The pristine blue waters of the Iowa Great Lakes have drawn visitors forhundreds of years. This group of natural lakes were formed along the southwest edge of the Des Moines lob ice sheet, as the glacier pushed south into Iowa. The deepest part of West Lake Okoboji is 136 feet and is known for its crystalline clear waters. Big Spirit Lake to the north spans 5,684 acres and is popular among locals for being less busy.
The area around the Iowa Great Lakes was not known for permanent settlement by the Sioux but rather for hunting and recreation. Settlers were also drawn to the blue waters called Minnietonka by the Native Americans, and they gradually created communities we now call home. However,because the name’s closeness to Minnetonka in Minnesota, the lake was then named Okoboji, partnering the names of East and West Lake Okoboji. History tells that East Okoboji, which was called Okoboozhy was named after a Chief Okoboji. The meaning of Okoboji is thought to either be a ‘place of rest’ or ‘reeds or rushes.’
As trains made their way west, people from larger areas became enamored by the Iowa Great Lakes and would come in droves to vacation along its shores. Now, generations of families make their home in the Iowa Great Lakes or find themselves visiting year after year. While many local resorts are in areas surrounding the natural spring-fed lakes, visitors and locals can also enjoy the beautiful waters at any of these public beaches.
- Arnolds Park City Public Beach
389 Hwy 71 N, Arnolds Park
If you want a family-friendly beach in the middle of all the area’s excitement, Arnolds Park City Beach is perfect for swimming and enjoying lake life. Located just next to the beach on Highway 71, a person can walk, bike or drive to the nearby parking lot. Picnic tables are nearby as well as bathrooms located in the parking lot. On a hot summer day, the beach is filled with people looking to cool off in the water.
- Arnolds Park Amusement Park Beach
37 Lake Street, Arnolds Park
A favorite by many families, Arnolds Park Amusement Park Beach is at the heart of exciting summer fun. The beach is a close walk to the nearby amusement park, as well as numerous shops and great food. Bob’s Dogs is located at the top of the beach and several sand volleyball courts are situated in the middle. This popular area is a favorite amongst tourists and locals and is always filled with swimmers on a hot, summer day.
The serenity of the sand and the warmth of the water draw many nearby people. Children are always building sandcastles and young and old enjoy the sand volleyball courts. Every mid-July, the University of Okoboji hosts the start of a world class triathlon from the beach’s shores, and Winter Games in January draw thousands to its frozen shores. On July 4th weekend or any Saturday night following a concert, the beach is filled with visitors looking to watch the expansive firework shore from the lake.
This beach has been popular throughout Arnolds Park’s existence, creating delight for young and old alike. Now, recent Imagine projects have beautified the area surrounding the beach, making it a beautiful space to enjoy summer fun.
- Terrace Park Beach
2414 Okoboji Blvd, Milford
Terrace Park Beach is a beautiful beach on the south side of West Lake Okoboji. A quiet location, the long stretch of beach is fenced in, making it ideal for families with small children. The clean sand and gorgeous Okoboji water make it an attractive place to relax in the water or to play in the sand. Brand new restrooms were built in 2019. Families often consider this public beach their favorite and regularly gather to enjoy its summer accommodations.
- Emerson Bay State Park
3100 Emerson St, Milford
On the west side of West Lake Okoboji, Emerson Bay is located near the Iowa Great Lakes Bike Trail System and only a mile south of Gull Point State Park. Emerson Bay’s beach is a part of the larger Emerson Bay State Recreation area, which its 12 acres also includes camping, a picnic shelter and a boat launch. People of all ages love to sunbathe and splash in the clear waters of West Lake, while others find it the best place to launch boats, kayaks, and canoes. The grounds provide a spectacular West Lake view from the Emerson Bay Lighthouse Tower or campsites to enjoy a night around the fire. The vast green space is perfect for throwing a football or the small playground area occupies young children when they need a break from the water. Lighthouse Point has a reservable shelter, which is conveniently located near the sand beach.
The area has been a favorite of people since its first settlement. During the early 1860s, a father and son both named Tom Emerson decided to homestead in the area. As time passed, by the late 1800s, several residences were built around the outskirts of the wind-protected bay, and in the early 1900s, the Illinois Central Railroad thought about placing a station at the site.
In 1912, the Spirit Lake Beacon reported that the community created Lakewood Park at today’s Emerson Bay, bringing many families eager to swim to the popular beach. The state of Iowa acquired Emerson Bay in the late 20th century. In 1971, funds were allocated by the Iowa Conservation Commission for a new and improved boat ramp, and in 1978, the state purchased a small nearby five-acre parcel, adding to the pre-existing campground and boat ramp. The goal was to use the additional space to create a day-use area for the state recreation area, and in 1980, additional shoreline was purchased along Emerson Bay. A day-use shelter, playground equipment and a 28’ tall observation tower was added to Emerson Bay. Currently, there are 82 electric campsites for families to rent. The popular public beach continues to draw people young and old to its waters, just like the Emerson family in the 1800s.
