeast Iowa's trout streams.
1347 129th St, Dundee, IA 52038 - 877-427-2757
Accommodations: Four deluxe family cabins (two-story, two double bedrooms, full kitchen and bath, heating and air conditioning). Twelve family modern cabins, full kitchen and bath, heating and air conditioning.
Rates: $50 per night to $100 per night. Rates can vary by date.