Iowa’s Great Lakes: A Midwestern paradise


Getting there: Tucked in the northwest corner of Iowa, Okoboji is particularly popular with residents of Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota and best reached by car. It is about 180 miles from Minneapolis, 200 miles from Des Moines and 500 miles from Chicago.

Staying: Two of the area's most popular hotels are modest and comfortable lakefront resorts: The Inn at Okoboji (3301 Lake Shore Drive, Okoboji, 712-332-2113712-332-2113, and Fillenwarth Beach Resort (87 Lakeshore Drive, Arnolds Park, 712-332-5646712-332-5646, For those wanting to be closer to nature, there are more than 100 camping sites at Gull Point State Park (1500 Harpen St., Milford;, on West Okoboji Lake's western edge, and some short hiking trails.

Doing: The lakes are the heart of the action. Many people bring their own boats, but those who don't can rent or take a public cruise from Okoboji Boat Works (1401 Lake Shore Drive; JTG Expeditions ( offers fishing charters. Terrace Park Beach in Milford is popular with families, as is Arnolds Park Amusement Park (37 Lake St., Arnolds Park;

Eating: Okoboji abounds with restaurants that have been in business for years and offer solid meals, such as Minerva's (1405 U.S. 71, Okoboji, 712-332-5296712-332-5296,,) Maxwell's Beach Cafe (37 Lake St., Arnolds Park, 712-332-7578712-332-7578, and Yesterdays (131 Broadway St., Arnolds Park, 712-332-2353712-332-2353, The newly opened, lakefront Okoboji Store (1404 Highway 71 South, Okoboji, 712-332-8180712-332-8180, has quickly become a town favorite. For fine dining, most locals point to Rabab's as the place to go; it has two locations (1621 Hill Ave, Spirit Lake, 712-336-3400712-336-3400; 144 Lakeshore Drive, Arnolds Park, 712-332-8176712-332-8176,

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OKOBOJI, Iowa — I have seen the heart of America.

It is a timeless place where little ever changes.

It is a place of big lakes, where people boat and fish and swim and children run off docks at full speed.

It is a place where Cheez-Its and Coors Light make up the pre-dinner snack of choice (my hotel neighbors, who had just driven up from Sioux City) and powdered doughnuts and orange juice precede a breakfast of maple sausage and scrambled eggs topped with ham and shredded cheese (the same neighbors, on the grill outside their room, the next morning).

And it is, of course, a place of many American flags — so many that when I strolled down to my hotel’s white wood dock shortly after checking in, one guy there wore a bathing suit in an American flag pattern while his friend wore a shirt that simply read, “USA,” with stars and stripes inside each letter. And affixed to that dock? Two American flags, flapping in the stiff, clean lake breeze.

“How’s it going?” I asked the guy in the American flag bathing suit.

“Just another day in paradise,” he said, and cast his line into West Okoboji Lake.

The heart of America, naturally, is in Iowa.

At the very least, the Iowa Great Lakes are a Midwestern paradise — the kind of place that people drive to not for what’s new but for what’s always been there. No one, it seems, has just started visiting. They’ve been going since they were kids. And now they bring their kids. Who will bring their kids. Its greatest attribute — and arguably biggest drawback — is that so little has changed.

“My family’s been coming here for 30 or 40 years,” said Jason Pratt, 43, the man from Sioux City, as he made those scrambled eggs. “We’d go the same week every year — the first week of August, right after baseball and before football — and see the same people. You’d only see them one week a year, but it would be like a family reunion.”

So the Iowa Great Lakes are a little like summer camp in that way. Or a lot like summer camp — just with more Coors Light.

Tucked in the northwest corner of the state, just below the Minnesota border, Iowa’s Great Lakes comprise a region of two small towns (Okoboji and Arnolds Park) built around a handful of deep, gorgeous, glacial lakes. Up north is Spirit Lake, which tends to be quieter, and more of a place for the locals to boat and fish. It is, however, the state’s largest natural lake and known for some of the best fishing in the area. So it’s worth an angler’s effort to get there.

