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Camping Winnebago County in Iowa

Listen to our full interview with Winnebago County Naturalist Lisa Ralls here:

Winnebago County Camping : North Central Iowa

Camp Iowa: We’re talking with Lisa Ralls today, who is a naturalist down in Winnebago County. How’s it going today, Lisa?

Ralls: Pretty good.

Camp Iowa: You guys actually manage a lot of land down there, and on the website there are about 30 different properties that you manage. I think today we’ll just kind of head through different activities that people like to do, and I’d love to get your take on where they could go to do those things down there.

Ralls: All right.

Camp Iowa: Let’s go ahead and start off with camping. What do you guys offer for camping?

Ralls: Well, we have two different parks and we offer camping. Our main park here in Winnebago County is Thorpe Park, and that’s located 5 miles west of Forest City. There we’ve got 13 campsites, electrical campsites. They also have water hook-up. Then we also have two primitive, nonelectrical sites that do not have any water hook-up. There’s also a central water spigot in the campground for anybody who wants to use it, and pit toilets in the campground as well. Oh, and as well a little playground area too.

Thorpe Park : Image courtesy of Winnebago County Conservation Board
Thorpe Park : Image courtesy of Winnebago County Conservation Board

Camp Iowa: Are there RV hook-ups at those parks or not?

Ralls: Yeah, there are 30 amp RV hook-ups.

Camp Iowa: Okay, great. Are there any group camping sites?

Ralls: We don’t have any group camping sites. Usually, at least at Thorpe Park – well, at both the parks; our other park is Dahle Park where we have camping, and that’s up by Lake Mills. Both of those campsites, neither one of them get a whole lot of use, so typically if people want to camp together, they can usually find campsites together. But we don’t have any actual group campsites.

Camp Iowa: What’s the layout of those campsites like? Are the sites pretty close together, or are they a little bit spaced out?

Ralls: No, they’re pretty close together. In both the campgrounds, both Thorpe Park and Dahle Park, the sites are pretty close together. At Dahle Park, all the sites are very shaded. It’s a very wooded area. At Thorpe Park, most of the sites are wooded, but there are a few that are open as well.

Camp Iowa: How about hiking in the area down there?

Ralls: At Thorpe Park we’ve got several different hiking trails that go through the park; we also have a trail that runs along Highway 9 between Forest City and Pilot Knob State Park, because a lot of people – I don’t know if you’d really call it a hiking trail so much, but a walking/biking trail that connects Forest City with Pilot Knob State Park.

Camp Iowa: You guys also have a lot of fishing and hunting in the area, from what I understand. How about fishing, if somebody wanted to do that?

Ralls: Sure. At Thorpe Park, again, just down from the campground in fact, is Lake Catherine. That’s a 15-acre lake. We have a pretty good variety of bass and bluegill in the lake. There’s also some crappie, and people have a lot of good luck catfishing in the evenings as well. We also have, of course, the Winnebago River that runs right through our county, and of course there’s a lot of good fishing in the Winnebago River. In fact, the Winnebago River runs through Dahle Park as well, so it’s a really short walk from the Dahle Park campgrounds.


Camp Iowa: Anywhere to rent canoes for the river?

Ralls: Yep, there’s a place in Forest City called Standard Exchange, and they do rent canoes. They’re just right up the hill from the Winnebago River, so it’s pretty handy.

Camp Iowa: Would those all be just daytrips, or is there anywhere to camp along the river?

Ralls: There’s no actual designated campsites along the river, but we do have a river trail that runs from Dahle Park, is the starting point for the river trail, and it goes pretty much all through Winnebago County and ends up at Pammel Park in Forest City. So it’s really nice; it was designed a few years ago by the Iowa DNR as a designated water trail here in Iowa. Of course, you can camp at Dahle Park and you can camp at Pammel Park, at either end of that trail.

Camp Iowa: Okay, that’s great. So you could, if someone wanted to spend a full day canoeing, at the end of that experience they could camp in a tent and finish out the day that way if they wanted to.

