Lake Manawa State Park is a 1,529-acre nature area located in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The park attracts photographers, anglers, boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts from all over western Iowa, nearby Omaha, Nebraska, and beyond.
The park’s centerpiece is Lake Manawa, whose natural simplicity belies its storied past. The lake, whose name is derived from a Native American word meaning “peace and comfort,” was formed during flooding of the Missouri River in 1881. Recognizing the commercial potential of the lake, developers quickly established a “bathing resort” along the south shore, as well as a boardwalk and pier along the north shore, which attracted wealthy residents and affluent travelers. Within a few years of its formation, Lake Manawa had been dubbed “Coney Island of the Midwest” and eventually played host to a zoo, casino and amusement park. By 1935, the “pleasure resort” fell victim partially to its own spectacular success, and nearly all of the manmade attractions were eventually destroyed by fire or tornado.
The Iowa Fish and Game Commission began purchasing land to convert the area into a public park, and by 1948, Lake Manawa State Park boasted the highest attendance of all Iowa parks.
Now, the park is composed essentially of two parts: Lake Manawa itself on the northern half, and a prairie/wooded component to the south, which offers hiking trails, approximately 8 miles of bike trails and abundant wildlife, including deer, turkeys and fox. Boy Scout Island, a narrow cottonwood-laden peninsula along the lake’s southern shore, has become very popular among the park’s photographers. Accessibility is great, since a public road encircles most of the lake’s shoreline. The park no longer has a campground, but plenty of lodging options and other amenities are close by. Lake Manawa State Park is open year-round and is free to visit.
Lake Manawa State Park is usually hot and humid in summer and freezing cold in winter, typical of western Iowa. As such, the most temperate times are during the spring and fall, which are my favorite seasons to photograph the lake itself. Warm lake water combined with cold morning air tends to produce copious mist on the lake, and mild morning wind speeds leave the lake’s surface to act as a giant mirror, creating stunning sunrises. Boy Scout Island is situated at the lake’s south end and is mostly shielded from the wind by surrounding trees.
The lake typically freezes in December and then thaws in March or April. The ice attracts myriad bald eagles in late winter and early spring, when the park becomes a mecca of sorts for bird photographers. During summer, the lake is warm, attracting plentiful waterfowl.
Photo Experience At Lake Manawa State Park
This is a spot from which I’ve greeted the rising sun on countless mornings, along the lakeshore west of Boy Scout Island facing the sunrise. The island is just barely higher than the lake’s surface, so on misty mornings, its trees appear to rise from the fog itself. I had already begun composing my shot when I noticed a family of geese approaching from the left. I was set up for a standard landscape shot with my Nikon D610 and AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G lens and had no time to change settings (ƒ/11, ISO 100, 1/15-second shutter speed, 5-second self-timer), so I waited until the second adult goose had just entered the frame, pressed the shutter button and crossed my fingers. Somehow, the shutter fired at the exact moment I had hoped it would and, luckily, the geese were gliding slowly enough that they were rendered acceptably sharp.
Photo opportunities abound at the park year-round. My favorite times for photographing Lake Manawa and Boy Scout Island tend to be in spring and fall, not only because of the ample morning fog during these seasons but also because of the decreased boat traffic. The park is a haven for bird photography all year. Bald eagles are abundant in late winter and early spring, and migrating white pelicans are known to appear in hordes in March and April. Herons, geese, ducks, kingfishers, owls and turkeys are also common sights throughout the park.
Contact: Iowa Department of Natural Resources, iowadnr.gov/Places-to-Go/State-Parks/Iowa-State-Parks/ParkDetails/ParkID/610144.
See more of Buck Christensen’s work at buckchristensenphoto.com.