Spirit Lake is considered the gateway to the Iowa Great Lakes region. This small but vibrant city is located in northwestern Iowa, less than 10 miles from the Minnesota state border and 100 miles east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The town, founded in 1879, derives its name from the Dakota Sioux word for the large lake to the north – “Minnewaukon” or “Lake of the Spirit.” Easily accessible by car, Spirit Lake, Iowa, sits at the cross-section of Interstates 71 and 9.
Not surprisingly, with such beauty and natural wonders, there are countless things to do around Spirit Lake involving the great outdoors. Over 100 miles of trails crisscross the region, including a ten-mile city-based trail system that connects four fishing piers and necessary amenities.
For the golf enthusiast, Spirit Lake has two private golf courses within the city and over 11 public and private courses within half hour of downtown, ensuring challenging play for all. In the summertime, temperatures reach the mid-80s, perfect for all of the outdoor activities in the area.
But the area has a colder side as well and receives up to 40 inches of snow annually. Luckily, that doesn’t stop the tourists who visit this small town year-round. Why so much interest in Spirit Lake, Iowa? Because while awe-inspiring in its natural beauty, there are more things to do in Spirit Lake than play outdoors.
Spirit Lake is home to great restaurants, a few breweries, phenomenal museum complexes, and a retail art gallery district. There are also several seasonal amusement parks and a historic district with numerous European and indigenous buildings that date back to the city’s earliest settlements.
If you are planning to visit, here is a list of the best things to do in Spirit Lake, Iowa.
The Oakwood Inn is a value-priced private bed and breakfast offering a quiet adults-only wooded sanctuary and views of the garden. It is situated on 2 acres in the centre of the Okoboji Lakes Area. All rooms are equipped with a fireplace, flat-screen TV, refrigerator and microwave. Several rooms feature a spa bath. Every room has a private full bathroom.
Americinn of Okoboji is a pet-friendly business hotel located in Okoboji, Iowa. This hotel is close to the casino and features an indoor pool and hot tub. Each room at this hotel has free Wi-Fi and a flat-screen TV with cable channels. A microwave and refrigerator are included in each room at Americinn of Okoboji Business Hotel. Ironing rooms are also available on site.
Vintage Block Inn & Suites is situated in Okoboji, Iowa; and it's conveniently located near the most popular attractions. From your room you'll be able to enjoy the beautiful views of Lake Okoboji. The friendly staff at this hotel aims to make your stay a memorable one. If you want to feel right at home, then book your reservation today!
- Most significant landmark – Abbie Gardner Cabin
- Best park – Memorial Park
- Best free activity – Dickinson County Museum
- Best thing to do for kids – Treasure Village
- Best thing to do for adults – Pearson Lakes Art Center
- Best food – The Waterfront Grille
- Best nightlife – Okoboji Store
- Best all-around accommodation – The Oakwood Inn
Best & Fun Things to Do in Spirit Lake, Iowa
1. Dickinson County Museum
Address: 1708 Keokuk Avenue, Spirit Lake, IA 51360
The Dickinson County Museum houses a collection of exhibits celebrating the county’s history and cultural heritage, all contained in a converted train depot. Under one roof, visitors can find an arrowhead collection, several foot pump organs dating back to the original settlement of the area, a 19th-century dental chair, and a traveling veterinary wagon.
One of the museum’s most popular exhibits highlights the area’s Native American tribes. Arrowheads and stone artifacts complement tools and items left from the 1857 Spirit Lake Massacre, a somber point in the region’s history.
Another picture of historical life is the ice harvesting exhibit. Ice was big business in Spirit Lake. Blocks for “kitchen ice boxes” were cut with unique tools from the frozen lake and shipped by rail throughout the United States.
If you want something to do, the Dickinson County Museum is a fun place to spend a couple of hours learning about life near the Iowa Great Lakes. And the best thing of all? Admission to the quaint museum is free.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa
2. Big Spirit Lake
Big Spirit Lake is the largest natural lake in Iowa and the second of three area lakes carved by glaciers. Often referred to as a glacial pothole – the roughly 5,700-acre lake was formed during the most recent ice age – 13,000 years ago.
This breathtaking lake reaches depths of 24 feet and because of its shallow depth, the waters are more susceptible to environmental temperatures – warmer in the summer and colder in the winter.
The northern shore of Big Spirit Lake touches the Iowa-Minnesota border. And numerous beaches encircle the lake, including Mini-Wakan State Park on the north and the popular Orleans Beach on the south end of the lake near the Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery.
The crystal clear water is open to all, with easy lake access. Lakegoers can safely canoe and fish via a canoe ramp or a protected boat ramp. If exploring the area is more your style, enjoy a walking trail that wanders near the water’s edge. After a peaceful hike, you can rest on one of the many park benches.
