The Lake Affect music festival at West Okoboji Lake
Photo courtesy of Vacation Okoboji
The first time I heard the name Okoboji—its name originating from the indigenous Dacotah Indians who called it “Okoboozhy,” signifying a “place of rest” or “there are others”—was when I met my brother Chris’ in-laws in 2009. He was marrying their daughter Jasmine Nelson, and when we got together at their wedding, Jasmine’s parents told me about their favorite vacation destination near their home in Spencer, Iowa. A beach vacation in Iowa sounded quite imaginative, but I listened attentively as they described what sounded a lot like my trips to the Atlantic seashore just a few hours’ drive from my home in Washington, D.C.
Seasonal water sports, outdoor concerts, amusement parks and carnival food are just a few of the attractions you’ll find at West Okoboji Lake—one of Iowa’s Great Lakes—situated in the northwest corner of the state. About a two-hour drive from Sioux Falls, this collection of pristine glacial lakes includes the state’s largest natural lake—Spirit Lake—and five interconnected lakes: West Okoboji Lake, East Okoboji Lake, Upper Gar, Lower Gar and Minnewashta, all of which formed when the Wisconsin Glacier retreated south some 14,000 years ago.
Sunset over Lake Okoboji
Photo by Renee Sklarew
The community hub of the region, the city of Arnolds Park sprang up in 1874, after the Milwaukee Railroad was extended to the coastline of West Lake Okoboji (as the locals refer to it). Today, 10 public-access state parks—most with sandy beaches, shelters and grills—stretch along 70 miles of shoreline, helping to ensure that the entire Iowa Great Lakes region remains a protected recreational playground.
Iowa’s Great Lakes, especially West Lake Okoboji, are popular tourist destinations, with accommodations that include hundreds of lake house rentals as well as country inns, motor lodges and family-friendly lakeside hotels. The area operates as a four-season resort where year-round you can swim at Boji Splash Indoor Waterpark, take cooking classes at Pearson Lakes Art Center, attend wine tastings at Round Lake Vineyard, shop at Central Emporium mall, and learn the history of the Iowa railroad at Dickinson County Museum.
Although best known as a summer vacation destination, the Okoboji Lake communities receive an average of 39 inches of snow, typically between November and March, transforming the region into a winter wonderland with ice skating and cross-country skiing. Every January, crowds gather here for the University of Okoboji Winter Games in which participants play softball and broomball (hockey with brooms) and try ice bowling on the frozen lakes. “The university is an imaginary designation,” explains Rebecca Peters from the Okoboji Tourism Board. “We let anybody graduate as long as they are a fun person.”
Welcome to Lake Life
I always enjoy visiting the Midwest—attracted by the friendliness of the people, picturesque towns and farm-fresh food—so in the summer of 2015, when Jasmine and Chris invited me to my niece’s christening at Church of the Sacred Heart in Spencer, Iowa, about 15 minutes from West Lake Okoboji, I quickly signed on.
With a choice of three airports, I met my brother at the Omaha Eppley Airfield. Other airports that service this region are Sioux Falls Regional Airport (two hours) and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (three hours). We drove north for three hours on country roads slicing through fields dotted with barns and towering wind turbines. When we arrived at Arnolds Park I was startled to see West Okoboji Lake’s massive size. With a shoreline stretching nearly 20 miles, it is one of only three blue water lakes in the world. The spring-fed, 136-foot-deep lake glittered in
the late-afternoon sun.
Members of the author’s family at Arnolds Park
Photo by Renee Sklarew
Jasmine’s siblings and their families also traveled here for the occasion, and our group converged at a cottage-style house perched on a cape on West Lake Okoboji. The sprawling rental house had seven bedrooms, larger than most, with a gracious screened-in porch ideal for outdoor dining and enjoying lake views. The Nelsons welcomed us with homemade cinnamon buns and the largest ears of corn I’d ever seen. It’s tradition for Iowa farmers to drive to a central location and sell freshly picked sweet corn out of the back of their pickup trucks—the mammoth ears typically cost six dollars for a dozen, or around 50 cents each.
Okoboji’s Traditional Treats
When I visited in August, people were fishing off the docks, jumping wakes on water skis, and flying through the air attached to parasails. We could see it all from our screened-in porch. That evening, we walked to West Lake Okoboji’s main entertainment district, Arnolds Park amusement park & Preservation Plaza, where I tasted my first loose-meat sandwich—slow-cooked hamburger meat seasoned with yellow mustard and onion on a soft bun—at Bob’s Drive Inn. The same family has owned Bob’s since it opened in 1949; it’s an Okoboji institution. From the outdoor tables overlooking the lake, we watched people playing beach volleyball, then checked out the hot rods and classic cars on display on Lake Street.
At the amusement park, our kids rode the rides, and the grownups got competitive with carnival games. After countless sessions at The Happy Hit concession, our group came away with prizes of stuffed animals and Nutty Bars, a block of vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate, rolled in peanuts and served on a stick—another iconic Okoboji treat.
Playing Happy HIt at Arnolds Park
Photo by Renee Sklarew
The next day promised to be a scorcher, so my brother rented a motorboat at Parks Marina to stay cool and explore West Lake Okoboji. We towed the kids on rubber tubes and then all floated around on Maui mats. After returning the boats, we sipped margaritas at the marina’s popular Barefoot Bar and watched vessels whiz by from under thatched-grass umbrellas. A band covered ’70s rock-and-roll songs.
Photo by Vacation Okoboji
As a purple and magenta sunset painted the sky, it was time for another Okoboji ritual: dining at the Taco House. I apparently hadn’t lived until I ate a tray of the restaurant’s salty homemade corn tortillas drowned in ranchero sauce, frijoles and taco meat, blanketed in baked cheddar cheese. While the restaurant is short on ambience, there’s no disputing the appeal of spicy tacos after a day in the sun.
Midwest dining is incomplete without cheese curds. My hosts delivered on this delicacy at the Okoboji Store Bar & Kitchen, which was founded in 1884 as a general store, ice rink and bait shop. Served on the waterfront patio, we shared a basket of Guinness Poutine Curds—fried cheddar curds on a tray of French fries, topped with Guinness beer gravy and a fried egg. After that, some of us needed a power walk, so we hiked along the scenic Barney Peterson Nature Trail in Gull Point State Park—part of the 14-mile Iowa Great Lakes Trail network.
Okoboji Store Bar & Kitchen
Photo by Vacation Okoboji
Recently, when I asked Jasmine what draws her family to Lake Okoboji year after year, she responded, “It’s like going back in time to an easier pace. It’s super-mellow. It just reminds me of being a kid.”
Indeed, West Lake Okoboji offers a beach vacation full of old-fashioned fun with a forkful of comfort foods and a side of Midwestern hospitality.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of AAA World.