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18 of the Best and Prettiest Lakes in Iowa

By | Last Updated: 13th December 2022

Surrounded by scenic woodlands and dense forests, Iowa lakes are an ideal getaway spot to cherish nature’s beauty. The Great Lake Region in northwestern Iowa, comprising the Spirit Lake, East Okoboji, and West Okoboji, is a vacationer’s paradise with its sandy shores and ample recreational opportunities. However, your options are not limited to these three, as there are plenty of other natural and artificial lakes throughout the state to plan a fun-filled holiday.

Lakes in Iowa

Lakes in Northern Iowa        

1. West Okoboji Lake

West Okoboji Lake in Northern Iowa

West Okoboji Lake in northwestern Iowa is the centerpiece of Iowa Great Lakes. It is a favorite spot for recreational activities, with many state parks around, including Pikes Point State Park on its northern shore and Arnold’s Park Amusement Park near its eastern shore. For added entertainment, don’t miss cruising on a privately run boat of Okoboji Boats Work.

Fishing: Anglers have an excellent time catching largemouth bass, walleye, yellow perch, black crappie, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, and bluegill.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, waterskiing, jet-skiing, camping, hiking, picnicking

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2. East Okoboji Lake

East Okoboji Lake Northern Lowa

East Okoboji Lake is a long natural body of water covering more than 1800 acres in area. Many hotels and resorts dot its shoreline, including Bridges Bay Resort. Though the shallow waters result in limited access to watersports, its quieter ambiance in contrast to West Okoboji attracts many families. For hiking and camping, you can head to its eastern shore, where Elinor Bedell State Park sits.

Fishing: Fish species commonly caught in the lake include black bullhead, bluegill, black crappie, largemouth bass, channel catfish, northern pike, and muskellunge.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, camping, hiking, biking, picnicking

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3. Big Spirit Lake

Big Spirit Lake Northern Iowa

Located close to the Minnesota border in northwest Iowa, Big Spirit Lake is the largest among the Iowa Great Lakes. Moreover, it is also the state’s largest natural body of water. The Dakota Native Americans gave it this name as they believed a great evil spirit looked after the lake. Mini-Wakan State Park on its northern shore features a restored and upgraded lodge dating back to the Civilian Conservation Corps period. It also offers a public boat ramp from where you can launch your boats. If you don’t have one, you can rent it from Great Lakes Marine Company.

Fishing:  The lake has a decent population of walleye, perch, muskie, bass, bluegill, northern pike, and crappie.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, camping, hiking, biking, picnicking

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4. Clear Lake

Clear Lake in Northern Lowa

Clear Lake is a spring-fed glacial body of water flowing adjacent to Clear Lake city. The areas around the lake are consistently windy even when the weather is calm, making it one of the best sailing destinations here. Moreover, sailing enthusiasts can participate in a sailboat race every weekend, organized by the Clear Lake Yacht Club from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Besides this, there’s also a marina, boat ramps, and a sandy beach to keep yourself hooked here all day. However, if seeking to spend a lazy afternoon, you could choose a spot under one of the shady trees in McIntosh Woods State Park, located on its northwest shore. Clear Lake State Park on the lake’s southeast corner also provides activities like picnicking and camping.

Don’t miss spending a day exploring the city. From historical sites like Buddy Holly’s plane crash site to several restaurants, including Surf District Rock’ n Roll Grill, you’ll find many exciting things here.

Fishing: The lake has many fish species like crappie, walleye, bass, catfish, sunfish, perch, muskie, and northern pike.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, sailing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, tubing, camping, sightseeing

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5. Okamanpeedan Lake

Okamanpeedan Lake in Northern Iowa

Also known as Tuttle Lake, it also flows into the neighboring state of Minnesota. The word ‘Okamanpeedan’ is Native American, meaning ‘nesting place of herons,’ indicating the high population of herons mainly inhabiting its shoreline. With plenty of water activities, from swimming to kayaking, visitors have a great time here during summer. The southwest shoreline features many seasonal rental cabins and a campground having a boat launch.

Fishing: Walleye, crappie, bullhead, northern pike, yellow perch, and catfish are commonly found in the lake.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, camping, hiking

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Lakes in Southern Iowa

1. Rathbun Lake

Rathbun Lake in Southern Iowa

Within Honey Creek State Park in south-central Iowa, you’ll find the state’s second-largest, Rathbun Lake. Honey Creek Resort provides various water activities where you can even enjoy splashing around at their indoor water park. With a marina at its shoreline, you can easily launch your watercraft from there and admire the surrounding foliage and rolling hills as you boat along the clear blue waters.