Playing on Big Spirit Lake is exhausting, and it is nice to check into a peaceful resort after a long day in the sun. Big Spirit Resort is located about five miles from Orleans Beach on the lake shore. This area hotel is in a great location and offers easy access to the lake.
3. Treasure Village Miniature Golf
Address: 2023 IA-86, Milford, IA 51351
Skip the crowds and just play mini-golf at Treasure Village. While not in Spirit Lake proper, Treasure Village Mini-Golf is just a short nine-mile drive to the south end of West Lake Okoboji. This iconic golf course features 27 holes of course play, with each hole decorated with familiar storybook characters. An ice cream snack shop is onsite for quick refreshments.
If you want a more historical miniature golf experience, try Pirate’s Cove in Arnolds Park, just a few minutes away. This traditional seasonal miniature golf facility has one 18-hole course and food concessions. You will be greeted with a friendly Arrgh! and then shown into Pirate’s Cove.
Eighteenth-century pirates rule the day throughout the cove as you putt beneath strategic waterfalls, over a natural stream, and around the pirate ruins.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to do in Dubuque, Iowa
4. West and East Okoboji Lake
Sitting to the immediate south of Spirit Lake, Iowa, West Okoboji Lake is Iowa’s deepest natural lake, with a maximum depth of 136 feet, while East Okoboji Lake has a maximum depth of only 22 feet. Underground springs provide Iowa’s most popular lake with cool, clear water. This area surrounding the lake has been the ancestral home of the Santee or Dakota Sioux tribes.
Lake Okoboji is home to the Arnolds Park Amusement Park and Museum. There are rides for every age open during the summer, including a race track, roller coaster, and log flume. Another top lake attraction in Spirit Lake to do with kids or as a solo traveler is a ride on the Queen II excursion boat. A lake paddle boat, the Queen II tours the area providing spectacular vistas and historical accounts.
After a day on either lake, grab a bite and a pint at the Okoboji Store. This hip waterfront bar and grill features pub grub, deck seating for spectacular sunset views and live local bands. And a mile or so from the Okoboji Store is the AmericInn by Wyndham. This straightforward motel is excellent for beachside lodgings at an affordable price.
5. Pearson Lakes Art Center
Address: 2201 US-71, Okoboji, IA 51355
The area treasure sits roughly three miles south of downtown Spirit Lake. The Pearson Lakes Art Center combines six different art galleries. The complex museum features a 300-person theater, a clay studio, and educational programming in one unique art destination.
The Pearson Lakes Art Center houses a variety of old-world and contemporary masters, including Jasper Johns, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Miro, and Andy Warhol. The Russian gallery features the country’s most extensive Russian and Soviet-era art collection – over 43 pieces.
After a few hours immersed in the art world, it’s time for a little rustic charm. Less than a mile from the Art Center is one of the area’s most eclectic bars and restaurants. The Barn at Okoboji is a restored red-roofed rustic barn circa the early 1900s, complete with a Grain Bin Bar, outdoor stage, and activity courts. There is also a music hotspot, The Farmhouse.
Once the evening winds down, opt for top-notch accommodations nearby. The Oakwood Inn checks every box.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Ames, Iowa
6. Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum
Address: 243 West Broadway St, Arnolds Park, IA 51331
In another section of Arnolds Park lies the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum. This intimate attraction houses many boating-related artifacts, documents, and items. Between the black and white photographs, the gallery boasts a rare collection of antique wooden boats, including a restored boat recovered from the bottom of West Okoboji Lake.
There are over 25 classic wooden runabouts housed in a fully restored boathouse. There is also an excellent exhibit of period swimsuits. But there are definitely no bikinis in this collection. And volunteer docents provide interesting tours exploring the history and lore of the Iowa Great Lakes.
These walking tours last from 30 to 60 minutes. Don’t forget to stop by the gift shop for a few historical presents for those back home. After touring the museum, opt for a top-notch meal. The Waterfront Grille sits directly on the southeastern shore of East Okoboji Lake, near Arnolds Park.
This upscale American steak and seafood restaurant anticipates every culinary need and is a must-try, from the grilled scallops to the hot wok Korean shrimp scampi.
7. Okoboji Classic Cars Museum
Address: 810 Jeppeson Road, Okoboji, IA 51351
Tens of thousands travel yearly to a classic car museum in the middle of nowhere. Discovered chiefly by word of mouth, Toby Shine’s Okoboji Classic Cars collection is worth over $6 million. Owner Toby Shine considers the museum his ‘man cave,’ and he often sits at the end of the museum’s bar chatting with car lovers.
Okoboji Classic Cars started as a car restoration business and quickly expanded into a museum. While 47,000-square feet is dedicated to car restoration, the awe-inspiring collection of roughly 70 vehicles spans two massive showrooms within 28,000-square feet of display.
