Generations of lake lovers get away to northwestern Iowa’s Great Lakes each summer.
Nestled among Iowa’s wide-open acres of fertile farmland and sleepy small towns, just shy of the Minnesota border, a group of six glacial lakes glisten in the sunlight as devoted visitors approach. If your trip begins in south Kansas City, as it does for my family a few times each year, you’ll travel about 350 miles of country highways leading almost straight north. We share the roads and a two-finger wave with trucks, tractors, and countless rows of corn. Then, like magic, the roads give way to sparkling blue waters and the promise of rest and merriment just beyond the fields of green.
“Okoboji” collectively refers to the chain of interconnected lakes and townships that surround them. The lakes cover 12,000 acres with nearly 70 miles of shoreline. The largest are Spirit Lake (northern most, reaching into Minnesota and spanning 5,685 acres), West Lake Okoboji (spring fed and 136 feet at its deepest, where some brave souls actually scuba dive) and East Lake Okoboji, separated by Highway 71, which you can cruise under while boating from West to East Lake on your way to the Barefoot Bar (if so inclined). The word “Okoboji” derives from Dakota Sioux language meaning “great waters, reeds or rushes.” But in my family lexicon, Okoboji means “vacation” in every sense of the word.
Blue Water Playground
Opportunities to relax here are abundant, as are water activities and lakeside attractions to satisfy the most adventurous spirit. That is, if you decide to venture from the lazy spot you’ve laid claim to on the deck, beach or dock. You can enjoy boat cruises along West Lake’s many bays and coves, water skiing, swimming, sailing (complete with yacht club, sailing school and weekend regattas), canoeing, kayaking, and acclaimed fishing for walleye, northern pike, large and smallmouth bass and more. Not to mention the shopping! The dining! The nightlife!
No boat? No problem! Local marinas, resorts and specialty shops rent or sell all your water sport and transportation needs. There are summer camps for children and teens, such as the YMCA’s Camp Foster, central to family traditions for generations. Arnolds Park, a lakeside landmark and amusement park, has entertained visitors since the late 1800s. The park boasts more than 30 rides and attractions, featuring a 65-foot Ferris wheel overlooking the water and one of America’s oldest wooden rollercoasters, the Legend, with its iconic apex, “The Point of no Return” – a must for every bucket list.
If dry land is more your speed, there are campgrounds and lodging for every group and budget, whether you’re looking for rustic, turn-of-the-century cabins or more modern accommodations. Any golfers in your crew? Five nearby courses beckon, as do more than 50 miles of hiking/biking trails, seven state parks, serene picnic areas and nature observation points, art and history museums, live music and even live theatre. Check out all that Okoboji has to offer at VacationOkoboji.com.
Marilyn Witt Tampke of Leawood has visited Okoboji her entire life, as have her five children. While growing up in Omaha, her parents would stay at The Inn, a vintage resort built more than 100 years ago. By the 1980s, the Witt family invested in their own summer home at West Lake’s Sandpiper Cove.
“One of the things that makes Okoboji so special is that it doesn’t change, year after year, decade after decade,” says Tampke. “Beautiful lake houses of all shapes and sizes line the shore. No high rises, no huge resorts. Just ‘lakey’ places.” Among her dearest rituals: “I loved going to Arnolds Park as a child, my children love it and hopefully in a few years I will bring my grandchildren to the park. Okoboji is my true north.” Marilyn’s husband, Scott, bikes the trail around the lake over and over again. “He loves Okoboji almost as much as I do,” she says.
Dolly Rohling Simpson of Omaha is another Okoboji devotee with a wealth of lake knowledge and fond memories to share. As a little girl from Council Bluffs, Iowa in the 1930s, Dolly recalls staying in cottages on West Lake’s Manhattan Beach long before the Okoboji Yacht Club settled there.
“The roads around the lake were poor in those days, so steamboats ferried passengers to and fro. The cottages where we stayed had a flag on the dock that we raised to signal the Queen to come by and pick us up,” she remembers. “It was such a thrill to ride on the Queen.” The original steam-driven boats of the era were retired as road transportation improved. But the community has kept the excursion boat tradition alive. Today the Queen II sails across West Lake a few times each day, as the captain shares maritime history with tourists and toots the boat’s distinct horn when fans wave from shore.
Friendly Oasis Is No Myth
A charming bit of folklore surrounds the Iowa Great Lakes and is worth exploring during your stay. Published documents and word of mouth through the years attest that West Lake Okoboji is one of only three “blue lakes” in the world. Likely not, say experts from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. But the water quality has officially been rated “exceptional” for the region, providing bragging rights all the same.
And while you’re conducting water studies, consider obtaining a degree from that hallowed (albeit mythical) institution, the University of Okoboji. You, too, can join one of the most prestigious alumni clubs around, where most students “major” in goodwill and celebration. Many U of O festivities (as well as “Campus” attire and memorabilia) sprung up nearly 40 years ago, thanks to the playful imaginations of Herman and Emil Richter. The Richter brothers proudly own and operate The Three Sons clothing store in nearby Milford, Iowa, “The place to go when it’s time to look good on Campus.” Campus spirit has inspired annual events including the U of O Winter Games, a regional Youth Soccer Tournament, the Campus Bike Ride and Homecoming Triathlon/Marathon to celebrate the camaraderie that comes from just a few pleasant hours spent at Okoboji U.
From Nutty Bars along Queen’s Court to treats at The Sugar Shack in the Central Emporium, Okoboji’s friendly hosts, scenic views and proud history leave an indelible mark on visitors. Just as the glaciers did in northwestern Iowa over 14,000 years ago.