Weekenders: The Great Lakes of Iowa

Thanks to a host of newer attractions, this Midwestern family favorite will continue to charm visitors for generations to come.

By Jessen O'Brien

A well-kept secret outside the Midwest, the Iowa Great Lakes have been a summer mainstay since families started coming here in the 1850s. Today the region offers deep blue waters, meandering bike trails and country antique shops. The glacier-carved lakes are especially popular in summer but have plenty to offer in the fall, when the crowds thin out. On land, small towns well worth exploring line the lakes. Although known primarily for throwbacks such as nostalgic diners and a landmark amusement park, the area has recently added attractions that add to its appeal and make now a great time to discover the country’s heartland.

Lay of the Lakes

The Iowa Great Lakes are located at the northern edge of the state, so close to Minnesota that some prefer to fly into Minneapolis instead of Des Moines. From either city, it’s about a three-hour drive through swaying cornfields and deep green patches of soybeans to reach the lakes. After miles of farmland, the first glimpse of water can be startling—suddenly there’s nothing but blue skies, bluer water and a row of inviting cottages between them.

The three main lakes are West Okoboji Lake, East Okoboji Lake and Spirit Lake. Local legend has it that spring-fed West Okoboji is one of the three bluest lakes in the world, and although it hasn’t been proved, the lake remains the undisputed star of the region. Stretch your legs with a stroll through the surrounding neighborhoods. On the eastern side of the lake you’ll find cottages built by the original settlers, while on the western side you may see a few ultramodern structures alongside stone bungalows.

During your trip you’re bound to come across sweatshirts, stickers and even playing cards that bear the crest of the University of Okoboji. There’s no such college, but the swag has been around since the 1970s. It’s a community-wide project, thought up by Herman and Emil Richter, two founders of The Three Sons clothing retailer, to unite the area. Profits from University of Okoboji local events, such as the University of Okoboji Winter Games, help fund community organizations. If you stop by the store, in Milford, be sure to grab a free copy of the made-up school’s latest entrance exam, which comes out each fall. It’s a series of visual puns and word puzzles and is fun to work through one afternoon as you laze about by the water.

Vintage Okoboji

No trip to the Iowa Great Lakes is complete without spending some time on the water. In warmer weather, swimming, tubing and waterskiing fill up the day, while in colder months travelers bundle up to go ice fishing. In the fall you can rent boats and stand-up paddleboards or sign up for a cruise at Okoboji Boat Works. A short drive away Hill Avenue Book Company supplies reading material for quiet days relaxing onshore.

If you want to work for your supper, go to Stan’s Bait Shop to pick up equipment and tips on where to find some of the best fishing spots around. Before heading out, gather your strength at the O’Farrell Sisters diner. This local institution has been serving up hearty fare, such as blueberry pancakes and cinnamon rolls the size of softballs, since 1942. You can round out the meal with a Bloody Mary or an old-fashioned malt.

Biking is another classic area pastime. More than 100 miles of paved trails curve around the lakefront, wind through towns and cut through Iowa prairie. At the Okoboji Expedition Company you can rent bikes for land and water, and for an extra fee they’ll even deliver. They can also help guide you to a path that’s right for you. One of the most popular trails on the Iowa Great Lakes Trails route is the Spine Trail, a 14-mile stretch with several shorter routes that branch off. Part of that main trail passes near Hey, Good Cookies!, so don’t hesitate to detour if you need a little boost. The molasses and snickerdoodle are standout flavors, although you can’t go wrong with any of their freshly baked treats.

Especially if you’re traveling with kids, plan a day at Arnolds Park Amusement Park, which stays open through early September. Celebrating 126 years, the historic park is home to the Legend, the seventh-oldest roller coaster in the country. The wooden coaster reaches a height of 63 feet, giving parkgoers a view of West Okoboji Lake before dropping. There’s no entry fee (visitors pay per ride), so you can duck just outside the grounds as many times as you like to visit the Nutty Bar Stand. Its signature treat consists of vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate, rolled in nuts and served on a stick. Also on the menu: homemade root beer and frozen chocolate-covered bananas.

On the Town

There’s plenty to do year-round in the small towns that circle the lakes. Dozens of antique stores specializing in country pieces can be found throughout the area. The multiroom Okoboji Antique Mall brims with smaller collectibles, such as Depression and hobnail glassware, as well as larger items, including farmhouse hutches and tables. For a different kind of vintage, head to Okoboji Classic Cars, part car dealership and part museum. Here, at the Midwest’s “ultimate man cave” (as it bills itself), you can get up close to an array of mint-condition vehicles, such as a Ford Thunderbird from the ’50s, a Cadillac Eldorado from the ’70s or a Ferrari 328 GTS from the ’80s.

