September 24, 2019

101 Things To Do In Iowa

Iowa is one of my favorite Midwest states to explore because it is full of wonderful outdoor opportunities, great food, and cultural attractions. Plus, Iowa has its fair share of quirky and strange road side attractions!

Read to explore Iowa? Here’s a list of 101 things to inspire your next Iowa road trip! I’ve divided up the list into sections:

  • -Outdoor adventures in Iowa
  • -Food & drink in Iowa
  • -Only in Iowa experiences
  • -Family-friendly things to do in Iowa

Outdoor adventures in Iowa

Hike interesting terrain in Iowa

A trail in the Loess Hills near Honey Creek, Iowa.

Try trails in the Loess Hills in Western Iowa or head to the interior and explore Ledges State Park. In Eastern Iowa, look into trails at the Mines of Spain Recreation Area near Dubuque.

Explore Iowa caves

Top on my list is Maquoketa Caves State Park in eastern Iowa – it has 16 caves to explore. There’s Spook Cave near McGregor, where you can tour the cave by boat.

Crystal Lake Cave is one not too far from downtown Dubuque. It’s a cave where you can take a 90-minute Wild Cave Tour that takes you deeper into the cave, with some passages requiring belly crawling.

Rock climb in the Midwest

Things to do in Iowa - Rock climbing at Backbone State Park
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Head to central and eastern Iowa to find rock climbing opportunities. Chief among them is Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon, Backbone State Park near Dundee and Pictured Rocks County Park near Monticello.

Candlight Ski

Don cross country skis or snow shoes for the annual Candlight Ski along Waverly Rail Trail in Waverly. The event, held on the first Saturday of February, is held on a.11-mile portion of the trail.

Catch a harness race

If you’ve never heard of harness racing, head to the Taylor County Fairgrounds in June. Rather than racing on the horse like a jockey, horses race as they pull a small, two-wheel cart and rider.

Kayak and canoe rivers

Moonlight kayaking on the Upper Iowa River near Decorah, Iowa

Voted as one of the most scenic in America, the Upper Iowa River is found in Eastern Iowa. You can launch near Decorah. If you time it right, you can try kayaking by moonlight!

Another option is kayaking the Mississippi River backwaters at Rock Creek Marina at Rock Creek County Park outside Camanche. You can also explore the water trails of Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa.

Walk across Lover’s Leap

Head to Columbus Junction and seek out the 262-foot Lover’s Leap Swinging Bridge. It’s a doozy. The bridge is eight stories above the ground.

Zip lines

Sky Tours Zip Lining in Dubuque has nine zip lines to attempt over the course of two hours. At Mount Crescent in Honey Creek, there is just one zip line, but it’s a pretty view.

Ride the roller coasters at amusement parks

Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Iowa is home to one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in America, The Legend. Find it and other rides at Arnolds Park Amusement Park in Arnolds Park.

For newer and even wilder rides, head to Altoona (near Des Moines) to visit Adventureland. It’s home to the only roller coaster in the Western hemisphere with a negative-G loop.

Explore the Driftless Region

My first encounter with the Driftless Region in eastern Iowa included a bike ride and kayaking in Decorah. It’s a beautiful area with surprising terrain. Three parks that could be your base for exploring the Driftless Region are Mines of Spain Recreation Area in Dubuque, Bixby State Preserve in Edgewood and Osborne Park in Elkader.

SUP Yoga

Why just do yoga or standup paddleboard when you can do both? Try it at George Wyth State Park in Waterloo.

Take a train ride

Unique Iowa experiences - Ride a train from the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

It’s a bit of a drive to get to, but Boone is home to the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. The railroad offers out-and-back rides and many of them are themed (and appeal to families) – imagine something along the lines of Thomas the Tank Engine and “Polar Express.”

Take a mini train ride

Each summer on the weekends, kids can take rides on the miniature steam train at Watson Station in Missouri Valley. The ride includes a bridge and a pass through a 50-foot tunnel.

RAGBRAI

Not for the faint of heart, but definitely a lot of fun, RAGBRAI is an annual bike ride across Iowa that takes several days to complete. Bike all day and enjoy the fun all night. The host cities change each year, so the festivities change.

Scenic bike rides

Scenic bike rides in Iowa include Trout Run Trail in Decorah

If you have a mountain bike or hybrid, try the crushed limestone Wabash Trace Trail that runs north to south in western Iowa. Road bike? Try the Trout Run Trail in Decorah. Another trail I’ve heard is good, even for road bikes, is Cedar Valley Nature Trails.