Ralls: Yep, you bet. There are a couple other put-in points in between Dahle Park and Pammel Park, so you don’t have to canoe the whole route. You can just come in in the middle and canoe however much you want.

Camp Iowa: How about hunting?

Ralls: Pretty much most all of our public areas are open to hunting, with a few restrictions. But pretty much all of our areas are open to hunting.

Camp Iowa: Other than obviously having the local license and that, is there any sort of fee to use those lands?

Ralls: No, there’s no additional fee, except for like you said the hunting licenses. We do have a unique area; we have a Holland Youth Hunting Area, which is strictly set aside for young hunters, 15 and under, that would be hunting with an adult. At that particular area, it’s hunting by reservation only. All you need to do is sign up for a permit – the permits are free. When you sign up for a permit, you’ve got use of the whole area, just you and your adult hunter. It provides a really good opportunity for young hunters to be able to hunt out without having the pressure of a lot of other people hunting in the area, too. It’s a really neat opportunity.

Camp Iowa: That’s fantastic. What a great opportunity for someone who doesn’t own land, but like you said, still wants to get out and be able to take it on your own terms and not feel pressure from other hunters.

Ralls: Right. It’s kind of a neat bonding experience, too, for kids and whoever the adult is that takes them out there, because they have the whole area to themselves and they really get a neat experience.

Camp Iowa: Well, that’s great. It sounds like there’s no shortage of things to do down there in Winnebago County.

Ralls: No, we’re real proud of what we have. When people think of Iowa, you don’t really think of recreation very much, but we really do have a good mix of fishing, camping, hiking, biking, hunting – pretty much anything that you would want to do, we offer it here in Winnebago County.

Camp Iowa: One other thing I wanted to ask you is, for people maybe who haven’t visited the area, what does the topography tend to be like around there?

Ralls: It really varies. Here in our county, the western part of the county is very flat, but when you get over in the eastern part of the county, you get into quite a few little rolling hills. Likewise, the western part of the county is mostly agricultural; the eastern part of the county, there’s a lot more wooded areas, a lot more streams and marshes and things like that. Again, it’s pretty varied.

Camp Iowa: So a little bit of everything.

Ralls: Yep, a little bit of everything. I should mention, too, when we talked about Thorpe Park before and the campground and everything, we also have a rental cabin at Thorpe Park. That’s been getting a lot of use. We just opened that up a few years ago, and it’s become really, really popular. It’s right along the shore of Lake Catherine and it overlooks the lake. It’s got a huge deck. That’s been real popular, too, with people that have come and stayed.

Lake Catherine Rental Cabin
Lake Catherine Rental Cabin

Camp Iowa: Sure. How many people does that stay?

Ralls: That sleeps six, and the rates during the season, the busy season, run anywhere from $50 to $65 a night depending on the night. But then we also have offseason rates during the winter, and those rates are $25 to $40. So you can stay for $25 a night in wintertime during the week.

Camp Iowa: That’s really affordable.

Ralls: Yeah, it really is. It’s a really nice opportunity to get outdoors during that offseason, during the winter, and just enjoy the peace and quiet of Thorpe Park during the winter months.

Camp Iowa: Yeah. And you said that’s right on the lake?

Ralls: Yes, it’s right on the lake, so we get ice fishermen that will come out and stay at the cabin, and they’ve got the lake just 100 feet away from their cabin, so it works out nice.

Camp Iowa: And just for $25 bucks. What a great deal.

Ralls: Yep. During the week. And then $40 on the weekends during the offseason.

Camp Iowa: That sounds awesome. All right, once again, thanks for chatting with us today. I’ll make sure to put links to all those places that you mentioned in the post. If there’s anything else that you guys forgot to add, just shoot me an email. Looking forward to get that up and get that information out to people.

Ralls: That sounds great.

Camp Iowa: All right. Thanks for talking with us today, Lisa.

Ralls: You bet. Thank you.

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