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Most of the world equates Iowa with corn fields and election-year Straw Polls and has never heard of Iowa's Great Lakes. Nestled in the Northwest Region of the state just south of the Minnesota border, the Iowa Great Lakes offer water sports, fishing, recreation and fantastic lakefront living to those lucky enough to visit. Usually referred to as a group of eight or nine lakes, there are actually many more lakes in the area that are less famous but no less inviting. The lakes offer a number of state parks, recreation areas and wildlife management areas. Over the years, the Iowa Great Lakes have evolved into a prized and well-appointed vacation and residential destination.
The lakes most commonly referred to as the Iowa Great Lakes are:
Spirit Lake - also known as Big Spirit Lake: The largest natural lake in Iowa, this huge open body of water encompasses 5,684 acres. Two state parks, four public boat launch sites and a county park offer plenty of public access along its 15 miles of shoreline. Twenty-four feet deep at its deepest point, Spirit Lake averages only 17 feet in depth, making it an excellent fishing lake. Spirit Lake holds some 40 species of fish, including walleye, northern pike, perch, bass, catfish, crappie, freshwater drum and muskie. As the lake freezes in winter, it is also popular for ice fishing. The large open expanse of water provides plenty of wind for sailing and windsurfing; regattas are held here regularly. Near-shore areas are popular for swimming, water skiing, tubing and wakeboarding. The lake abuts the Minnesota state border on the north, and much of its watershed is actually in Minnesota. A number of 'sloughs' or wetlands extend from the main lake, many with protected wildlife areas. These sloughs make the lake highly attractive to waterfowl for nesting purposes and for spawning grounds for the many fish species. A State Fish Hatchery in the village of Orleans on the south shore offers exhibits of local freshwater fish in their many aquariums to the delight of visitors. The Town of Spirit Lake, a mile to the southwest, supplies necessary services and amenities to the many property owners along the lakeshore. The lake's name originates from the Native American belief that the waters were guarded by evil spirits: they avoided canoeing on the lake. No doubt this belief originated from the frequent strong winds that the lake is prone to experience which could quickly swamp a canoe.
Little Spirit Lake: Immediately northwest of Spirit Lake, and connected by a short outlet stream, Little Spirit Lake is a 'border lake': about 40% of the lake is in Iowa and 60% in Minnesota. At 618 acres in size, the irregular shape offers over 10 miles of shoreline. Little Spirit Lake is also shallower than Spirit Lake, with an average depth of six feet and a maximum depth of 10 feet. Both lakes are of glacial origin and likely were one larger lake at some time in the past. Little Spirit Lake is less densely developed than the larger lake, and has a Wildlife Management Area set aside on the southwest shoreline. Little Spirit Lake is also considered a fine fishing lake, with many of the same species of game fish available. Because the waters are also within Minnesota, fishermen must adhere to both Iowa and Minnesota fishing regulations.
West Okoboji Lake: The largest of a chain of five connecting lakes, West Okoboji Lake is considered part of Iowa's Great Lakes. With a maximum depth of 136 feet, West Okoboji Lake is the deepest natural lake in Iowa. Although glacial in origin, West Okoboji is also fed by subterranean springs, leading to exceptionally clear water. With 3,847 acres and an average depth of 38 feet, West Okoboji is also a well-known fishing destination. Forty-seven species of fish are known to live in the lake, with most of the major sport fish varieties well-represented. Occasionally visitors will hear rumors of the 'lake monster' that supposedly lives in the depths. Like lake monsters everywhere, there are no pictures and only word-of-mouth reports to keep the legend alive. Marinas and concessions on the lake provide excursion-type boat cruises with a variety of craft, including glass-bottomed boats and elegant 'party barges'. A regular excursion boat sails from the State Dock at Arnolds Park and is a traditional activity for all lake visitors. The nearly 20-mile shoreline is home to three state parks. Both the small cities of Okoboji and Arnolds Park grace the southeastern shoreline. From West Okoboji Lake, boaters can access East Okoboji Lake via a natural channel under the Highway 71 bridge.
East Okoboji Lake: While West Okoboji Lake defines the city of Okoboji's western limits, East Okoboji Lake limits the city's growth on the eastern side. Long and narrow, East Okoboji Lake resembles a drowned river bed and meanders north, where it is joined by a small outlet from Spirit Lake. The State Fish Hatchery lies on the narrow sliver of land between the two. The 1,835-acre lake has an average depth of 10 feet and is only 22 feet deep at its deepest point - quite a different footprint than West Okoboji. Most of the nearly 17-mile shoreline is privately owned and developed, but Iowa's newest state park has been developed here within the past decade. The Elinor Bedell State Park offers fishing access from shore, camping, picnicking and playground facilities. The park holds an extensive trail system, including raised boardwalk trails through wetlands and along the lake shore. The City of Spirit Lake lies along the northwestern shoreline.
