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Star of east-central Iowa's recreation opportunities, Coralville Lake has led the pack for the 60 years of its existence. Originally built to control flooding and regulate fluctuating water levels on the Iowa River, the Coralville Reservoir quickly became the go-to destination for water-based fun. The massive reservoir impounds a 23-mile stretch of the Iowa River with a dam built in 1958 near Iowa City. The process took many years from planning stage to eventual completion, with the Korean War's costs drying up the funding for a period of time. The reservoir was finally completed and filled, pre-planned recreational projects begun, and area residents and visitors welcomed their new lake.
Because periodic flooding had devastated the area around Iowa City several times in the past, the reservoir was designed to hold a huge amount of flood water. During normal operations, Coralville Lake spans 5,430 acres and stores 28,100 acre-feet of water (9.16 billion gallons). At maximum flood capacity, the reservoir expands to 24,800 surface acres with a 100-year flood storage capacity of 421,000 acre-feet (137.18 billion gallons). Even that amount of excess storage has proven insufficient on two occasions in recent years as rainstorms in 1993 and 2008 dumped more water on the watershed than the lake could hold and release. Iowa City and surrounding areas suffered massive flooding, only partially alleviated by Coralville Reservoir. Without the reservoir, flooding would have been much worse. Because only a low dam separates Coralville Lake and Lake Macbride, the two merged on both occasions. Most of the time, however, Coralville Lake is calm, refreshing and a welcome haven on hot summer days.
Coralville Lake has over 50 miles of shoreline and numerous arms and branches along its curving path. The lake offers boating, waterskiing, tubing, jet skiing, pontooning, windsurfing and paddle sports opportunities. One activity that is common on the lake is houseboating, with designated houseboat slips with electricity, making it convenient to actually stay on the water for days at a time. Winter storage docks and dry storage are available for lease. Three concession marinas supply boaters' needs including gas, groceries, sports equipment, boat repairs and fishing supplies. At least one has a restaurant and camping space available. Boat rentals are offered, including pontoons. Visitors explore the coves and sandbars with kayaks, canoes and small sailboats.
Fishermen also appreciate Coralville Reservoir; its waters hold white bass, walleye, northern pike, hybrid striped bass, channel catfish, crappie, largemouth bass, sunfish, smallmouth bass, freshwater drum and bigmouth buffalo. The coves and shallows offer good structure for spawning fish, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitors fish populations, stocking several varieties regularly. In winter, the ice often becomes thick enough to support ice fishing, particularly in the coves. An Iowa fishing license is required, and care should be taken to obey any special fishing regulations. A nominal fee is charged for launching at the ten boat ramps.
Several swimming beaches are provided at Coralville Lake, some to all comers and a couple strictly for campers occupying the adjacent campgrounds. A small fee is charged day visitors to use the beaches. Campsites are centered in three areas along the lake and can be found to meet nearly any needs. RV spaces and RV dumps are available, as are some sites with water and electricity. Other spaces are suitable for tent camping, and some have no amenities except picnic tables. Sugar Bottom, Sandy Beach and Dam Complex campgrounds offer a total of more than 500 campsites. Reservations are taken for most of them. Restrooms are located throughout the large recreation area, as are playgrounds and game fields. Two disk golf courses are located within the USACE recreation area and growing in popularity. Along with a network of trails, the recreation area is nearly as popular off-water as on-water. In late autumn, certain areas are open for hunting.
Ten miles of one-way mountain biking trail begins at the Sugar Bottom Day Use Area. The Cedar Valley Nature Trail in the same area is immensely popular. The multi-use Woodpecker Nature Trail and the Squire Point Trail meet to form a five-mile year-round trail at the Linder Point area of the Dam Complex. These trails are popular among bird watchers who can identify many native birds in their natural habitat. The Veterans Trail and the Tailwater Riverwalk are both accessible to the disabled and wheelchairs. The trails get heavy use in winter from cross-country skiers and snowshoe fans. All areas are available for the cost of an annual pass, making this one of the best recreational bargains around.
The Coralville Lake Visitors Center provides an informative introduction to the wildlife and geology of the area. Visitors can watch a movie about the 2008 flood and take a short hike to see what the rushing flood waters uncovered at the Devonian Fossil Gorge. The Center is open year-round. The Gorge displays thousands of fossils embedded in the limestone substrata that were uncovered during the 1993 flood and expanded by the 2008 flood. The rushing waters scoured away several feet of sand and limestone, exposing the long-extinct denizens of the sea that once covered the area about 375 million years ago. Coral formations discovered in 1866 are the origin of the Coralville name.
If the many miles of wooded shoreline aren't enough to satisfy one's thirst for nature and knowledge, the Macbride Nature Recreation area across the dam at Lake Macbride holds the Iowa Raptor Center for the rehabilitation of injured birds of prey. Other exhibit areas there include a hummingbird garden, prairie area and a bird watching blind. The home of the University of Iowa, Iowa City and the nearby town of Coralville hold all types of lodgings, including hotels, motels, bed & breakfasts, guest cottages and inns, along with all types of entertainment, museums , restaurants and shopping.
A few private homes and condos with a view of Coralville Lake can occasionally be located for short-term rental. Several historic destinations can be found within a short drive of Coralville Lake, including the famous Amana Colonies. In Coralville, one can hear the tales of the original pioneers who left their river transport behind and built human-drawn carts to haul their families and goods on the next leg of their long journey to the beckoning West. If you haven't explored east-central Iowa, there's no better excuse that Coralville Lake.
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