Do the Taco Ride

Keeping with the bicycle theme, there’s one last item on this list to be done on two wheels – the Thursday night Taco Ride along the Wabash Trace Trail in Western Iowa. Leaving from Council Bluffs, cyclists ride about 10 miles to Mineola for dinner at Tobey Jack’s Mineola Steakhouse, and they pedal their way back. Hundreds of people do it each week and it’s a blast!

Tip: Wear a helmet, bring a bike light, and watch for cyclists on the way back who may have had one too many drinks at the half-way point.

Horseback rides

There are guided horseback trail rides across the state. In western Iowa, consider Shady Lane Ranch in Council Bluffs. For central Iowa, I hear Jester Park trail rides are a great experience.

Meet a bison

Bison were once native to Iowa, and now, there are just a handful of places to see them. In central Iowa, visit the Van Meter farm Bare Bison on a Saturday to meet them. In Western Iowa, Botna Bend Park in Hancock is home to a small herd of bison.

Stay in a yurt

Unique outdoor experience in Iowa - Sleep in a yurt at McKintosh State Park in Clear Lake.

What’s a yurt, you ask? It’s like a more permanent tent, like not quite a glamping experience but definitely a step above camping. Find two yurts at McKintosh State Park in Clear Lake. The view is worth it!

Ski in Iowa

The closest ski resort to my home is in Honey Creek called Mount Crescent Ski Area. You can also find ski slopes at  in Dubuque and Seven Oaks in Boone.

Attend a maple tree tapping

You might associate maple tree tapping and maple syrup pancake feeds with more northern states, but visit Botna Bend in Hancock at the right time and you can attend an event for each.

Play in the Iowa Great Lakes

Water activities in Iowa - Canoe or kayak in Okoboji

The Okoboji region is a popular summer destination for families. Consisting of six lakes, AKA the Iowa Great Lakes, the region is the place to go for boating, fishing, and my kids’ favorite, playing on the beach.

Find your Christmas tree at a tree farm

It’s like a scene out of a movie: Finding the perfect Christmas tree at a bucolic tree farm. I’m most familiar with the Council Bluffs tree farm, Dappen Tree Farm. Here’s a list of seven other Iowa tree farms where you can find a great fir or pine.  

Waterfalls

If you know me, you know I LOVE waterfalls. Iowa has some pretty ones. An easy one to climb is in Decorah. 

Whitewater raft

Outdoor adventures in Iowa - White water kayaking in Charles City
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Iowa is home to whitewater rafting parks, including one in Manchester and another in Charles City.

Splash at a waterpark

Adventureland in Altoona has a large waterpark that’s included with admission to the amusement park. You can also cool off at Lost Island Waterpark in Waterloo.

Pick apples at an orchard

Iowa is home to a lot of apple orchards, but a few that have been vouched for by my travel writing friends include Wilson Orchard near Iowa City and my favorite, Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard in Council Bluffs.

Bike across High Trestle Trail Bridge

The centerpiece of the High Trestle Trail near Madrid, this pedestrian bridge is so unique, it’s was named by the BBC as one of the world’s eight most amazing footbridges Go there by day or night, as it’s lit by mesmerizing blue LED lights.

Watch waterski stunts

I’ve been obseswsed with the idea of water ski stunts ever since I saw a picture of a pyramid of water skiers. The Waterhawks perform stunts on Eagle Lake in Waterloo each summer.

Stroll botanical gardens

Picturesque gardens to visit in Iowa include Reiman Gardens in Ames.
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

There are gorgeously cultivated gardens around the state of Iowa, including Reiman Gardens in Ames and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Food & drink in Iowa

Sip some wine

Iowa is home to six wine trails! The wineries I’m most familiar with are on the Western Iowa Wine Trail, including Prairie Crossing Vineyard and Winery and Breezy Hills Winery.  

Take on some food challenges

Not one to shy away from a challenge? Iowa has some gut-busters for you. Head to Des Moines to try the Adam Emmenecker Challenge at Jethro’s BBQ. It involves all of the basketball star’s favorite foods and you have to eat it all in 15 minutes (including but not limited to brisket, pork tenderloin, a cheeseburger, fried cheese curds and a pound of fries).

While you’re in Des Moines, stop at B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli to attempt to put down the Killosal Sandwich.

