When you think of Iowa, perhaps images of cornfields and dusty combines come to mind. But in the northwest corner, an area known as Okoboji, that vision changes to crystal-clear lakes and sunbathing tourists on sandy beaches. This is where a cluster of natural glacial lakes — the Iowa Great Lakes, as they are called — draw people, especially in the heart of summer.
The three largest of the great lakes are West and East Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake. They are the largest natural lakes in Iowa, and although the area is made up of many communities, as a whole it is referred to as simply Okoboji.
Many locals will say they are alums of the University of Okoboji, but don’t be fooled — it’s a fictitious place that has taken on a life of its own in memorabilia and merchandise over the years. Even the area radio station, KUOO, touts itself as the “campus radio station.”
What to do
The Arnolds Park Amusement Park anchors the area. Built in 1889, it’s one of the longest operating amusement parks in the world. Among many amusements, it offers rides on the famous wooden “Legend” roller coaster, built in 1927 (www.arnoldspark.com; 1-712-332-2183).
The park sits on West Okoboji, and when the sun sets, the park reflects in the clear waters bordered by a boardwalk. The Roof Garden is the place to see concerts, and Okoboji Classic Cars is a fun stop along the boardwalk as well (www.arnoldspark.com; 1-712-332-2183).
Nothing in the area quite takes you back in time like the Queen II, a replica of the original Queen and the last member of the original Okoboji fleet from the steamboat era. The regal crafts have been a part of the area’s history since the 1800s, and the Queen II is quite a sight coming across West Okoboji amid the speedboats and water scooters. Tickets for a one-hour excursion cost $15 for adults; $13 for seniors and $5 for children (buy tickets at Arnolds Park, where the boat docks).
Okoboji is a boater’s paradise, and there are numerous marinas offering pleasure boating, skiing, wake boarding, canoeing, jet skiing, kayaking and tubing. Okoboji Boat Works at Parks Marina is a good bets (www.parksmarina.com; 1-712-332-7303).
If fishing is on the agenda, start with Oh Shucks Bait and Tackle, which will take care of your equipment needs and set you up with a reliable guide (they will also clean your fish) (1-712-338-2087). Wondering how the area became such a great fishery? Visit the state fish hatchery on Spirit Lake, which offers tours during spring fish-rearing season, and has massive aquariums that showcase the fish species swimming in the waters with you (www.iowadnr.gov).
Where to shop
Check out the Central Emporium, which has dozens of shops all under the same roof, right next to Arnolds University of Okoboji T-shirts and sweatshirt, funky jewelry and an old-fashioned candy shop. The emporium was a ballroom back in the 1950s, and the experience of walking down the sloped and creaky wooden floors and stairways takes you back in time (www.centralemporium.com; 1-712-332-5293).
Nightlife in Okoboji revs up especially during major holidays, when crowds resemble spring break revelers in Florida. Bars on the lake offer docks where boaters can pull up, tie off and come in for a cocktail or food.
Stops include the Ritz, off Hwy. 71 on East Lake Okoboji, popular with partiers who come for its fishbowl drinks (1-712-332-2777); and Pirate Jack’s, which sits on the State Pier in Arnolds Park, next to the Queen II docks.
The Wine Bar and Art Gallery, located on Broadway Street in the park, offers more serenity on Thursday through Saturday nights. The atmosphere is quiet, and there’s live music Thursdays on the patio, an art gallery featuring Iowa artists, along with an ample wine and beer list (http://winebarandartgallery.com).
Where to stay
If you want to stay in the heart of Arnolds Park, check out Fillenwarth Beach. It is an easy walk to everything in the park, and it’s right on the banks of West Okoboji. Its 96 units come in a range of sizes, from cozy cottages to large studios to rental apartments. It evokes the feeling of the classic resort experience, with family activities on the beach and boat rentals on the lake. It boasts a gigantic dock where visitors can soak up the sun or watch sunsets. The lodge also offers free sightseeing cruises to guests on its 49-foot Sun Runner boats (www.fillenwarthbeach.com; 1-800-332-7236).
History isn’t hard to find in Okoboji, and the Inn at Okoboji is another great lodging choice. Open since 1896, it’s perched on the east side of West Lake Okoboji and offers rooms and cottage-style suites along the lake. It also has a golf course, tennis courts and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. With a wedding often happening at the inn or on the beach, it offers great people-watching (www.bojifun.com; 1-877-265-4386).