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5 Hidden Surprises at Wapsipinicon State Park

  • 7/3/2019 2:57:00 PM
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Wapsipinicon State Park is a hole-in-one—and we’re not just talking about its golf course. Often referred to as Wapsi, this park is unlike any other Iowa state park because of its especially unique beginnings and natural history. With the help of Park Manager Dennis Murphy, here’s five hidden surprises waiting to be explored at Wapsipinicon. 

The National Register of Historic Places

Wapsipinicon is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The entire park district was nominated for membership in 2012 for its buildings, stone structures and unique sites including the Wapsipinicon River Bridge, a total of 10 archeological sites and the restored Hale Bridge—the only remaining three-span bridge in Iowa. 

Wapsipinicon State Park is unlike any other because of its especially unique beginnings and natural history.  |  Iowa DNRInmate Stonework

While many Iowa state parks’ historic buildings were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Wapsipinicon had its own unique beginnings. Since 1921, inmates from the Anamosa State Penitentiary—formerly known as the Iowa Men’s Reformatory—have played a pivotal role in building the park. Nearly every structure at Wapsipinicon, from the stone arch bridges to the lodge and shelters, were crafted by prisoners. Next time you’re at Wapsipinicon, take a closer look at the handcrafted stone work throughout the park.


Inmates also constructed the park’s 9-hole golf course in 1923. Wapsipinicon is one of two Iowa state parks with a golf course within park boundaries, making it a hidden surprise of its own. Now known as Wapsipinicon Country Club, the public golf course is managed by a local nonprofit group even though it is on state park land. The most distinguishing factors are the clubhouse and old stone pumphouse. Two stone chimneys with decorated inlays of a tennis racket, golf clubs and tee can still be seen on the structure today. 

Secret Hideaways

Horsethief Cave has been a popular attraction of the park for decades, but do you know where it gets its famous name? Before the park was constructed, two legendary horse thieves camped in the bowl-shaped cave as a hidden escape while traveling. Today, visitors are welcome to crawl into the cave found in Wapsi’s rocky bluffs and “relive” the horse thieves’ escape. Ice Cave is another popular attraction to explore, and its cool temperatures provide the perfect escape from the summer’s heat during warmer months. 

Geological Features

What may appear to be just layers of rock along Wapsipinicon’s cliff exposures are actually unique geological mounds. These complex features have been described as “reefs” by some geologists, and the most pronounced mounds show fossil molds of coral and stromatoporoid sponges. This unique feature resembles a haystack-like mound and can be spotted in the cliffs along the Wapsipinicon River just north of the park. Brachiopods and crinoid debris are other fossil types that can be spotted near the west entrance to the park. Wapsipinicon is abundant in natural formations, so make sure to take a closer look to identify the different fossil types next time you visit!

Wapsipinicon is a historic attraction unique to Iowa, and its beautiful limestone bluffs and scenic river views are waiting to be explored this season. 

For more, check out our Iowa State Parks and Natural Iowa Travel board on Pinterest.