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Newest state park offers unique activities within minutes of Des Moines


The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is coming to the end of a one-year, $1.38 million project intended to transform a dilapidated piece of land, once the bane of Warren County law enforcement officials, into a state park that provides a number of recreational activities for Central Iowans.

Banner Lakes at Summerset State Park will be dedicated Oct. 7 as Iowa’s newest state park and only the second state park to be created in the past 27 years. The former wildlife management area has become a 1,200-acre park featuring boat ramps, mountain bike trails, a two-mile scenic bike trail, trout fishing and an improved shooting range.

Angela Corio, a landscape architect with the DNR, said Banner Lakes has a less-than-glowing reputation due to the undesirable activities that have take place in the area, from drug and alcohol parties to methamphetamine production and the dumping of appliances and debris. Project planners hope the revitalization will turn the area around.

“We wanted to eliminate all of the ‘rogue activities’ by providing a safe, desirable family recreation atmosphere,” she said. “We figure the bad element will leave when there’s a lot more people there.”

With a nightly gate closure and a full-time presence of law enforcement personnel during the summer, the Iowa DNR, which will be managing the park through Lake Ahquabi State Park in Warren County, hopes safety remains a focus.

Banner Lakes, which was the home of Banner Mining Co. until 1954, is situated along U.S. Highway 65-69 between Des Moines and Indianola. With approximately 16,000 vehicles passing the area daily, Corio believes that most of those people are currently unaware that the park even exists. The DNR hopes that, through increased visibility along the highway, improvements to the land and a combination of recreational activities, Banner Lakes at Summerset State Park could become more popular than Gray’s Lake.

“Our wildlife section had been trying to turn the area around for a long time, unsuccessfully,” Corio said. “They were trying to turn it around as a wildlife area and that was just never going to happen, because to turn it around, you really need active recreation opportunities.”

According to the department, a major draw to the state park will be a three-season trout fishery, the only one in Iowa outside the northeast corner of the state, which Corio hopes will be stocked in time for the park’s dedication. She predicts that it will become popular for ice fishing during the winter months.

“[Iowa DNR Director Jeffrey Vonk] thought [a trout fishery] would be a novelty and people would be excited about it and they are,” Corio said. Boat ramps have been constructed on the park’s 15- and 59-acre, lakes and lakeside parking has also been added.

A shooting range on the site has been heavily patronized by visitors for a number of years, but a new shelter and supervised shooting through the park’s concession area could bring more people to the park.

Cyclists on the Summerset Bike Trail, a 12-mile trail connecting Indianola and Carlisle, can extend their ride onto a two-mile scenic bike loop through the park. And the Central Iowa Trails Association, at the request of the DNR, has been designing three miles of mountain biking trails through designated areas of the park.

“We as a group are volunteer labor,” said Ryan Hanser, president of the CITA, which was formed in 1996 and focuses exclusively on the design and maintenance of trails. “For the DNR, it’s a low-cost way to add to its new state park and gives trail users a new place to go.”

CITA volunteers were at the park Saturday and will return on Oct. 2 with their work gloves and shovels, completing the first phase of the trail system, which is in an area that would have otherwise gone unused. The second phase will be stunt-oriented and likely will not be constructed until spring.

With a wealth of recreational opportunities now within a short drive from Des Moines, Indianola and surrounding communities, the Iowa DNR, the Warren County Conservation Board, CITA, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and other state organizations that participate in this project wanted to be sure it wasn’t lost to the public, as Banner Lakes seemed to have been for so many years.

Two stone portals are under construction at the park entrance, increasing visibility to traffic along Highway 65-69. And a “name the park” contest in the spring created some hype for the project. A committee composed of Corio, Vonk, the Warren County Board of Supervisors, Carlisle Mayor Dennis Woodruff, Indianola Mayor Jerry Kelley and Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie whittled down 158 contest entries to one name – Banner Lakes at Summerset State Park.

“There were some strong sentiments from local folks that ‘Banner’ be retained in some form,” said Corio. “But yet, our desire to rename the area was to give it a new identity. So it was a compromise.”

Funding for the project came together from three sources. The Park Institutional Roads Fund, which is allocated annually through the Iowa Department of Transportation, provided close to $900,000 for a 2.5-mile paved road, bike lanes and parking lots. The Resource Enhancement and Protection program, REAP, was the source of more than $380,000 for recreation facilities, including the entrance portals, improvements to the shooting range, concession stand and two restroom facilities. Funding for the construction of boat ramps, parking lots and lakeside parking areas, totaling $100,000, came from a marine fuel tax.

Construction crews are completing road work through the park, and other projects are nearing completion, though Corio said work will likely continue through September. Water quality improvement will remain an issue, as the presence of coal has had a negative effect on the pH level.

“There’s room for some additional facilities,” Corio said. “We think this is the proper level for development at this point. There is room in the future for potential picnic shelters, more intense recreational development. But at this point, we think this is a good phase one.”

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