Iowa is home to a variety of lake destinations. Depending on your vacation goal – relaxation or play time or a mix of both – I know a good lake for it. Here are four of my favorite lake vacations in Iowa: Lake Icaria, Clear Lake, Okoboji, and Rathbun Lake.
Disclosure: A portion of this post first appeared on Oh My! Omaha, and has been republished and added to with permission.
Consider Lake Icaria your bucolic lake destination. You’ll feel removed from crowds and traffic at this large lake located in rural western Iowa. There are trees and with occasionally rocky shorelines.
Lake Icaria is a county park, where you can have your pick of RVing, tent cabin, and my favorite, cabins. Even with cabins, you have the option of roughing it (cabin without water) or having all of your creature comforts with a large fully-equipped cabin.
This lake is great for fishing, tubing and water skiing, plus it has a small beach. There are a playground and a trail around the lake, as well.
It’s not totally remote, though. In the summer, food trucks park near the beach. We had barbecue one afternoon there, enjoying our lungh to-go in the covered picnic area facing the lake.
The nearest town is Corning, which has a few restaurants if you don’t feel like catching your dinner or grilling. We went to Three C’s Diner, which has the distinction of winning Iowa’s best breaded pork tenderloin sandwich one year.
I’m eager to go back and visit Primrose, which I heard about after our trip to Lake Icaria. Primrose is a creative farm-to-table restaurant. There’s also a winery that’s fairly close to the park.
Clear Lake is a hidden gem in Iowa, offering modern conveniences within easy reach of lake relaxation. This is the place to go when you want a getaway that’s relaxing, but you aren’t about to rough it (unless you want to try a yurt).
If you’re looking for live music, a nearby grocery store, art center, or perhaps, a tiki bar on the beach, Clear Lake is your place.
Our motel was located directly on the shore of the lake. We ate breakfast outdoors and walked on the pier to watch the sunset. It was nothing fancy, but perfect for a family.
Clear Lake is small town of about 8,000 people with plenty of shopping, restaurants (and coffee shops), and cultural attractions. The Surf Ballroom is in Clear Lake, the historic concert venue and museum.
Music fans can make the trek to the nearby field where the plane carrying Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens crashed.
When we went to Clear Lake, we did the beach thing (there are THREE beaches), rented a boat to cruise the lake, and explored a community garden. Our visit timed out with the Fourth of July celebration, so we also spent an evening riding rides and overeating cotton candy.
For restaurants, I highly recommend Starboard Market for great sandwiches and PM Park for a meal with a view – and that tiki bar I mentioned before. We actually went there for breakfast and lunch, and if I had to recommend one thing to try, I’d say go for the french cakes at breakfast.
Okoboji is the place to go in the Midwest when you don’t want to feel like you’re in the Midwest (though, you still can’t escape it). You’ll find a lakeside bar where boaters regularly drive up and park to enjoy lunch, live music, and perhaps, a beer or cocktail.
There is enough variety of lodging options that place you in the middle of all the fun or far away from it. Our hotel, Crescent Beach Family Resort, was far enough away that we could have quiet nights on the beach, and then in about 10 minutes, be right in the center of all activities.
The towns that make up the resort area of Okoboji has A LOT of dining options. My favorites included the great and quirky coffee shop Arnolds Perk, Tweeters for lunch and Pub 19 Bar and Grill, serving great pizza on a golf course in Spirit Lake. You can’t go to Okoboji in the summer without getting a Nutty Bar.
You’re going for the lakes, obviously, where you can boat, fish, kayak, and splash in the beach. But, if it’s a rainy day, you’ve got options too.
We went to the Dickinson County Nature Center, which had a fun climber for the kiddos, as well as the surprisingly great Pearson Lakes Art Center, with the second-largest collection of Russian impressionist art outside of Russia, as well as a swell little art space for kids.
Unlike other lake destinations in Iowa (namely the Okoboji area), Rathbun Lake isn’t situated among a lot of tourist attractions or cities that come to life in the summer. Even so, it’s a great summer getaway with just enough to do to make the time fly.
At Rathbun Lake, the ideal place to stay is Honey Creek Resort. There are three accommodation options at the resort: Staying the lodge, staying in a private cottage, or staying in your RV. There are 28 cottages available in one-, two- or four-bedroom.
When staying at the resort — lodge or cabin, doesn’t matter – there are several things that are included with that price, including the indoor waterpark, Buckaneer Bay; an inflatable floating obstacle course; kayaks and stand-up paddle boards; bike rentals; and ingredients for making s’mores by the bonfire.
The resort has a small sandy beach, Activity Center, kid’s activities, and a golf course. Guests can golf for free (just have to rent the cart).
Honey Creek Resort is near Honey Creek State Park, which is a good spot for camping and RVing. There are hiking trails and a bike lane for road bikers at the state park.
Other Iowa destinations for water adventures
If lakes aren’t your thing…then why are you still reading? Just kidding. If you want some more ideas for a water adventure in Iowa, I shared quite a few of them in this list of 101 Things To Do In Iowa, including white water rafting, waterfalls, and moonlight kayaking on a river.
No matter which place you choose, be it a lake or a river or somewhere all together different, I think you’ll enjoy the Midwestern hospitality that’s common throughout Iowa. Happy travels!