These scenes of area life are considered the largest known indoor mural. The building walls are a hand-painted diorama recreating downtown Spencer near Arnolds Park, Iowa, circa 1950.
See Related: What is Iowa known for? Facts about the Hawkeye State
8. Elinor Bedell State Park
Address: 1619 260th Avenue, Spirit Lake, IA 51360
Elinor Bedell State Park sits on the east shore of East Okoboji Lake near The Narrows Point and Arthur Heights. It boasts a sprawling, unspoiled 80-acre area popular for camping and fishing. There is an impressive 120-person picnicking pavilion and a playground with spectacular water views.
There is a walking trail with interactive lessons about the Native Americans, area wildlife, and a peaceful small-step waterfall. Elinor Bedell State Park is the perfect place for a peaceful weekend getaway.
Just over the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail, from Elinor Bedell State Park, is the popular Memorial Park. This 10-acre green space sits on the western bank of the northeasterly shores of East Lake Okoboji. Memorial park is easily accessible for a day with the family for a fun picnic. It features a splash pad, hiking trails, fishing piers, and a horseshoe court. And you can watch the kids on the playground equipment while you keep an eye on the grill.
Or if you are too tired to cook, a few blocks away is an old-fashioned hamburger joint, Burger & Company Spirit Lake. Made-to-order juicy burgers, homemade fries, and thick milkshakes are the order for the day.
9. Abbie Gardner Cabin
Address: 74 Monument Drive, Arnolds Park, IA 51331
Arnolds Park is one of the many nearby cities to Spirit Lake. It is a short five-mile drive south of downtown Spirit Lake, Iowa. A pivotal part of local history, Abbie Gardner Cabin sits within the small lake district.. The 19th-century log cabin was made famous as the location of the often-referenced Spirit Lake Massacre.
The Spirit Lake Massacre was a controversial 1857 regional battle. The northwestern Iowa incident involved a band of Sioux Indians led by Inkpaduta, who, seemingly without reason, attacked a group of European settlers.
Abigail (Abbie) Gardner was a thirteen-year-old settler orphaned and captured during the raid. The warriors took her 100 miles northwest to Pipestone Quarry, where she was ransomed 84 days later and eventually released in the Dakota Territory.
Inkpaduta was a Santee Sioux Chief pursued by the United States Military and eventually defeated at theBattle of Killdeer Mountain in 1864. He was forced to flee the area, eventually migrating to Canada.
Decades after the massacre, in 1891, Abbie purchased her old family cabin, transforming it into one of Iowa’s earliest tourist attractions. After touring the Abbie Gardner Cabin site, take a few hours to rest and refresh at The Inn Hotel, which offers contemporary European-styled accommodations with an onsite restaurant.
See Related: Visiting the Four Corners National Monument in the USA
10. Pikes Point State Park
Address: 15973 213th Avenue, Orleans, IA 51360
Pikes Point State Park sits on the shores of West Okoboji Lake on a tip of land, four miles from downtown Spirit Lake. Due to its unique suspended swim platform, Pikes Point State Park is one of the Iowa Great Lakes’ most popular swimming holes and a prime fishing spot in Iowa.
Anglers of all skill levels are challenged by the variety of the water’s feisty game fish – walleye, northern pike, bass, bluegills, catfish, and bullheads. The park’s boat launch accommodates ski boats, sailboats, and canoes on the blue water’s surface. Closer to shore, scuba and snorkeling tours are popular.
And after a long day of play, exit the lake using one of the nearby boat ramps, but don’t take too long because the grill is hot, and it is time to eat. This is when family picnics rule at Pikes Point, with several picnic tables and a great view of the glacial basin.
A mile or so from Pikes Point State Park is the Lake Dog Park, an open-air off-leash dog park. The six-acre dog park is designed to allow two separate dog runs -one for large dogs and one for more reserved personalities.
When it is time for a relaxing evening and a great meal, drive the few miles across the lake from Pikes Point to the Pub19 Bar & Grill, an up-scale steak and comfort food restaurant.
11. Dickinson County Nature Center
Address: 22785 Nature Center Road, Okoboji, IA 51355
The Dickinson County Nature Center consists of eleven distinct parks and reserves and is an environmental and ecological mecca for children and adults. Education programs introduce live animal ambassadors, while interactive exhibits provide a more academic approach to the area’s habitats.
Kenue Park features geocaching, disc golf, and a nature playscape. While the Pioneer Park Nature Preserve, a 35-acre park, is a great place to go fishing or birdwatching. In the winter, the Dickinson County Nature Center becomes the go-to place for downhill snow tubing at Horseshoe Bend Wildlife Area.
In winter, the Okoboji region is a playground. And the Dickenson County Nature Center is the home to the Dickinson County Snowhawks snowmobile club, a community group that works to groom many of the nearly 100 miles of Dickinson county trails, keeping them safe for cross-country skiing, snowshoe hiking, snowmobiling, and winter birdwatching- yes that really is a thing!
