10 Lakes that May Surprise You
It’s no surprise that millions of Americans come to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes for fun on the water—Corps lakes offer boating, swimming, fishing, paddling, hunting, bicycling, hiking, birding, camping, picnicking and sightseeing. Many people, even among the millions of visitors to Corps lakes, might be surprised to learn that the Corps designed these projects to provide water storage to help manage flooding, generate hydroelectric power to power millions of homes and businesses and deliver drinking water for nearby cities. Visitors will also find that Corps lakes offer insights into history, inspiring scenery and activities you may not expect.
Find out what’s surprising about a Corps lake near your home by entering your zip code in the Recreation.gov search box (then select the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers filter) or use the interactive Corps Lakes Gateway map.
Then let our list of 10 surprising Army Corps lakes inspire you to plan a unique adventure!
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The frostiest Corps of Engineers property is just north of Fairbanks, near the wryly-named town of North Pole, where winter lasts from September until April. The Corps built the Chena River Lakes in the 1970s, after the river crested six feet over flood stage and caused a massive flood, one of the worst catastrophes in Alaska’s history. Now, winter sports fans can cross-country ski, ice fish snowmobile or dog sled or "skijor," where dog teams pull skiers instead of sleds. The Moose Creek Dam Bikeway is popular for these sports. From May to September, when temperatures range from the 50s (10° C) to the 80s (27° C), winter sports give way to cycling, running and roller-blading, swimming, boating, fishing or sunning on the only sandy beach in interior Alaska. Chena River Lakes also provide a great place to view wildlife year-round---moose are common, and you might see muskrat, otter, mink, beaver, or occasionally, wolves, black or grizzly bears. In July and August, watch spawning Chinook and chum salmon at the dam's outlet. First-come, first-served camping is available through Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation.
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You expect world-famous vineyards, great restaurants and a land rich in history near beautiful Lake Sonoma, but you may be surprised to learn that the rangers at the lake teamed up with NOAA and other federal agencies to create a special nursery for endangered and threatened fish. The rangers, in connection with the fish hatcheries the Corps manages, dug a special slow-moving channel that runs parallel to the fast-moving Dry Creek, providing the endangered Central California Coast Coho salmon and the threatened steelhead trout with a gentle environment for young fish to grow to adulthood. The Corps also added features to the channel such as tree stumps that further slow the current and provide habitat for insects that fish eat, and a gravelly channel floor that serves as a nest where the females burrow in and deposit their eggs. Warm Spring Recreation Area near Geyserville offers camping, boating and swimming or hike the Woodland Ridge Trail for rewarding views. Go fishing for smallmouth bass, catfish and sunfish. Watch the video "Coho Release into Dry Creek Habitat Restoration Sites" to learn more about the hatchery, then join the Steelhead Festival each February or contact the Friends of Sonoma at (707) 431-4533 to join a tour of the hatchery during spawning season (January—April).
Did you know you can ride a roller coaster at a Corps of Engineers lake? In this case, riders actually supply the power, as mountain bikers take on the thrilling, “flowy” Paynes Creek Trail at Hartwell Lake. The Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) raised money and helped build the “flux” trail (named for the non-stop horizontal and vertical changes of the trail) and assists in maintaining it in partnership with the Army Corps. Here is a dizzying video that takes viewers on a tour of its twists and turns. Another video gives some details about the partnership and the development of the trail. Camp near the trail at Paynes Creek Campground.
On the border between Illinois and Missouri, within a stone’s throw of one of the busiest locks on the Mississippi, is a serene watery byway. Here at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary millions of migratory birds pass on their way to their winter or summer homes. The Corps created backwater sloughs and prairie to mimic the original landscape in order to accommodate the needs of trumpeter swans, white pelicans, indigo buntings, canvasback ducks and many other species. The birds pause in this welcoming environment to rest and feed during their long migrations, giving millions of birders a close-up view. Across the river, Army Corps of Engineers lockmasters manage thousands of barges carrying tens of millions of tons of gravel, coal and other commodities at the Melvin Price Lock and Dam. For camping and lodging information and to learn more about Riverlands and the dam, read our spotlight article.
Coralville Lake, near the University of Iowa, is home to the Veterans Trail, a quiet preserve dedicated by the lake’s rangers to local military veterans. Each Memorial Day rangers invite hundreds of veterans, local dignitaries and military figures to a special event saluting local veterans (read more about the Veterans Trail in our spotlight article). The lake also provides fossil seekers with a rare and exciting find, the Devonian Fossil Gorge. When the lake breached the emergency spillway in 1993 and again in 2008, the floodwaters washed away as much as 15 feet of topsoil, revealing the fossilized remains of a 375 million year old Devonian-era seabed. Camping is available at three reservable campgrounds.
