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Take a winter retreat at Lake of Three Fires

  • 12/8/2016 4:22:00 PM
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From the January/February 2015 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
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A delicate slipcover of snow blankets Lake of Three Fires State Park in winter. It’s the perfect sound-muting mantle for a group of moms recovering from the noise of holiday chaos with some quiet ice fishing and a wide-open weekend for the first time in months. 

Make a winter retreat to the cabins at Lake of Three Fires State Park | Iowa Outdoors magazine“No one’s calling, no one’s needing anything,” says Susan Fleming of Des Moines, surveying the ice. “My only purpose here is finding the right spot, drilling the hole, choosing my bait, dropping a hook. There’s no agenda right now beyond catching fish.”

Standing on 15 inches of ice on 85-acre Lake of Three Fires, a pile of crappie and bluegill in the snow next to his rod, DNR fisheries technician Dray Walter adds: “Out here, everything stays the same. It’s the fish that come and go.”

For a weekend getaway with friends, where nothing will interrupt relaxation or quiet connecting, this southern Iowa park, 25 miles east of Clarinda, is ideal.

A warmer side of Iowa
Beyond his bright blue eyes, Dray Walter has the mind of a fishing aficionado. He’ll tell you exactly how to snag some crappie, bluegill or bass on this lake, so the angling is as productive as the weekend is laid-back.

It doesn’t hurt that the guy giving advice is also named like a character from a romance novel, and he looks just the slightest bit like Mark Wahlberg in Carhartts. “Out here, you’ve got good odds,” Walter says. “Go to the DNR website to see all the habitat. Basically, we put fish where you want to fish. We make it easy for you.”

Near easy-access points like docks and boat ramps, Walter and staff install fish mounds, stake beds, cedar tree piles, rock mounds and reefs to make perfect hide-outs for the fins-and-gills set, but they can’t resist darting out for the waxworm or minnow on your hook. The DNR website lists GPS coordinates for all. “You park and you walk right out here and start knocking holes in the ice,” says Walter. 

Green Valley State Park and Twelve Mile Creek Lake, nearby, are more popular, says Walter, and the fishing is phenomenal there—for you and the 30 other icehouses ganging around every cedar tree pile on the ice. 

At Lake of Three Fires, he says, “to get away and be  by yourself, this is the place that you want.”

Plus, those parks don’t offer lakeside cabins, heated in winter, where you can sip from a Thermos and chat up your friends like the old days. It’s generally warmer in southern Iowa than most other parts of the state—not a tropical island, but not bad for a budget getaway—and you can venture out to a nearby town for a civilized side trip.

Outside explorations
Just a few minutes from the park, Main Street Bedford has seen better days, though a few gifts and antiques shops remain. Zeb’s Smokehouse is the shopping spot of the moment here, with a steady flow of traffic pulling in to buy custom smoked meats, venison and honey from Dray Walter’s own bees. 

Make a winter retreat to Lake of Three Fires State Park | Iowa DNRThe Junction Café serves a gut-busting supper, and you won’t be the one cleaning up the dishes from a decadent meal that’s mostly house-made, including brisket and old-fashioned chicken dinner on gravy and biscuits—skip the over-touted strawberry shortcake for fresh pies and cobblers. 

In Clarinda, start a morning with solid coffee and lots of cozy chat nooks at Garrison Coffee House, serving locally loved donuts made in nearby Shenandoah, plus house-made sandwiches, salads and desserts in an interesting atmosphere tricked out with architectural artifacts such as a tin ceiling bearing a chandelier from the old Younkers Tea Room in Des Moines. 

“There’s not a TV screen in here,” says owner Caroline Miller. “This place is about communicating. It’s a lost art. Just listen.”

Miller waves her hand around the spacious room with weathered hardwood floors. It’s abuzz with groups catching up together.

“It’s not rushed. It’s a place to connect and have fun.”

Clarinda visitors might also breakfast at Vaughn’s Café on the pretty town square with the big courthouse building at its center, but you won’t eat locally-sourced fare as you will in Garrison’s. After filling the tank, Clarinda has quilt and antiques shops, a clothing store, and the nicely done Glenn Miller Birthplace Museum, in the town where the “Moonlight Serenade” composer was born in 1904 before his family moved to Nebraska. 

“We present a great history of dance music from the Big Band era,” says Walt Pritchard, museum board member for 25 years. “This is active music, whether it’s Lawrence Welk with waltz, or Xavier Cugat with rumba. At the museum, you’ll learn all about this participation-led music.”

Running among the owls
Lake of Three Fires is the quiet base at the heart of all this. There’s a gentle appeal to the lack of action, after the frenzy of the gift-opening and the meal planning and, well, the relatives. 

At this park, birdwatching is a major sport.

Park manager Doug Sleep notes a barred owl calling as he hikes along one of the eight miles of trails. “I’ve seen a pileated woodpecker recently,” he notes. “You’re not going to get disturbed by lots of traffic through the park. And the ice fishing and cross-country skiing are great.”

Sleep recently had a woman check in to one of the cabins—which you’ll have little trouble booking—to sit around all week, just reading books. The Bedford cross-country team runs the trails, which are short and looped. Bikers and walkers hit the near-deserted country roads surrounding the park, where every rusty windmill is a photo op. Public areas north and south of Lake of Three Fires set aside land for rabbit hunting habitat that might put some wild game in the slow cooker for supper.

But, says Sleep, overlooking the lake as Dray Walter reels in yet another bluegill, it’s not the action that makes Lake of Three Fires State Park a winter repose. It’s you, and your blissfully open agenda.
“The solitude is really worth a lot to people,” he says. “Especially this time of year.”

For Susan Fleming, she’s mapping out a dreamy day. A short hike to the lake, sketching the winterscape, journaling, taking some time with light and composition while photographing the empty countryside. She’ll have time for a trail run, hopping over roots and puddles, feeling alive, listening to her heart beat. Next it’s a shower and a beverage, a fire outside, chatting over a slow cooker meal, ending the evening in a cozy bed with a good book.

“The key is that it’s not time–driven,” she says. “No watches, no clocks, no cell phone, no Internet. Time stopped at this park. There are no rules or things you have to do.  “It’s a short distance to travel to leave the world behind.”

Trip Notes
Lake of Three Fires State Park. Bring your trail shoes, sketchbook, camera, slow cooker, a conversation starter game. You won’t be inundated with activity—and that’s a good thing. Eight miles of trails, cabins, campsites, a lake and a lodge. 2303 Lake Rd., Bedford. 712-523-2700;