Many travellers do not think about Iowa when they think about places to visit in the USA, but there is actually much to see and do in the Hawkeye State. Not only does it have a history that dates back to the 1600s, but it is also geographically diverse.
Iowa is bounded entirely by rivers to the east and the west, while the Des Moines River can be found at the south end of the state. In between are rolling hills, valleys and lakes. There are both manmade and natural lakes that make for great vacation destinations. These are the 15 best lakes in Iowa.
1. West Okoboji Lake; Dickinson County
One of the Iowa Great Lakes chain of lakes, West Okoboji Lake is a natural lake that sits in northwest Iowa. The 1,557 hectare lake is one of the most popular lake destinations in the state thanks to its fantastic recreational activities.
Boating, sailing, water skiing and swimming are the most popular things to do at West Okoboji Lake. It is also a fantastic fishing destination thanks to its abundance of yellow perch, bluegill and walleye.
Along the shoreline of the lake are the Arnolds Park Amusement Park, Gull Point State Park and Pikes Point State Park. This makes it a fantastic place to take the kids, as there is so much to do here.
2. Big Spirit Lake; Dickinson County
Big Spirit Lake is also one of the Iowa Great Lakes and is the largest lake in the state at 2,300 hectare. The lake is a glacial pothole that dates back to the Ice Age.
Fishing is the most popular thing to do here thanks to the abundance of bullhead, largemouth bass and northern pike. There are also plenty of other fish species that can easily be caught at Big Spirit Lake.
In addition to fishing, many also come to enjoy kiteboarding. There are also plenty of things to do on shore, like picnicking, bird watching and hiking.
3. Rathbun Lake; Appanoose County
One of Iowa’s largest lakes, Rathbun Lake was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and recreational purposes. There were also eight parks built around the lake’s shoreline.
Camping, boating, picnicking, fishing and hunting are popular activities enjoyed at the lake. It is also a great place to catch sight of wildlife like bald eagles, Canada geese, white-tailed deer and wild turkey.
Rathbun Lake is home to public docks, boat ramps, camping grounds, playgrounds and picnic areas. There is also a massive state run resort (Honey Creek State Park Resort) that features an indoor water park and an 18-hole golf course.
4. Lake Manawa; Pottawattamie County
Lake Manawa sits in the city of Council Bluffs close to bordering Nebraska. This makes it a popular destination for locals from both states.
The 618 hectare lake is also a great vacation destination, offering water skiing, wakeboarding and boating. The Manawa State Park surrounds the lake and features a plethora of amenities, including canoe rental, paddle-boat rental, picnic areas, a boat launch and even a beach.
The lake was formed during a flood of the Missouri River in 1881. It was named after a Native American term meaning ‘peace and comfort’.
5. East Okoboji Lake; Dickinson County
This natural body of water is the third largest lake in the Iowa Great Lakes chain of lakes. East Okoboji Lake is a remnant of the Ice Age, dating back around 13,000 years!
The 743 hectare lake is the longest lake in Iowa, though it is not a very deep lake (three metres). Still, it’s a popular fishing destination thanks to its abundance of bullheads.
The Elinor Bedell State Park sits along the western shoreline of the lake, offering visitors access to it for boating, fishing and swimming. The park also features camping grounds, picnic shelters and several kilometres of hiking trails.
6. Lake Red Rock; Marion County
Lake Red Rock sits along the Des Moines River around 88 kilometres southeast of the city of Des Moines. The reservoir was formed in 1969 with the building of the Red Rock Dam.
Today, the lake is a popular recreational area that offers hiking, boating, fishing and camping. There are numerous hiking trails, equestrian trails and boat ramps surrounding the lake.
The Elk Rock State Park, Roberts Creek Park and Cordova Park sit along the lake’s shorelines, in addition to a few beaches. Within the parks are a few attractions, including the Cordova Observation Tower, the Mile Long Bridge and Gladys Black Bald Eagle Refuge.
7. Lake Sugema; Van Buren County
This man-made lake sits right in the southeast corner of Iowa just south of the Des Moines River. The 232 hectare lake was designed as a high quality fishing lake and is well stocked with largemouth bass, bluegill, walleye, channel catfish, black crappie and saugeye.