See Related: Best Hiking Trails in the World You Must Visit
12. SAMI Bedell Center for the Performing Arts
Address: 612 28th St, Spirit Lake, IA 51360
The SAMI Bedell Center for the Performing Arts is immediately adjacent to Spirit Lake High School and Little League Park. Distinguished by a larger-than-life modern red metal sculpture, The SAMI features a 1000-seat performing arts auditorium with a costume shop, a scenery shop, and a full orchestra pit.
The wildly successful facility is also home to one of the Yamaha red limited-edition concert grand pianos signed and gifted by music legend Sir Elton John.
Local actors hone their skills in musicals and special events while world-class performers are scheduled. It is also a one-of-a-kind venue to catch nationally touring Broadway-style performances. The Center also serves the community as a place for town hall meetings and high school performances.
13. Templar State Recreation Area
Address: 13185 Templar Drive S, Spirit Lake, IA 51360
The Iowa Great Lakes region has over two dozen state parks, beaches, and recreation areas.
One of the most rustic, Templar State Recreation Area is a ten-acre park with minimal services and amenities. The park sits directly on the southwestern shores of Spirit Lake, close to Kettleson Hogsback Wildlife Reserve. It is an excellent setting for an impromptu family picnic or cookout with one picnic shelter and two gazebos.
Lakegoers have access to a lagoon-based boat launch that provides shelter even on the windiest days, and there are also numerous spots for excellent shore fishing. The lake also has several sloughs, a wetland or shallow part of a larger body of water, that serve as estuaries and wildlife reserves.
See Related: Best Islands to Visit Around the World
14. Corner Lanes Bowling
Address: 2105 Circle Drive W, Spirit Lake, IA 51360
Corner Lanes is a date night mainstay for locals and a change of pace from the waterfront activities of the Iowa Great Lakes. Perfect for a solo evening or the entire family, the bowling alley boasts 12 lanes and all the necessary rentals to make for an enjoyable evening.
Corner Lanes also has a bar and grill serving burgers and buckets of beer. There is even a full-service breakfast restaurant next door.
Kick up your feet, your trip to Spirit Lake is a rousing success! After bowling that perfect ‘300’ game, it’s time to relax. Grab a room at the Super 8 Hotel by Wyndham, next door to the bowling lanes. But don’t forget to do a little more shopping at the Spirit Lake Antique Mall next door before leaving.
15. Goodies Handmade Candies
Address: 2321 30th Street, Spirit Lake, IA 51360
Goodies Handmade Candies is a family-run business specializing in unique chocolates, including turtles, fresh toffee, dipped fudge, and peanut butter bars. This popular community-based confectionary is located in the Spirit Lake area.
Goodies Handmade Candies is also well-known for its brownies and hand-made biscotti, a perfect companion to fresh coffee. All the sweet treats at Goodies Handmade Candies are made with fresh ingredients and can be bought year-round or bundled for the perfect holiday gifts.
See Related: Best Beaches in the US to Visit
16. Gilbert Park
Address: 601 Hill Ave, Spirit Lake, IA 51360
Just west of Peppermint Point, Gilbert Park was established in 1874 but has continuously been upgraded. The park is a five-acre community mainstay that includes roughly 500 feet of shoreline on the northwestern edge of East Okoboji Lake.
Gilbert Park provides two floating and swimming platforms and a basketball court. This well-maintained paved court is a great place to play basketball with family or friends. A beautiful urban green space, Gilbert Park also has a bike trail, a shelter house, grills, and tables are often used for a full afternoon of family picnic fun.
What is the best thing to do with kids in Spirit Lake, Iowa?
Spend the afternoon touring the Okoboji Classic Cars collection. This private collection is worth over $6 million and sits in a 28,000-square-foot steel building. The walls are covered with hand-painted murals depicting area town life throughout the 1950s and 1960s. These dioramas are the largest continuous murals in the world, taking 400 gallons of paint to complete.
What is Spirit Lake, Iowa, known for?
While the area is blanketed with parks and green space, Spirit Lake, Iowa, is famous for the Spirit Lake Massacre – a controversial battle that occurred in 1857 at the Abbie Gardner Cabin. The northwestern Iowa incident involved a band of Sioux Indians led by Inkpaduta, who attacked a group of European settlers. Inkpaduta was a Santee Sioux Chief who was eventually defeated at theBattle of Killdeer Mountain in 1864 and forced to flee to Canada.
What are some things to do in Spirit Lake, Iowa, when it’s raining?
One of the best things to do when it is raining or snowing in Spirit Lake is to grab a pint and bowl a few games at Corner Lanes Bowling. If you prefer a more eclectic afternoon, visit the free galleries and the vast collection of contemporary art at the Pearson Lakes Art Center.
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