CORONAVIRUS

It'll be a belated 100th birthday for Iowa state parks

Centennial celebration delayed, but trails remain open

People play and watch the Cedar River on Thursday at Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon. Iowa state park faci
People play and watch the Cedar River on Thursday at Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon. Iowa state park facilities and campgrounds are closed, but people have continued to get out for hikes and picnics. A state order requires them to follow social distancing guidelines. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Iowa’s state park system was created 100 years ago. Thanks to COVID-19, its birthday party is being delayed.

“We’re looking to reschedule this fall,” Iowa Department of Natural Resources Parks, Forests and Preserves Bureau Chief Todd Coffelt said about plans for the May 28 kickoff of a yearlong celebration of the parks’ centennial.

The kickoff celebration was planned for Backbone State Park south of Strawberry Point in Delaware County. The park, which was dedicated May 28, 1920, is considered the system’s flagship, Coffelt said.

The 2,001-acre park 60 miles north of Cedar Rapids is heavily wooded with oak, maple and a variety of other species. Its name is derived from the steep, narrow ridge of bedrock cut by a loop of the Maquoketa River that forms the highest point in northeast Iowa — the Devil’s Backbone.

Like the May kickoff, most of the centennial celebration that was to include 100 days of activities in the state parks is up in the air. Some events have gone “virtual,” Coffelt said. For updates on activities, visit www.iowadnr.gov/places-to-go/parks-2020.

Under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ April 7 disaster proclamation, state park campgrounds, cabins and yurts and all outdoor playgrounds are closed. The Iowa DNR said Friday the closures would continue through at least May 14.

Like Iowa, at least 20 other state park systems in the country are open only for day-use. In Iowa, hiking and biking trails remain open, Coffelt said, but social distancing guidelines must be followed.

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Iowa county parks are closed to camping at least through Thursday, but most are open to day-use activities, such as hiking. Nature centers and restroom facilities are closed.

Many national parks and monuments also are closed. That includes the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site at West Branch and the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail visitors’ center in Omaha. At Effigy Mounds near Harpers Ferry, the visitors’ center is closed until further notice as well as all hiking trails including the North Unit trail system to Fire Point and Hanging Rock, and the South Unit trail system to the Marching Bear Group as well as Sny Magill.

Although activities in state parks are being canceled and park use is restricted, the coronavirus pandemic is “reinforcing the true importance of the parks,” Coffelt said.

“We’re doing our best to keep the parks open” while following social distancing guidelines, Coffelt said. People can still visit the state parks and picnic and bike and hike, but must follow social distancing in parking lots and on the trails.

“Spring came a little earlier this year, so people are ready to get started on outdoor activities,” Coffelt said.

He called the combination of more time with family and warmer weather the “magical ingredients” for visiting state parks.

“As temperatures warm, people are looking or things to do,” he said. “When the sun is shining, people take advantage of the parks.”

In the meantime, the Iowa DNR is looking at what to do with its centennial activities on a daily basis, Coffelt said.

“We’re looking at plan B, C and D,” he said.

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The agency is guided by the statewide disaster proclamation as well as staff safety, the customer experience “and whether it’s a good idea to go ahead with it.”

“We don’t want to do anything to exacerbate the problem,” he said. “The parks are going to be there when this is over.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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