Other food challenges can be found in Waterloo, home to the 28,890 Challenge at the Screaming Eagle; Carroll, where you can take on the The Carrollton Challenge at Charlie’s Steakhouse; and Ames, where you can try to eat the Triple Double Food Challenge at Brick City Grill.

Eat pizza on a farm

Woodfire pizza at Luna Valley Farm in Decorah, Iowa

One of the most unique dining experiences I’ve had was at Luna Valley Farm near Decorah. The farm offers wood-fire oven pizza on special nights, using ingredients they’ve grown or raised on the farm!

When I went, they also had a band playing and had local beer on tap. It was the perfect Friday night.

Try a pork tenderloin as big as your head

You will not go hungry if you attempt to traverse Iowa’s Tenderloin Trail. There are 14 stops on the trail, and some of ginormous sandwiches. (I’m looking at you, Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City)  

Participate in a donut eating contest

Head to Elkader in July for the Sweet Corn Days. Among the many activities planned is the donut hole eating contest, held at Pedretti’s Bakery (home to some of Iowa’s best donuts!).

Enjoy the best apple cider donut ever

donut in Council Bluffs

It’s a bold claim, but I stand by it. I love the freshly made apple cider donuts at Ditmars Orchard in Council Bluffs. Being an apple orchard, they also have u-pick apples, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I purposely go there just for the donuts.

Drink out of a happy cat

I’m a fan of Fong Pizza in Des Moines and we stop for pizza every time we pass through the city. If we’re not in a rush, we order one of their mixed drinks that come in quirky glasses.

Boat up to the Barefoot Bar

The Barefoot Bar is a bit of the tropics in the middle of the Heartland. Boaters pull up daily to grab a few drinks, hear the live music, and maybe cool off by sliding into the lake. Barefoot Bar is located in Okoboji.

Go for some gourmet food

The chefs from one of my favorite Omaha restaurants, Lot 2, moved to Corning to open Primrose, a restaurant that sources its ingredients from local farms.

Dine family-style in Amana Colonies

Great restaurants in Iowa - Ox Yoke Inn in Amana, Iowa.

There are three restaurants in Amana that come highly recommended for their family-style dining. If I had to pick one for you to try, I would recommend Ox Yoke Inn (and don’t pass on trying the strawberry jam and fried chicken…not together…unless you want to).

Breweries

About five years ago, Iowa ranked 15th in the U.S. for the amount of breweries per capita – 33. There are even more now. A few that I’ve tried (and liked) include Pulpit Rock in Decorah, which is near a biggie among beer nerds (Toppling Goliath Brewery, which sells five beers on the Top Beers of the Year list by RateBeer). 

Get an ice cream headache

Iowa is home to the ice cream capital of the world, so you know they love their ice cream (Le Mars is the place to visit the home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream).

Additionally, I recommend going to Lagomarchino’s in Davenport. Be sure to head to the original location to be tempted by the candy treats as much as the sundaes.

Cave into your inner-chocoholic

Iowa has so many candy stores and sweet shops, it’s hard to narrow down the list.

Some of the more unique destinations include Kalona Chocolates in Kalona, an Amish town in central Iowa where it’s not uncommon to see horse-drawn wagons in transit; The Chocolate Haus in the Amana Colonies; and Palmer’s Candy in Sioux City, which is one of the oldest candy companies in the U.S. (and home to the Cherry Bing).

Eat a Dutch letter

Holding up a Dutch letter from the Dutch Bakery in Orange City, Iowa.

Iowa has its fair share of Dutch communities, and each one (it seems) has a bakery with the best Dutch letter. These “s” shaped pastries are tasty. You can find Dutch letters in Boone County at Van Hemert’s Dutch Oven Bakery or head to Orange City to get one at the Dutch Bakery.

Dine at the Sistine Chapel

OK, full disclosure. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, just an incredible replica of the famous ceiling spray painted on the ceiling of Galleria de Paco, a restaurant in Waterloo.

Ride in the Grapemobile

Iowa has a surprising number of wineries, but few can offering what Tassel Ridge Winery offers at its vineyard in Mahaksa County: The Tassel Ridge Grapemobile. Seasonally, it’s used to take visitors on tours of the vineyard.

Eat a loose meat sandwich

Do you call these things taverns or Maid-Rites? Whatever you want to call them, Iowans have been eating loose meat sandwiches for decades. They’re not quite a hamburger or a sloppy joe. They’re their own thing.

Try the nuns’ candy

Monastery Candy in Dubuque is home to the world-famous caramels made by nuns. Word is, the hazelnut meltaways are the best.