For land activities, hike or rent a bike to explore the encompassing trails. Those staying in the lodge or at the RV campsites can enjoy several amenities free of cost, including renting watercraft, fishing gear, or bicycles. If an avid birdwatcher, don’t miss out on getting your camera to capture the pelicans and eagles n the lake premises.

Fishing: Anglers can expect catches of walleye, crappie, channel catfish, flathead catfish, largemouth and white bass, and bluegill.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, camping, hiking, biking, hunting, birdwatching, picnicking

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2. Lake Sugema

Lake Sugema in Southern Iowa

Lake Sugema is an artificial lake of 574 acres. Bordered by the Lake Sugema Wildlife Management Area, it provides an excellent opportunity to spot wild turkey, deer, rabbits, geese, and several songbirds. You will also find three boat ramps and a picnic area here. The Indian Creek Wildlife Area located in its vicinity provides ample opportunities for hiking, fishing, bird watching, picnicking, and primitive camping.

Fishing: This lake has an excellent stock of black crappie, bluegill, channel catfish, and largemouth bass.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, camping, hiking, biking, hunting, birdwatching, picnicking, cross-country skiing

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3. Lake Darling

Lake Darling in Southern Iowa

Surrounded by Lake Darling State Park, this small lake is scenic with abundant wildlife. With multiple hiking trails nearby, you can experience its surrounding beauty. As it is a no-wake spot, boaters enjoy the calm environment to explore the waters. The lake’s sandy beach on the southern shore also attracts visitors to have an excellent time swimming or sunbathing. You can rent a cabin or a camp at the state park’s campground having over 80 campsites for an overnight stay here. You can also put up at the Darling Lodge, accommodating an average of 200 people.

Fishing: Anglers can expect to catch fish species like walleye, yellow perch, northern pike, and smallmouth bass in this lake.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, canoeing, paddleboarding, kayaking, camping, hiking, biking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, picnicking

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4. DeSoto Lake

DeSoto Lake in Southern Iowa

This artificial lake flowing in the state’s southwest corner is clean and well-maintained. As it sits within DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, birders can enjoy spotting herons, wood ducks, geese, and various other migratory and songbirds. The speed limit of 5mph on boats adds to the place’s serenity, making it an ideal spot to spend a relaxing time. Boaters often paddle to the Missouri River, enjoying the scenery and tranquility of the waters. To enter the wildlife refuge area, you will have to spend $ 3 per vehicle.

Fishing: The lake is brimming with bluegill, black crappie, largemouth bass, channel catfish, flathead catfish, and walleye.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, camping, hiking, birdwatching, nature-gazing, picnicking

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6. Lake Ponderosa

Lake Ponderosa in Southern Iowa

Lake Ponderosa is a scenic private lake sitting along the Diamond Trail near Montezuma. Its seven-mile shoreline, along with the encompassing wilderness, makes it an ideal respite for its residents. With numerous water activities, the lake is also a source of their fun and enjoyment. The restaurant, Pirates of Ponderosa on its eastern side, offers delicious meals. Also, it features a sand volleyball court and live entertainment on weekends.

Fishing: Fish species like largemouth bass, bluegill, and channel catfish are abundant in this lake.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, waterskiing, jet-skiing

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Lakes in Western Iowa

1. Lake Manawa

Lake Manawa in Western Iowa

‘Manawa’ is a Native American term meaning peace and comfort, justifying the serenity of the place. The surrounding forested areas are home to many wildlife species, including deer, pelicans, eagles, and several waterfowl. Many love picnicking under the shady trees with their loved ones while taking in the views. Visitors of any age can also enjoy spending time in the lake’s Dream Playground. With boat ramps located at its north, south, and west sides, you can access the lake hassle-free and even explore the neighboring Missouri River. Moreover, Lake Manawa Sailing Association provides sailing opportunities from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Fishing: Common fish species that dwell in the lake include crappie, bluegill, catfish, walleye, and bass.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, jet-skiing, canoeing, paddle boarding, camping, hiking, picnicking, sunbathing

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2. Black Hawk Lake

Black Hawk Lake in Western Iowa

Flowing in the city of Lake View, Black Hawk Lake is the nation’s southernmost glacial lake. Hiking or biking the surrounding trails like Stubb Severson Nature Trail and Sauk Rail Trail will provide you the chance to appreciate nature and catch glimpses of several birds and animals inhabiting here. It is also famous for the free Stone Pier Summer Concert Series, held near the lake. Campers can also enjoy the lake in close proximity and experience the soothing sounds of the waters lapping the shore.

