10 Corps Lakes that May Surprise You
By Daniel Jackson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Learning water safety with the park ranger at Raystown Lake. (USACE)
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. Corps lakes offer insights into history, inspiring scenery and activities you may not expect.
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Chena River Lakes
Chena River Lakes (USACE)
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 (1.8 m) 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,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, 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.
Lake Sonoma (Mike Cathcart, Share the Experience)
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 rangers teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal agencies to create a special nursery for endangered and threatened fish. Rangers dug a special slow-moving channel that parallels 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. Warm Spring Recreation Area near Geyserville offers camping, boating and swimming. Take a hike along the Woodland Ridge Trail for rewarding views. Go fishing for smallmouth bass, catfish and sunfish. Visit the Friends of Lake Sonoma to learn more about this area and special events happening year round.
Hartwell Lake sunset (USACE)
Get ready for a wild ride at this Corps of Engineers lake. In this case, mountain bike riders supply the power, as they ride the thrilling, “flowy” Paynes Creek Multipurpose 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. Watch this dizzying video which takes you on a tour of its twists and turns. Reserve campsites near the trail at Paynes Creek Campground.
Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary boats (USACE)
On the border between Illinois and Missouri, within a stone’s throw of one of the busiest locks on the Mississippi River, is a serene watery byway. Here at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary millions of migratory birds pass through on their way to their winter or summer ranges. The Corps created backwater sloughs and prairie to mimic the area’s original landscape in order to meet 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.
Coralville Lake campsite (Terri Wirtz)
Coralville Lake, near the University of Iowa, is home to the Veterans Trail, a quiet preserve dedicated by lake rangers to local military veterans. Each Memorial Day, rangers invite hundreds of veterans, local dignitaries and members of the military to a special event saluting local veterans. The lake also provides fossil seekers with a rare and exciting find in the Devonian Fossil Gorge. When the lake breached the emergency spillway in 1993 and again in 2008, floodwaters washed away as much as 15 feet (4.5 m) of topsoil, revealing the fossilized remains of a 375 million year old Devonian-era seabed.
Tuttle Creek Lake
Tuttle Creek Lake and dam (USACE)
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 and within a couple of weeks lush, highly nutritious grasses re-emerge from the blackened landscape, followed by waves of wildflowers. The virgin prairie around the lake is home to the greater prairie chicken, a type of grouse known for its unique mating dance and distinctive calls that you 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.
Fern Ridge Lake
Fern Ridge Lake (USACE)
Fern Ridge Lake a Corps of Engineers project in the Willamette Valley, is just 12 miles (19.3 km) from Eugene and a popular lake for sailing, power boating, skiing and camping. 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 — birders 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 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.
Shenango River Lake
Shenango River Lake sunset (USACE)
American history buffs and hikers alike enjoy walking the Shenango Trail at Shenango River Lake near Sharpsville. The trail is the towpath of the old Erie Extension Canal where mules once hauled barges filled with lumber 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 (.8 km) downstream of the Shenango Dam. 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).
Raystown Lake camping (USACE)
Raystown Lake is the largest lake in Pennsylvania, spanning about 30 miles (48 km), and offering endless recreation opportunities. The trail systems are popular for hiking, trail running, backpacking and biking. The Allegrippis Trail System is one of the most extensive mountain bike trails systems east of the Mississippi. If you plan to stay awhile, check in at the 260-site Seven Points Campground, which offers easy access to 19 recreational points of interest including beach access, the marina, Visitors Center and the extensive trail system. Read our spotlight article for more information about this scenic location.
Canyon Lake boat launch (USACE)
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 (45.7 m) wide gorge, a section of the Hidden Valley Fault and eons of geologic history. Highlights at the lake include waterfalls cascading 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 guided hikes that require reservations which fill quickly; contact the Society directly to reserve your spot.