3 Reasons to Visit the Iowa Great Lakes This Fall

Okoboji without the crowds.

By Jessen O’Brien

If you know how to pronounce Okoboji, then chances are, you’re one of the lucky few to have visited the Iowa Great Lakes, a chain of six glacier-carved lakes set unexpectedly among the cornfields of northern Iowa. Most travelers to the area have roots that stretch back decades, if not more than a century—families first started building summer cabins here in the 1850s. These vacationers typically stick to the same schedule their forebears did, visiting the area between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when the water is at its warmest and most welcoming. Most businesses close up in the fall, but the area’s real draw is the sheer beauty of the lakes and the peace they afford—charms that only intensify as the crowds slip away.

The Lakes

In early fall, before the docks are stored for winter, you can still get out on West Okoboji Lake, East Okoboji Lake, and Spirit Lake, the region’s main attractions. Unlike in summer, when so many boats and WaveRunners crisscross the lakes that waterskiing can be a challenge, in the fall it’s no trouble to find a quiet patch of water to call your own. You can rent boats, WaveRunners, and water sports equipment from Okoboji Boat Works (1401 Lake Shore Dr., Okoboji; 712-332-9904; boat rentals, from $155 for two hours; WaveRunners, from $50 for two hours). But even when boating’s no longer an option, there are few activities more relaxing than sitting out by one of the lakes and watching the water gently ripples, especially as the trees slowly fade into shades of amber. If you need an activity to enjoy yourself, consider stopping by Stan’s Bait Shop (2306 Okoboji Ave., Milford; 712-338-2586) to load up on fishing equipment. You can fish here year-round—come winter, the lakes freeze over solidly enough that you can set up a temporary shelter for ice fishing.

The Trails

The lakes may be the most popular attractions around, but there are other reasons to get outdoors. More than 100 miles of biking and walking trails loop around the lakes and cut through the surrounding farmland. Okoboji Expedition Company (1021 Hwy. 71 S., Okoboji; 712-332-9001; road-bike rentals, $25 an hour or $75 a day) rents road bikes as well as electric-assist bikes, hybrids, and other gear to anyone eager to pedal these trails. The bike shop also organizes group rides and is the place to go if you have questions about which trails to hit—the staff is always happy to point out a path that might be a good fit. Before, after, or during your ride you can detour over to Wyman’s Spudnutz (1104 Hwy. 71, Okoboji; 712-332-6293; glazed donuts, $1.50*), whose potato-based donuts often sell out in summer.

The Great Indoors

When the weather’s bad, or if you just feel like a change of pace, head to the Okoboji Antique Mall (690 Hwy. 71 S., Arnolds Park; 712-332-2712). It takes time to make your way through the multi-room showroom, which sells objects both odd and wonderful. A recent walk-through revealed a vintage cinnamon container the size of toddler and a stained-glass lamp shaped like a chicken—as well as a set of mid-century silver-rimmed cocktail glasses, complete with a small pitcher. Antiques of Okoboji (606 S. Hwy. 71, Arnolds Park; 712-339-5468) moves next door this fall and offers a well-curated collection of ironstone china, records, and the occasional piece of transferware. You can celebrate your finds with a pint at West O Beer (503 Terrace Park Blvd., West Okoboji; 712-332-8090; pints for two, $8), a nearby brewery whose beers are made with water drawn from the spring-fed West Okoboji Lake. The taproom doubles as a game room and occasional concert venue. Before you leave, be sure to buy a growler to take with you—and to bring back next time. Refills are only $12 for a 64-ounce growler, a bargain as good as any you’ll find in the antique stores.

  • *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: October 2019