Lake Sugema has everything that any angler would need, including fishing jetties, boat ramps, floating boat docks and shore access. There is also a fishing pier for the handicapped, as well as other accessible facilities.
The Indian Creek Wildlife area surrounds the lake and is used for hunting, hiking and bird watching. In the winter the trails are open to cross-country skiers.
8. Black Hawk Lake; Sac County
Black Hawk Lake is located in the city of Lake View and is one of its top attractions. The 387 hectare lake is the country’s southernmost glacial lake.
A wide range of activities can be enjoyed here, including swimming, boating, fishing and camping. If you visit in the winter, you can go skating, snowmobiling and ice-fishing.
The lake was named after the Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk American Indian tribe. It is a state run lake that is surrounded by parks and trails, including the Sauk Rail Trail.
9. Coralville Lake; Johnson County
Formed by the Coralville Dam in 1949, today Coralville Lake is used for recreational purposes. It sits along the Iowa River just north of Iowa City.
Activities offered at the lake include fishing, camping, hiking and mountain-biking. It is also possible to go swimming or play a game of beach volleyball.
Coralville Lake is home to three campgrounds, which combined have around 500 campsites. There are also sheltered picnic areas that offer shade on a sunny summer day.
10. Saylorville Lake; Polk, Dallas & Boone Counties
This reservoir sits along the Des Moines River around 18 kilometres from the city of Des Moines. It was constructed for flood control, but is also popular for recreational activities.
There are two state parks surrounding the lake that offer swimming, boating, camping, and hiking. Fishing is also, of course, very popular here.
Saylorville Lake stretches for over 80 kilometres and across three counties. Encircling the lake is a multi-purpose trail that is used for walking, cycling, jogging and in-line skating.
11. Lake Darling; Washington County
This 122 hectare lake is entirely surrounded by the Lake Darling State Park. The park was named after American cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling.
Lake Darling boasts a 29 kilometre shoreline that is lined with picnic shelters, boat ramps and a playground. There is even a beach that is fantastic for swimming and sunbathing.
The park offers hiking, cycling and camping. Those that would prefer to sleep in a bed can stay in one of the state owned cabins, which sleep up to four people.
12. Swan Lake; Carroll County
This 50 hectare reservoir sits just southeast of the city of Carroll. It is the southern terminus of the Sauk Rail Trail, which links it to Black Hawk Lake.
Swan Lake is surrounded by the Swan Lake State Park. There are over 100 campsites within the park, all of which are full hook-up sites.
When visiting the lake you will be able to go kayaking, canoeing, paddle boating and fishing. It is also possible to enjoy the park in the winter, when sledding, snowmobiling and ice-fishing are offered.
13. DeSoto Lake; Harrison & Pottawattamie Counties
A great thing about DeSoto Lake is that it sits within the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to around 30 mammal species and is a stopover on the Central Flyway bird migration route.
DeSoto Lake is a very narrow, but long lake. It is shared with neighbouring Nebraska, though the wildlife refuge is located on the Iowa side.
Although it appears to be natural, it is actually a man-made lake that is popular amongst anglers. Black crappie, catfish, bluegill, freshwater drum, walleye and paddle fish call the lake home.
14. Clear Lake; Cerro Gordo County
Home to the Clear Lake Yacht Club, Clear Lake is well known to boaters from all over the world. The 1,500 hectare lake is also a great place to go wake boarding, water skiing and tubing.
Fishing is also popular here, with the lake having an abundance of walleye, yellow bass, bullhead and channel catfish. In addition to having boat ramps and jetties, there is also a fish cleaning station.
Clear Lake has been named the “Best Iowa Lake Town” and “A Top Vacation Spot”. Its 44.4 kilometre shoreline is dotted with private homes, cottages and parks, including the Clear Lake State Park.
15. Okamanpeedan Lake; Martin County
Also known as Tuttle Lake, Okamanpeedan Lake sits right at the very north end of Iowa and is shared with the neighbouring state on Minnesota. The 930 hectare lake is named after the Native American word meaning ‘a nesting place of the herons’.
The southwest shoreline of the lake is lined with numerous seasonal cabins, while permanent homes sit along the south shoreline. The lake also features a large camping ground with a boat launch.
Okamanpeedan Lake is a popular vacation spot thanks to its recreational activities. Swimming, kayaking, canoeing, boating and fishing can all be enjoyed here.