Fishing: You can catch various fish species here, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, and panfish.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, camping, hiking, skating, snowmobiling, ice-fishing

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3. Swan Lake

Swan Lake in Western Iowa

Swan Lake State Park is home to this lake surrounded by lush forests. With abundant wildlife species, carry your binoculars to spot the birds, deer, wild turkeys, and other small animals here. The park also features a campground with primitive and full hook-up sites. The 3.6 miles paved Swan Lake Loop Trail circles the lake, hiking along which you might encounter a bison, bald eagle, or trumpeter swan.

Fishing: Largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, channel catfish, and bullhead are common catches here.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boating, camping, hiking

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Lakes in Central Iowa

1. Lake Red Rock

Lake Red Rock in Central Iowa

Located about 41 miles southeast of the capital city, Des Moines, Lake Red Rock is the state’s largest. The state and county parks line up along its shoreline offer plenty of recreational activities along with boat rentals and launches. For enjoying land activities, you can hike or bike the nearby trails, including Volksweg Bike Trail. Elk Rock Equestrian Trail also provides horseback riding opportunities. Don’t miss heading up to the 160-foot observation tower at Cordova Park at the lake’s northern side. The sweeping views of the body of water and its surroundings are sure to take your breath away.

Fishing: Several fish species populate the lake including crappie, bass, catfish, walleye, sunfish, and northern pike.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding, picnicking

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2. Saylorville Lake

Saylorville Lake in Central Iowa

This vast reservoir sitting on the Des Moines River is one of the primary sources of attraction around the capital city. You can have a bicycle ride or a leisurely walk with your dogs around it to enjoy the surrounding picturesque views. On its western shore is Jester Park, equipped with picnic tables, serving as an ideal spot for get-togethers. There’s a golf course functioning from spring through autumn, and hunting spots here to keep visitors busy.

Fishing: The lake supports excellent stocks of largemouth bass, catfish, walleye, sunfish, bluegill, and perch.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, tubing, kayaking, waterskiing, canoeing, camping, hiking, cycling, picnicking, golfing, hunting

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3. Big Creek Lake

Big Creek Lake in Central Iowa

Big Creek Lake is close to the town of Polk City, offering visitors many recreational activities and views to enjoy. With Big Creek State Park and a wildlife refuge area bordering it, flora and fauna are abundant. The playground and picnic area overlooking the waters make it a beautiful place to hang out with family or friends. Also, don’t miss biking or walking along the paved 26 miles of Neal Smith Trail to witness the prairie and forest settings.

Fishing: Several fish species populate the lake, including bluegill, channel catfish, largemouth bass, muskie, crappie, and walleye.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, canoeing, sailing, kayaking, jet-skiing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, camping, hiking

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Lakes in Eastern Iowa

1. Coralville Lake

Coralville Lake in Eastern Iowa

Coralville Lake, a human-made lake in east-central Iowa, is a favorite outdoor spot for many. With abundant in and out-of-the-water activities, visitors love to stay busy here all day. The Sugar Bottom, Sandy Beach, and West Overlook recreation areas have three public beaches and campsites.

Fishing: ish species you can catch in this lake are black crappie, black bullhead, smallmouth and largemouth bass, catfish, walleye, and sunfish.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, sailing, kayaking, camping, hiking, biking, picnicking, hunting, birdwatching

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2. Lake MacBride

Lake MacBride in Eastern Iowa

This artificial lake features the state’s largest, Lake MacBride State Park. You can stroll along the trail starting from the park’s beach house and traversing through oak forests to enjoy the lake views. There is also a  trail to the MacBride Spillway and waterfall, which is another beautiful feature in the area. Activities like snowmobiling and cross-country skiing attract visitors to enjoy a great time in winter. To spend overnight here, choose a lakeside spot to pitch your camps.

Fishing: This lake has an excellent stock of walleye, crappie, panfish, white bass, carp, and catfish.

Other Activities: Swimming, boating, kayaking, canoeing, camping, hiking, cross-country skiing, birdwatching, snowmobiling, picnicking

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Best Lakes for Fishing: Coralville Lake, Saylorville Lake, Big Creek Lake

Best Lakes for Camping: Rathbun Lake, Lake Sugema, Lake Darling,

Best Lakes for a Vacation: West Okoboji Lake, Lake Manawa, Lake MacBride

Best Dog Friendly Lakes: Lake Manawa, Saylorville Lake, Swan Fish

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