What’s the secret to the vibrant green of Tuttle Creek Lake’s tallgrass prairie? Every few years in the spring, Tuttle Creek Lake park rangers conduct prescribed burns of portions of the prairie land on this Corps-managed lake, and within a couple of weeks lush, highly nutritious grasses re-emerge from the blackened landscape, followed by waves of wildflowers. Since settlement of the Midwest began in the 19th century, less than 5% of the original tallgrass prairie remains, some of which the rangers actively conserve at Tuttle Creek Lake. The virgin prairie around the lake is home to the greater prairie chicken, a grouse known for its unique mating dance and distinctive calls that visitors can hear from miles away. The lake is also home to the threatened regal fritillary butterfly, a native pollinator. Three times a year, Tuttle Creek Lake rangers host wildflower walks through colorful, fragrant fields of blazing star, milkweed, wild blue indigo and other native plants. Watch the video “Trails at Tuttle Creek Lake" for more information about recreational opportunities. Camping reservations are available at Stockdale or Tuttle Creek Cove.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in scenic New England is the Cape Cod Canal, a shortcut between Buzzards and Cape Cod Bays along the important New England to New York shipping route. Myles Standish, military advisor to the Plymouth Colony, envisioned the canal as early as 1623, when he sought ways to improve trade routes among the colonies. In 1776, George Washington surveyed the area with visions of a canal in mind. However, the canal was only an idea until a private company built it in 1914. Today, the canal serves as a gateway to Cape Cod. Ride your bike along the canal on a broad, well-paved 13.5-mile (22 km) long path with great views of the water. Stop at the visitor center and museum on the east end of the canal in the town of Sandwich and get insight into the rich history and operations of the canal. This year, surrounding communities celebrate the canal’s 100th anniversary from July 25 through August 3, 2014 with special events including concerts, fireworks and more. Camping is available at Scusset Beach State Reservation.
Fern Ridge Lake, a Corps of Engineers project in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, is just 12 miles from Eugene and a popular lake for sailing, power boating, skiing and camping (note: contact county and private organizations directly for information on the lake's campgrounds). But it's the lake’s role in protecting unique and critical habitat that may surprise you. Take your binoculars (or a camera) for a walk along the dike top trails — birder’s come from around the region to see nesting bird species rarely seen west of the Cascade Range, like the gyrfalcon. While you are out in the marshes you might also see a rare Fender’s blue butterfly, an endangered species endemic to the area. Fern Ridge is this species’ most significant habitat — the female butterflies will lay their eggs only on one plant, the threatened Kincaid’s lupine. Fern Ridge Lake rangers plant Kincaid's lupine around the lake shore to restore the butterflies' habitat and, since 2000, the Fender’s blue butterfly population has increased from a low of 179 butterflies to more than 3,700.
American history buffs and hikers alike enjoy walking the Shenango Trail at Shenango River Lake near Sharpsville. The trail is actually the towpath of the old Erie Extension Canal where mules (like the immortal “Sal” in the Erie Canal Song) once “hauled barges filled with lum-ber coal and hay...” from the Great Lakes to Pittsburgh and beyond. You’ll see historic Lock Number 10, a rare and well-preserved remnant of the canal works, one half mile downstream of the Shenango Dam (in nearby Greenville, the Erie Extension Canal Museum displays a replica canal boat and more). Shenango Lake also preserves another piece of American history, the American chestnut tree. The lake collaborates with the American Chestnut Foundation to restore this important species — virtually eradicated by Asian blight in the early 20th century. Today, the lake’s chestnut orchard is an important part of the Corps’ environmental stewardship program. Visitors can visit the chestnut orchard near Shenango Recreation Area, where rangers offer programs (contact the ranger office at (724) 962-7746 for details). Shenango Recreation Area also offers reservable camping.
In 2002, a huge rainstorm dumped a year’s worth — 35 inches (89 cm) — of rainfall over Canyon Lake in the hill country of central Texas. Over the course of three days a massive flood washed away tons of bedrock below the Canyon Lake Dam. The storm caused a very rare geologic event, exposing a 150-foot wide gorge, a section of the Hidden Valley Fault and eons of geologic history. Highlights at the lake include water falls seeping from the rock cliffs, crystal clear pools teaming with aquatic life, 110 million year old fossilized dinosaur footprints and many other fossils. The Gorge Preservation Society offers video documentaries and guided hikes of the gorge. Guided hikes fill quickly; contact the Society directly to reserve your spot.