- Okoboji Boat Works Beach
1401 Lake Shore Dr, Okoboji
With a buzz in the atmosphere and excitement in the air, many families enjoy an afternoon at Okoboji Boat Works Beach. Parents can sunbathe on the beach or enjoy refreshments, while their children enjoy the playground and swimming area. Kids enjoy the slides into the playful waters of West Lake Okoboji or play on the beach. Okoboji Boat Works offers bathrooms, a fueling station and shopping areas for all your beach and water needs. Rentals are available for those interested in finding water transportation. Boji Divers and Sup Yoga are also located out of Okoboji Boat Works.
- Gull Point State Park
1500 Harpen St, Milford
The beauty and vastness of Gull Point State Park showcases a beach along the east side of the park. Gull Point occupies a peninsula on the west shore of West Lake Okoboji, jutting out between Miller’s Bay and Emerson’s Bay. Generally offering calm waters and shaded space, the quiet beach is popular for basking in the sun or swimming on a balmy summer day.
Located within the larger Gull Point State Park, there are nearby bathrooms, a large parking space, a popular 112-electronic site campground, playground, several open picnic shelters and is home to two nationally recognized historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places. Anglers also enjoy the numerous docks, and the boat ramp is popular for boaters needing a place to dock.
From 1934 to 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Company 778 worked at Gull to create architecture designed to blend into its natural surroundings by the design, material, and workmanship. “Area A” includes a beautiful stone lodge and a boathouse. The irregularly shaped building is created with rubble sandstone upon a concrete foundation and capped with an intersecting gable roof. Seating up to 140 people, the lodge can be rented out for private events. Overlooking the lake is a three-sided bay covered by a pyramid roof. The boathouse is located just north, and the rectangular building has a hexagonal tower on its northeast corner.
“Area B” on the National Register includes the custodian’s residence, service building and four entrance pillars composed of split sandstone boulders. In 1974, the Iowa Conservation Commission purchased land across the street, originally belonging to the Prairie Gold Boy Scout Council since 1949. Prior to this, the land had been used as a golf course. The Barney Peterson Nature Trail runs 1.5 miles and features an old chapel and a golf tee box from the land’s past. A wooden bridge draws many visitors wanting to look out at the area’s beauty.
- Crandall's Beach
10880 240th Ave, Spirit Lake
A hidden gem for many families, Crandall’s Beach is located on the northwest side of Big Spirit. It’s just north of the Marble Beach Campground and is often a quiet place to relax, read a book, or sunbath. Local kite surfers will use the beach as a launching spot, and they create an entertaining view for nearby observers. The beach provides young and old the perfect spot to sunbathe and splash in the clear waters of Big Spirit Lake.
- Ainsworth-Orleans Beach
25040 140th St, Orleans
Another perfect place to spend a day at the lake on a hot, summer day is Ainsworth-Orleans Beach. Located on the south side of Big Spirit Lake, the soft sand provides the perfect place to build sandcastles and the water is a favorite for families to enjoy lake fun. Ainsworth-Orleans Beach is also a great place to launch kayaks and canoes, and boaters enjoy easy access to the nearby boat launch.
The Spillway is located just to the west of the beach and is a favorite amongst people during the spring when water flows over its edge. Anglers will fish from the spillway, nearby Hatchery or off the nearby rocks. The Spillway Drive-in is located at the park’s entrance and many families will grab lunch or an ice cream cone or treat when enjoying the park. There is also a large picnic shelter for those people who desire a family gathering. The playground area is a favorite among young children when they want a break from the water. Ainsworth-Orleans Beach is also one of the popular viewing areas of the July 3rd Big Spirit Fireworks displays.
- Pikes Point State Park
15973 213th Ave, Spirit Lake
On the east side of West Lake Okoboji resides Pike’s Point State Park, an ideal place for a picnic or sunbathing in the lake. The park is a summer playground and provides the perfect amenities for an enjoyable day, whether it’s the playground at the top of the hill, the large grass area to enjoy the sun or a game of catch, a swimming platform, boating dock and an extensive beach area for everyone to enjoy. New bathrooms are available at the top of the hill near the parking lot. The picnic shelter is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and created as a part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Company 778 work in the 1930s.
Pikes Point was dedicated as a state park in 1931, and the CCC Company 778 built the steps, shelter, trails, planting and the original bathroom footings. The picnic shelter is located at the base of the slope of the lake; over the past few years, it has been made more handicap accessible. The rustic style structure features a back wall and stepped end walls composed of random ruble stone. At the center of the back wall, there is a fireplace flanked by two stone benches.
This small park is home to one of the best beachfront public spaces along West Lake Okoboji and visitors love the popular swim platform located within easy swimming distance. The space is roped off for users to know where to play amongst the clear, blue waters. Pikes Point provides a welcoming atmosphere for friends and family to gather for a day, and if it’s close to nightfall, the park is known to provide a beautiful backdrop for the sunset.
This summer pack your sunscreen and make sure to visit each of these public beaches in the Iowa Great Lakes area, making it a family day to enjoy the beautiful area we get to call home!