Exploring North Central Iowa’s Pilot Knob State Park

State parks are always a fun way to spend recreational time, whether you stay in a lodge, a campground or simply take a day trip. Depending on the park, you can hike, canoe, fish or picnic in a beautiful natural setting. It’s also fun to check out features that set one park apart from another. Last summer, during a trip to north central Iowa, our travel group visited the 700-acre Pilot Knob State Park. One of Iowa’s oldest state parks, established in 1923, Pilot Knob State Park has a couple of unique features.

Dead Man’s Lake

There are several legends as to how the lake got its name. One is that a pioneer drove his covered wagon onto the frozen lake. The ice broke, the wagon fell in and the man died. Another story is that a Native American fell out of grace with his nomadic tribe. He stayed behind when the others moved on and lived the rest of his life there. Years later his tribesmen found his body, buried it in a nearby cave and sealed the cave entrance.

Half of the natural eight-acre Dead Man’s Lake, fed by groundwater, is covered by a floating sphagnum bog, the only lake in Iowa like it. Three species of pond lilies grow on the lake; one of the species is found nowhere else in the state.

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We hiked a trail that runs around the perimeter of the lake, through a setting of indigenous shrubs, trees and wildflowers. Instead of continuing all the way around Dead Man’s Lake, we took the fork that leads past the man-made Pilot Knob Lake, almost twice as large as Dead Man’s Lake, and on to Pilot Knob.

Dead Man's Lakewildflowerflower in Pilot Knob State Park

Pilot Knob Tower

Pilot Knob, at 1450 feet, is the second highest point in Iowa and the highest on public land. That doesn’t sound very high when you compare it to mountainous regions, but Iowa’s mean elevation is only 1,100 feet.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built a tower in 1934. From the top of the tower we viewed Iowa’s surrounding lush farmland. According to our guide, we could see seven counties.

Pilot Knob towerView from Pilot KnobPath leading up to Pilot Knob tower

Other Activities

Park amenities include a campground, an amphitheater also built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and bridle trails. You can boat and fish on Pilot Knob Lake. Ice skating, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and ice fishing are popular winter activities.

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Pilot Knob State Park is located about six miles east of Forest City, Iowa. Check the web site for further details or to make campground reservations.

What is your favorite state park, and what unique features does it have? Let us know in the Comments below.

Disclosure: My visit to North Central Iowa was hosted by the Iowa Tourism Office. However, any opinions expressed in this post are my own.

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36 thoughts on “Exploring North Central Iowa’s Pilot Knob State Park

    • August 21, 2015 at 10:56 am
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      The park has a nice picnic area, too.

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  • August 17, 2015 at 7:52 am
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    They have funny names! I’ve never been here so I’ll be sure to bookmark this for future trip planning!

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  • August 18, 2015 at 7:57 pm
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    I’ll definitely visit this place. Great article!

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    • August 21, 2015 at 11:06 am
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      Thanks, Victor. It’s a nice park, and a nice area to visit in general.

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  • August 18, 2015 at 9:06 pm
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    Dead Man’s Lake! Are there ghosts at night? I wonder what the real story is.

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    • August 21, 2015 at 11:07 am
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      I didn’t hear of any ghost stories, Karla, but maybe. They say the real story is the Native American who lived a solitary life there and is buried in a cave on park property.

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    • August 21, 2015 at 11:10 am
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      There is definitely a bit of mystery to the story. And the moss on the lake gives it a bit of an eerie look.

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  • August 19, 2015 at 2:03 am
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    It’s always interesting to learn about the legends of a place and interesting to see how places got their names based on legends 🙂

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    • August 21, 2015 at 11:12 am
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      I often wonder how legends start. Is there really any thread of truth to them? Obviously ones that tell about an odd shaped cliff or rock aren’t true, but where do the stories begin?

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  • August 19, 2015 at 7:21 am
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    My favorite state park in Iowa is Pine Lake State Park. Last summer we went tubing there and it has all sorts of bike trails, camping, and obviously a lake 🙂 Pilot Knob looks fun!

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    • August 21, 2015 at 11:13 am
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      Thanks for the tip on Pine Lake State Park, Andrea. We’ll have to check it out when we get out that way again.

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  • August 19, 2015 at 9:48 am
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    Nice photos of the park! Looks like a place I would love, thanks for sharing!

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    • August 21, 2015 at 11:14 am
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      Thanks, Natasha.

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  • August 19, 2015 at 12:45 pm
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    It all looks so pretty. I feel like a road trip made up of national parks would be a great trip full of some amazing photos

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    • August 21, 2015 at 11:15 am
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      I love national parks, too. They are beautiful.

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  • August 21, 2015 at 7:40 am
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    I love parks like these as they are the easiest way to get in touch with nature. There’s a lot of fun, often free, experiences to discover as well. 🙂

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    • August 21, 2015 at 11:32 am
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      I agree, Anne. I love a short nature hike in a park, and yes, they are often free.

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  • August 21, 2015 at 4:02 pm
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    What a pretty and peaceful looking park! Thanks for the recommendation:)

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  • August 21, 2015 at 5:26 pm
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    Great photos of the flowers! It looks like a beautiful area and that Pilot Knob Tower is a good focal point for the park.

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    • August 27, 2015 at 8:13 pm
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      Thanks, Laura.

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  • August 21, 2015 at 6:33 pm
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    I am lucky that we have a lot of different types of parks here in MA. I think my fav ocean one is the Boston Harbor Islands. Non ocean might be one from college in Worcester. Its great to have such unique spaces to visit 🙂

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    • August 27, 2015 at 8:14 pm
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      I’ve only been to MA once, and that was in the middle of winter. I’ll have to get there when the weather’s nicer and visit some of your parks.

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  • August 21, 2015 at 9:51 pm
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    It looks very peaceful despite the interesting name.

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    • August 27, 2015 at 8:15 pm
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      It really is peaceful. we had a nice picnic lunch before we hiked to the tower.

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    • August 27, 2015 at 8:23 pm
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      It could be romantic if you’re with the right person. I was on a press trip, so it was an almost all-female group, but we had a lot of fun.

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  • August 23, 2015 at 4:27 am
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    I also love state parks! National Parks as well 🙂 It is indeed a great place to spend time doing recreational activities. Sometimes I would host an event, “Sports Day,” with my friends to spend time together and play different sports. It’s fun!

    This place looks really nice to spend time there!

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    • August 27, 2015 at 8:24 pm
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      That sounds like fun, a “sports day.”

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    • August 27, 2015 at 8:26 pm
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      Thanks, Simone.

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  • August 23, 2015 at 3:29 pm
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    Looks gorgeous…and the mystery to it only makes it more interesting

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    • August 27, 2015 at 8:28 pm
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      It’s always fun to hear those legends.

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    • August 27, 2015 at 8:32 pm
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      Camping there would be fun, too. Maybe walk to Dead Man’s Lake at night and get freaked out.

      Reply

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