Come for flowery magic…stay for fishing, birding, paddling and cycling.
From the spring 2021 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Beautiful blossoms beckon and no Iowa park exudes springtime like Red Haw. Walk 4 miles of grass trail encircling the quiet lake for wonderful woodland views awash in cheerful, showy clusters of purple and magenta redbud flowers. Get water-level views via fishing boat, kayak or paddleboard—increasingly popular at this pearl of a park.
Blooms are “positively breathtaking,” says park manager Bonnie Friend. “It’s the vibrant purple color of redbud blossoms, sprinkled everywhere throughout wooded areas within the park. You wouldn’t know other times of year they are here, until they bloom in spring—then they are everywhere.”
A small understory tree, overlooked most of the year, rose-purple blooms are especially fantastic as they blossom in pea-like clusters before leaves bud out, giving appearances almost like strands of lights illuminated over bare, dark branches. Redbuds, native to southern Iowa, have unusually dense concentrations in this park, built in the 1930s. “They are just spectacular,” she says. Fortunately, flowers hold longer than most trees.
Bloom runs “anywhere from the beginning of May through to middle of June—all weather dependent. If we have a long winter, everything is going to be delayed a little bit,” she says. The bloom can last a month, weather depending.
To fish or kayak the lake during spring is a popular way to believe in the birth of blossoms. In early spring, the water may have a darkness lit up by reflected blossoms.
With electric motor-only restrictions, peaceful lake silence and serenity sustains a soothing soundscape yielding to withdrawing winter with migrating songbird solos. One feels and almost hears sunbeams penetrating formerly cold soils with warmth, witnessed in hopeful blooms against an otherwise still-vacant leaf canopy. Magenta will soon yield to verdant greens of spring leaves overhead.
“The 70-acre lake is really great for panfish—crappie, bluegill—bass and catfish, too,” says Friend.
With placement of three kayak launchers on park docks, “kayaking has just gone off the charts,” she says. The devices make easy entries and exits with greater stability and comfort. Paddling “is a spectacular, quiet and fast way to view this park. And when redbuds bloom it is gorgeous.”
Another tranquil way to experience local solitude is to embrace a previous generation’s pick-of-choice for relaxation—an old-style picnic. Lay on a blanket lakeside beneath flowery trees to disconnect and watch clouds whisk by above. Picnic benches and shelters abound here, too.
The lake was created in the Depression era. Facing a severe drought in 1934, the town of Chariton brought in drinking water by train car. Not liking thirst, locals rounded up funds and bought some hilly land south of town to dam Little White Breast Creek to create a lake with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps. The city donated the land to the state for a park and a large and iconic stone and timber style picnic shelter was built overlooking the water.
Today’s 76-site campground overlooks that lake, shielded by oak and hickory, which supply shade by late spring and summer, yet provide enough dappled sun for grass on the earth for campers to enjoy. Bluebird boxes near and throughout the park attract brilliantly colored royal blue songbirds.
Spring camping is weather dependent. Come on overcast, misty or rainy days to see blossoms glow in low light. During blossom, camps can fill with May “popular for campers itching to get out and stretch their legs and get campfires going again,” says Friend. Memorial Day weekend is a peak camping time.
Plenty of area camping and cabin options exist. Friend also oversees camping at Stephens State Forest, just 11 miles west. And for those in quest for more amenities, Honey Creek State Resort is 30 miles southeast with an indoor waterpark, an Audubon-certified golf course, 28 luxury cottages, restaurant, marina, boat rentals, onsite naturalist and of course, the 105-room lodge.
Once you’ve gotten into the local laze, pick up binoculars. Lucas County is a birding bonanza—expansive tracts of forest, pockets of tallgrass prairie and loads of bird species—more than 250 to be exact—flock here. Stephens State Forest already holds some of the largest varieties of woodland birds in Iowa, especially migrating warblers—those colorful “jewels of the forest” that attract birders from across the state and nation. Busloads come not only for blossoms, but birds.
The birding is so good it boasts two DNR-designated Bird Conservation Areas under a worldwide program through Great Britain-based Birdlife International. Spot yellow-throated vireos, American redstarts, Baltimore orioles, Blackburn warblers, pileated woodpeckers, scarlet warblers, indigo buntings and more. The local chamber offers a free birding guide and checklist. After ice-out, come to see loons on city waters—Lake Ellis and Lake Morris, named after fallen WWII service members from the area. Both are just north across the road from Red Haw and also boast of good angling. Pin Oak Marsh, a 160-acre wetland one mile south of town on Highway 14, is also a birding hotspot, especially for waterfowl.
Birding and blossoms can be coupled with cycling. Chariton is home to the state’s first rails to trails bike path, established in 1974—the 15-mile Cinder Path, which hugs the Chariton River. Originally a railway established in 1872, the path winds past pelicans, wildflowers, native timber, prairie and across wooden bridges, even a covered bridge 6 miles out from Chariton. It isn’t a paved route, paying homage to the original cinder cover from the early railway. Fat tires or walking may be best in wet spring.
Travel Notes and Diversions
• Red Haw State Park—Find park details and reservation info at iowadnr.gov/RedHaw or make reservations at 877-427-2757. 24550 U.S. Highway 34, Chariton. 641-774-5632
• Honey Creek Resort State Park—Learn more and make reservations at honeycreekresort.com or 866-797-5308. Honey Creek Resort, 12633 Resort Drive, Moravia
• Stephens State Forest—Find maps, directions and details on seven forest units at iowadnr.gov. Stephens State Forest 1111 N 8th St, Chariton 641-774-4559
• History—See early Mormon history (1846-48) at Chariton Point, one and a half miles southeast of town, where thousands of Mormons trekked along the Mormon Trail and 30 spent the winter in 1846-47. See wagon wheel ruts and campfire rocks at this early camp for Mormon migration and old cemetery. Learn about early coal mining at the Lucas County Historical Museum and the John L. Lewis Museum of Mining & Labor at 102 Division Street (coalmininglabormuseum.com)
• Go Bananas—Hy-Vee’s Chariton Distribution Center ripens 3 million bananas weekly over five days to ship statewide. A national banana guru, 40-year Hy-Vee veteran and national banana expert Norm Davis oversees the operation and you can tour with a reservation. 641-774-2121
• Shipping Chocolate Worldwide—Piper’s is an old-school grocery with original wood floor and operating deli now renowned for a century of hand-made chocolates, toffee, caramel, turtles and candies shipped worldwide. Piperscandy.com 641-774-2131, 901 Braden Ave., Chariton
• Connecticut Yankee Pedaler—a bicycle shop in the historic Ritz Theatre downtown, get repairs, buy bikes or pick up cycling gear. Cypbikes.com 641-774-5557 906 Court Ave, Chariton
• Frontier Trading Post—Find fishing bait, sodas, gifts, soaps, jams, farmhouse decor and antiques in one stop. Frontiertradingpost.net 641-774-8225 One mile east of Chariton on Highway 34
• The Porch—a quaint neighborhood java house in a charming, small historic home with patio, breakfast, lunch and pastries, too. Theporchchariton.com 641-203-6933 705 Auburn Ave, Chariton
• The Iron Horse Charitone—In a beautifully restored corner building on the town square, relish house-ground burgers, hand-pattied to order, plus sandwiches, fresh Iowa products and savory salads to halt hungry hikers. 641-774-7587 ironhorseneighborhoodgrill.com
• Local Tourism Resources—Find travel brochures online or request mailed copies for details on local eateries, activities and events. Charitonareachambermainstreet.com or 641-774-4059