The Gar Lakes: The three Gar Lakes lie immediately south of East Okoboji Lake. Upper Gar Lake is the smallest in the Iowa Great Lakes chain with only 37 acres. This lake is basically a shallow channel connecting East Okoboji Lake on the north to Lake Minnewashta on the south. With an average depth of only three-and-a-half feet, Upper Gar Lake has a strict boating speed limit of only 5 mph. Upper Gar Lake State Game Management Area lies along the eastern shoreline. Once boaters pass under the Sawmill Bridge, they enter Lake Minnewashta, formerly known as Middle Gar Lake. Lake Minnewashta is 126 acres in size with 2.3 miles of shoreline. Minnewashta means 'good' or nice' in the Dakotah language. The average depth of Lake Minnewashta is 10 feet, with the deepest point reaching 16.5 feet. The City of Arnolds Park lies along the western shoreline and is a popular residential choice among pleasure boaters. Most fishing is limited to panfish and bass. Minnewashta is a busy little lake with many marinas, resorts and boating facilities along the shoreline. Southernmost in the Iowa Great Lakes chain, Lower Gar Lake completes the series of three original Gar lakes. The lakes were named originally for the schools of gar that used the lakes to swim upstream to spawn. Lower Gar Lake has a surface area of 242 acres, a mean depth of 4 feet, and a maximum depth of 6 feet. Although Lower Gar Lake drains over 11,000 acres, in low moisture years it has sometimes been difficult to traverse the lake by boat due to mud. The outlet dam has been raised several times; the current dam, built in the late 1990s, has stabilized the water levels considerably. The lake is popular for boating and water skiing.
Center Lake: Aptly-named Center Lake isn't directly connected as are the other lakes in the chain. It is centrally located in the middle of the 'V' formed by West and East Okoboji Lakes. At 263 acres, Center Lake has an average depth of 12 feet and a maximum depth of 17 feet. Although the east and south shores are privately owned and developed, nearly a mile-and-a-half of the nearly five-mile shoreline is public lands and accessible. The entire Great Lakes area has access to hiking and cycling trails along the Great Lakes Trail system. The trails may also be used for winter sports such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and in some areas snowmobiling.
Silver Lake: Silver Lake is the last lake usually included in the Iowa Great Lakes list. Although a bit to the west of the other lakes and not directly connected, it is one of the largest lakes in Iowa and of great interest to lake-loving tourists. Silver Lake has 1,041 acres of water with an average depth of 6 feet and a maximum depth of 11 feet. There are 9.6 miles of shoreline. The City of Lake Park hugs the eastern shore. Three boat ramps are available for public use. Fishing is a favored activity, with walleye, northern pike, crappie, yellow perch and bullhead caught. A city park along the lake shore offers camping, playground, picnicking, swimming pool and fishing. A State Park along the north shore provides picnic facilities and fishing access.
Together, the Iowa Great Lakes are one of the region's most popular vacation and retirement destinations. A number of smaller lakes in the immediate area are also popular recreation destinations, and residents take pride in providing the best possible variety of accommodations and activities. A mostly-paved trail system called The Spine meanders through the region attracting hikers, cyclists and cross-country skiers. In the City of Arnold Park, an old-fashioned amusement park offers carnival-style rides and roller coasters, food court, excursion boat, glass-bottomed boat tours, swimming beach, a maritime museum, miniature golf and theater. Nearly a dozen campgrounds along the shorelines provide for a variety of camping adventures to suit every lifestyle. A number of public lands and nature preserves offer opportunities for wildlife viewing and hiking. Some also offer public boat launch facilities and swimming beaches. A scuba center teaches diving, and several local businesses rent water sports equipment such as jet skis and boats.
A variety of lodgings are available and include resort cabins, private rentals, chain hotels, small Mom & Pop motels and more modern vacation condos. Several public golf courses will entertain the non-fisherman in the family, while museums, theaters, dining establishments and galleries will occupy the family's off-water hours. Real estate is usually available both along the waterfront and a bit distant from the lakefronts. The entire Iowa Great Lakes region is a vacation community guaranteed to please every member of the family. It is no wonder visitors come back year after year, and so many decide to become at least part-time residents. Won't you come and see what draws them back? See you soon!
* Statistics listed on the sidebar are the totals for all of the lakes above. Individual lake descriptions give depths and acreages for each lake.
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