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The OTHER Great Lakes

Sunset on the Iowa Great Lakes.

Sunset on the Iowa Great Lakes.

David Thoreson, Blue Water Studies and Okoboji Tourism Committee

Superior, Michigan, Erie…Okoboji? While the amazing, enormous inland seas we know as the Great Lakes stretch across the northern part of the U.S., providing recreation, commerce and good eats for the masses, there’s a lesser-known chain out in the Great Northwest that is vying for its moment in the spotlight. Northwest Iowa, that is.

The Great Lakes of Iowa, just like its renowned neighbors to the north, were not-so-gently carved into the landscape by retreating glaciers over billions of years. They cover about 15,000 acres stretching clear to the Minnesota border and include Iowa’s biggest natural body of water, Spirit Lake, as well as five interconnect lakes including West Okoboji, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Lower Gar and Minnewashta. The crown jewel, though, is West Lake Okoboji, a spring-fed treasure that’s sparkling blue and over 100-feet deep in some places.

Of course, if you live anywhere around the population centers of Sioux Falls, Minneapolis or Des Moines, you know those cities form a triangle with the Iowa Great Lakes just about right in the middle. But elsewhere in the Heartland, this area is a well-kept secret. Maybe that’s because there’s just no easy way to get there from anywhere else. And that’s too bad, because it’s perfectly set up for recreational boating, with more than 70 miles of shoreline and navigable channels running through most of the area. As long you can clear bridges between 5 and 9 feet (depending on lake levels), you’ll be able to check out a treasure most folks outside of Iowa will never even know about.

“This is definitely one of the premier boating lakes in the Midwest, and we have thousands of people who trailer their boats here,” said Tom Kuhlman, executive vice president of the Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. “With hundreds of miles of beautiful shoreline, plenty of launch ramps and a wide variety of different lake settings, you will be able to find the perfect spot for your favorite activities.”

As one of the top boating destinations in Iowa, the lakes feature all the amenities you’ll need for a great trip — marinas, on-water restaurants and amusements of all kinds round out the adventure. From the tiki-hut styled Barefoot Bar featuring live music and cold drinks, to the Central Emporium shopping mall, to more cerebral pursuits like the Maritime Museum and the Lakes Art Center, there’s something for every interest. And no trip the Great Lakes region would be complete without a trip to historic Arnold’s Park Amusement Park, featuring classic rides and games, the Queen II excursion boat and a full beach.

Your on-the-water adventure can start with either your trailered boat (please make sure you clean, drain and dry your boat before hitting the road to prevent the transfer of non-native invasive species) or any number of power, sail and paddle rental establishments located on Spirit Lake and throughout the chain. And you’ll always find good fishing: walleye in Trapper’s Bay; bluegill at Buffalo Run; northern pike at Trickle Slough. You can even enlist the services of numerous professional fishing guides for a little local knowledge.

“We have a big walleye fishing season opening event the first week in May,” Kuhlman said. “After Memorial Day, we’re really wide open for all kinds of fun on the water.”

When you feel like stretching your legs on land, you can take a hike along the Iowa Great Lakes Trail, which offers beautiful picnic, playground and peddling opportunities all around the lake chain as part of the Rails to Trails pathway system.

Here’s one thing you’ll need to know before you go. (It’s always good to be in on the area’s most popular “inside joke.”) You see, before you go cruising around asking about the widely advertised University of Okoboji, you should know that it’s entirely fictitious. It was the tongue-in-check creation of Milford, Iowa, clothing business owners Herman and Emil Richter, and it’s become a true legend. The made-up mansion of matriculation (complete with its own school crest) has been fooling unsuspecting out-of-towners for generations now. It’s all in good fun, however, and the name is now used in conjunction with a number of annual charity fundraisers such as bike rides, a marathon and a wildly popular Winter Games competition.

Beautiful boating, fantastic fishing and a great sense of humor, what’s not to love about the Great Lakes of Iowa? As Kuhlman said: “There are just so many things to do here. One thing I can promise is that once you visit, you’ll be back!”

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