Gray's Lake Park: Des Moines, Iowa


The 1.9-mile walk around Gray's Lake is known as "doing the loop," and for some residents it's a daily ritual that even prairie grass burns, trail repairs, and flooding won't stop. Such dedicated use of the park is just one example of how important Gray's Lake Park is to everyday life in Des Moines. The city's best-known and most-visited recreation area, the park has qualities and features that attract visitors regardless of the time of day or season of the year. The iconic, 1,400-foot-long Kruidenier Trail pedestrian bridge over the lake is the park's most distinguishing feature.

Designated Area

The park is located at Fleur Drive and George Flagg Parkway.

Gray's Lake is located within the city boundaries of Des Moines. The trail connects with a six-mile network of downtown Des Moines trails and offers expansive views of the city's skyline. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Community Alliance.

Planning Excellence

Built in 2000 when an owner wouldn't sell land south of the lake, the bridge completes the lake's circumferential trail and provides the park's best views of the downtown skyline. It's even more dramatic at night when a rainbow of colors lights up the 16-foot-wide pathway and reflects off the dichroic glass panel railings.

Begun as a small oxbow lake on the Raccoon River, Gray's Lake expanded to 100 acres by the 1950s, the result of four decades of sand and gravel quarrying. Those who preferred the area to be used as a recreational park were dismayed by construction of a hotel by the lake in 1959.

Residents continued to call for a park and a city plan recommended that Gray's Lake be set aside for recreation. The plan, together with funding to purchase a portion of the land around the lake, led to the park's creation in 1970. A devastating 1993 flood, which destroyed the hotel on the lake, provided an opportunity to redevelop the area into a more extensive park. Public and private contributions, led by local philanthropists David and Elizabeth Kruidenier, inspired both renovation of the park and hundreds of millions of dollars of development in downtown Des Moines.

Today, trail counts project that more than one million people use Gray's Lake Park each year, whether to eat lunch during the weekday, walk dogs, connect to local and regional trails, attend outdoor yoga classes, or boat and fish. A place for all seasons, Gray's Lake is the crown jewel of Des Moines's park system — the epitome of an ideal public space.

The Kruidenier Trail Pedestrian Bridge featured at night and lit up in an array of bright colors. Photo courtesy of Tim Bloomquist.

Defining Characteristics, Features

History and planning

  • Holiday Inn constructed near lake in 1959 raised concerns that commercial development would prohibit use of the lake and surrounding area as a park; in 1963 Des Moines produces its 1980 General Plan, which identifies area as future park
  • Funds secured in 1970 by former U.S. Representative Neal Smith and then-Des Moines Chamber of Commerce President Robb Kelley allow city to purchase land around lake for park; Gray's Lake Park dedicated same year
  • Gray's Lake Park's first master plan completed in 1970 by local landscape architects Jon Crose and Associates; firm also develops park's 1997 master plan
  • 1993 flood destroyed Holiday Inn and existing park facilities; flood provided impetus for combined federal, state, city, and private redevelopment efforts for Gray's Lake
  • In 1998 local philanthropists David and Elizabeth Kruidenier pledged $1.5 million for trail around lake; Weitz Company, a local construction firm, owned one-third of lake that it donated to city; Polk County, businesses, and individuals also donated funds for park
  • First and only park in Des Moines' 73-park system to have dedicated maintenance staff, including seasonal trail ambassador; first and only public swimming beach in Des Moines
  • 2011 shoreline restoration work addresses flooding and erosion concerns through grading of steep or eroded bank areas to more stable slopes and planting native vegetation

Serves as catalyst for redevelopment

  • Park renaissance began in 2000 with groundbreaking on pedestrian bridge, trail and other improvements; city's 2020 Community Character Plan (1995) acknowledged potential of park to become a "showpiece as part of an exciting gateway into downtown Des Moines"
  • Des Moines Park and Recreation Director Donald M. Tripp estimates more than $2 billion in downtown Des Moines projects and developments were inspired by success of Gray's Lake Park redevelopment
  • Principal Financial developed Principal Riverwalk downtown, inspired in part by resident support of Gray's Lake renovations
  • Gray's Lake Neighborhood Association formed after park renovation, fueled by camaraderie inspired by park
  • Catalyst for landscaped medians along Fleur Drive, the gateway into downtown Des Moines from the airport
  • Surrounding communities use Gray's Lake as model for their own parks

Community support and activity

  • Active community groups, including Gray's Lake Park and Meredith Trail Advisory Committee, ensure park develops with business and individual input
  • Individuals, groups, and businesses honored on nearly 3,000 donated plaques along pedestrian bridge
  • Volunteers lead canoeing and sailing classes, other activities; also yoga, kite flying, and an annual Carp Fest, which promotes fishing for the species
  • Besides lake, the 167-acre park has sandy swimming beach, picnic area, playground; historic concrete silos reminder of lake's quarry origins
  • Illuminated trails make park accessible day and night; safety enhanced by extended hours during busy season, free use of life jackets, presence of off-duty police officers

Local, national connectivity

  • Just two miles from downtown, Gray's Lake Park's trail connects to 42-mile network of Des Moines trails and more than 500 miles of the Central Iowa Trail System; Meredith Trail (2005), downtown connector, provides access to public transit
  • Bike rental available on site
  • Planned pedestrian trails along the Des Moines River will connect Gray's Lake Park by way of Neal Smith and John Pat Dorrian Trails to the coast-to-coast non-motorized American Discovery Trail
  • Gray's Lake Park part of larger Central Iowa Greenways System, which enhances water quality and the environment, alternative transportation, and community and economic vitality along Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers

The Kruidenier Trail Bridge completes the Gray's Lake circumference trail and is popular by day and night. Photo courtesy of Bob Modersohn.