Afterward you can hit up the area’s first brewery, in the town of Spirit Lake. Okoboji Brewing Company has about 20 beers on tap and a variety of board games available in its family-friendly tasting room. Father-and-son team Donn and Cole Martens started out as home brewers before founding the microbrewery. Two of their most popular beers are the Veneration IPA and Shot in the Dark Vanilla Cream Stout. If you’re inspired by your pint, you can pick up a home-brew kit on-site.

Drive south to visit West O Beer, another microbrewery run by a local family. Matt and Michaela Matthiesen made beer together for 10 years before the couple opened West O Beer, in 2013, and the brewery has already expanded twice. The brewers take pride in their suds and in their naturally soft water, which comes from West Okoboji Lake. Stop by their tasting room to sample the latest beers and hear live music acts. Don’t leave without a pint of the West O CocO Stout,™ a two-time gold-medal winner at the Great American Beer Fest®.

You’ll find more craft brews on tap at the Okoboji Store, a restaurant that opened on the waterfront last summer. It’s modeled after a general store that stood on the spot for decades, and you’ll find pieces of lake history throughout the menu and decor. Popular dishes include the burgers—each bun is hand-branded with the restaurant’s logo—and Zeke’s Fish and Chips, blue gill battered in locally brewed pilsner and named for the general store’s former manager, who also sold bait on the spot where the bar now stands. Modern touches such as these still call up the nostalgia that has drawn families to the Iowa Great Lakes season after season, generation after generation.

EAT
Hey, Good Cookies!
1310 18th St., Spirit Lake; 712-336-4179; heygoodcookies.com; cookies for two, $5
Nutty Bar Stand
37 Lake St., Arnolds Park; 712-332-2243; nutty bars for two, $5
O’Farrell Sisters
1109 Lake Shore Dr., Okoboji; 712-332-7901; parksmarina.com; dinner for two, $40*
Okoboji Store
1404 Hwy. 71 S., Okoboji; 712-332-8180; theokobojistore.com; dinner for two, $30
EXPLORE
Iowa Great Lakes Trails
712-332-2209; inhf.org
Okoboji Classic Cars
810 Jeppeson Rd., West Okoboji; 712-332-8029; okobojicc.com; tours, $12 a person
Stan’s Bait Shop
2306 Okoboji Ave., Milford; 712-338-2586; stansbaitandtackle.com
PLAY
Arnolds Park Amusement Park
37 Lake St., Arnolds Park; 712-332-2183; arnoldspark.com; admission, free; rides, prices vary
Okoboji Boat Works
1401 Lake Shore Dr., Okoboji; 712-332-9904; parksmarina.com; boat rentals, from $40 for the first hour
Okoboji Expedition Company
1021 Hwy. 71 S., Okoboji; 712-332-9001; okobojiexpedition.com; road-bike rentals, $30 for up to 3 hours
RELAX
Okoboji Brewing Company
3705 Hwy. 71, Spirit Lake; 712-336-8406; brewokoboji.com
West O Beer
503 Terrace Park Blvd., West Okoboji; 712-332-8090; westobeer.com
SHOP
Hill Avenue Book Company
1711 Hill Ave., Spirit Lake; 712-336-5672
Okoboji Antique Mall
690 Hwy. 71 S., Arnolds Park; 712-332-2712
The Three Sons
902 10th St., Milford; 712-338-2424; store.threesons.com
STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts near the Iowa Great Lakes:
Sunrise Cove at Village West 2101
There is no shortage of family-friendly outdoor activities at this Iowa mainstay. 20785 170th St., Spirit Lake
Member Review: “We enjoyed the hot tub, movies and library.”
For complete member review (as member review has been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts
AmericInn Lodge & Suites Okoboji
Minutes away from area golfing and the glacier-carved lakes. 1005 Brooks Park Dr., Okoboji; 712-332-9000; americinn.com; doubles from $140 a night
Vintage Block Inn & Suites
Modern suites right on East Okoboji Lake. 1302 Hwy. 71, Okoboji; 712-332-8040; vintageblockinnandsuites.com; doubles from $109 a night
  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2016