The heart of the tourist action is West Okoboji Lake, a nearly 4,000-acre body that runs as deep as 135 feet and hosts thousands of swimmers, boaters, water skiers, canoeists, paddle boarders and “boat-in worshippers” (7:30 a.m. Sundays) during the average summer weekend. At the lake’s southeastern edge stands one of its most indelible sights: the 125-year-old Arnolds Park Amusement Park, with its blue-and-white Ferris wheel reaching 63 feet into the sky.

Okoboji, as the region is generally called, is very much a resort area; things start to get busy at Memorial Day, peak around the Fourth of July and drop off after Labor Day. Much of the area looks and feels as if it were assembled in the 1950s. That was especially true of my hotel, The Inn of Okoboji, which has in fact sat at the edge of West Okoboji Lake since the 1890s. Amid its tidy landscaping and low, white-paneled buildings trimmed with forest green, you half expect the cast of “Dirty Dancing” to emerge from one of those cabins at any moment.

That timelessness is what brings visitors back to Okoboji year after year after year. It also leads people from all over to build or buy lake houses ranging from modern ornate to old, rickety, peeling shacks, many of which are emblazoned with the name of the owning family and the place from which they hail: Omaha; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Winterset, Iowa; even Boulder, Colo. It breeds the kind of devotion that led Charlie and Jenny Wilson of Lincoln, Neb. (naturally, that’s what people are named in the heart of America) to get a license plate that reads, “2 BOJI.”

“You’d have a hard time getting a personalized license plate in Iowa, Nebraska or South Dakota that says ‘Okoboji’ or ‘Boji’ on it,” said Charlie Wilson, 65.

As the script dictates, the Wilsons started visiting the area as kids, then kept coming as adults. Now they own a house in a locals’ enclave on the west side of the lake, Wahpeton. Why does it breed such devotion, the kind that translates to license plates?

“I feel safe here,” Charlie Wilson said. “It’s almost like being in a college town — the action, the enthusiasm, the energy.”

“A lot of it looks like it did 20 years ago, and I’m guessing it will still look the same in another 20 years,” Jenny Wilson said.

That immutability brings some advantages, such as the banding together of the community in 1999 when a developer announced plans to tear down the amusement park and build a complex of lakefront condos. More than $7 million in donations arrived within six weeks to save the park. That August, once it was clear that the park would survive, the front page of the Dickinson County News gleefully announced, “It’s a done deal!”

As for the downside of being trapped in another era, well, not evolving means you’re still largely eating the same food you did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, Okoboji is remarkable for just how unremarkable its food is.

There is no talk of farm-to-table. There is no talk of locally sourced. There is little talk of ingredients. There are meat, fish and dairy in a series of restaurants that are mostly interchangeable. I asked one local for a breakfast recommendation, and he confided that they’re basically all the same: bacon and eggs, pancakes and coffee. Go to one, or go to the other, he said. It didn’t really make a difference.

So I went to O’Farrell Sisters, even though another local had lamented that the sisters sold the place a long time ago. But that didn’t stop the tourists from stepping back into the ‘50s — red booths, black-and-white tile floor and gold-flecked Formica tables while waitresses hurried with omelets and pancakes and “That’s Amore” played from the speakers above.

The next day I checked out Koffee Kup, and just as the local said, it was mostly the same as the previous day’s breakfast. The greatest attribute wasn’t the food, but eating it amid a bunch of nice people in baseball caps and bathing suits while reading that morning’s grease-stained local newspaper.

Lunches and dinners fell somewhere between satisfyingly predictable and satisfyingly tasty (and often a bit overpriced in a resort town kind of way) — which left as Okoboji’s most notable delicacy the Nutty Bar. A legend that’s decades old, the Nutty Bar is a hunk of Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream jabbed on a stick, dipped in chocolate, rolled in nuts and sold beside the amusement park for $3. There are both sweetness and innocence in the Nutty Bar and in the Nutty Bar being your town’s signature menu item. And it’s perhaps not inappropriate in a place where people go to hang out on boats and forget the troubles back home.

If you’re game, Okoboji is also the ideal place to relax in that stiff lake breeze and count the flapping American flags visible from the plastic chair just outside your hotel room as dusk descends and kids fish from the dock. For me, the number was 12. Just about right for the beating heart of America.