Take a bit of headcheese

For the adventurous eater, head to the Amana Colonies to try headcheese from Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse in Amana. I’ll admit, when we stopped by that shop, we just stuck to sausage and cheese, though.

Only in Iowa experiences

Visit Captain Kirk’s future birthplace

I know, I know, “Star Trek”’s Capt. Kirk hasn’t even been born yet. That doesn’t stop the town of Riverside from celebrating its most famous fictitious resident. Places to stop include Voyage Home Museum with memorabilia and the photo opp in front of the U.S.S. Riverside out front.

Look for the marker of his official future birthplace behind New Image Salon and if you’re really a fan, look for the plaque commemorating where he was conceived (it’s in Murphy’s Bar & Grille).

Find those famous covered bridges

Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

You’ve heard of the book and movie “The Bridges of Madison County,” right? Madison County is in Iowa and you can go find those bridges. Grab a map from the Winterset Chamber of Commerce office or even book a guided tour.

Marvel at Matchstick Marvels

The Matchstick Marvels museum in Gladbrooke contains matchstick replicas of buildings and pop culture icons like the 1970 Dodge Charger from the “Fast & Furious” movies.

See some of the “World’s Largest”

Iowa is home to a few attractions that can claim “world’s largest” fame, including the world’s largest truck stop in Walcott and Elwood, the world’s largest garden concrete gnome found in Reiman Gardens in Ames. There’s a ton more to name, but a few more that might interest you: The world’s largest ball of popcorn in Sac City and the world’s largest wooden nickel in Iowa City.

Sleep in a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel

Find the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel that’s still remains. 

Strike an “American Gothic” pose

Visit the American Gothic House that has been immortalized in Grant Wood’s painting. While there, you can don costumes and pose in front of the house.

Go to popular tulip festivals

The most well-known tulip festival is Tulip Time in Pella. However, I’m most familiar with the delightful Tulip Festival in Orange City, with a parade that includes street sweeping in traditional costumes. 

Run around the bases at the Field of Dreams

Head to Dyersville to see the famous ballpark in the middle of a cornfield made for the movie “Field of Dreams.” In the summer, there are Ghost Sunday events. In 2020, an actual MLB game will be played there.

Stay the night in the Villisca Axe Murder House

If you dare, you can book an overnight stay at the Villisca Axe Murder House. For the rest of us, there’s the option of touring the infamous home in the daylight.

Visit one of the last rotary jails

The historic Squirrel Cage Jail is located in Council Bluffs. It may or may not be haunted.
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

You can tour Historic Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs and see one of the oldest rotary jails in the United States (think “lazy Susan”-esque). It’s notoriously haunted, and occasionally there are flashlight tours offered.

Visit the first aronia berry farm in the U.S.

Sawmill Hollow Organic Farm in Missouri Valley was the first farm in the U.S. to grow the superfood called the aronia berry. The farm hosts the North American Aronia Berry Festival each September.

Living Loess Tour

Held on the third Saturday of the month from May to October, the Living Loess Tour offers travelers the opportunity to visit farms and rural attractions in western Iowa. My family has been able to make nature art on a farm, milk a goat, and hike when we did a portion of the tour.

Each stop offers a stamp and if you visit all seven on the Saturday of the tour, you can enter your passport in for a prize.

Attend a quirky festival

The quirky festivals in Iowa are year-round, but some of the most interesting happen in the summer. There’s TrekFest held each June in Riverside, the hometown of the fictional character Capt. James T. Kirk.

August has two great ones to consider: Iowa Tugfest pits two teams in an epic tug-of-war across the Mississippi River each August. Find the Iowa team fighting from the Leclaire side of the river. Britt Hobo Days has started up around the annual National Hobo Convention in Britt each August.

See the Little Mermaid

OK, OK, this is not the Disney Little Mermaid I’m talking about. Kimballton is a small town in western Iowa that’s home to a replica of the famous Danish statue of the Little Mermaid. Find it at Mermaid Park (obviously).

Strike a pose with goat yoga

Honey Creek Creamery in Honey Creek offers goat yoga sessions in the spring. While it’s definitely more goat cuddling and ogling than yoga,  it’s a refreshing experience to try stretches on a farm. 

Milk a goat

Return to Honey Creek a few months later and you might get to milk one of those mama goats. The creamery runs Stanley’s Snack Shack, a tasty restaurant known for their goat’s milk gelatos. Oh, and they have goats located near the restaurant and if you ask nice enough, you can milk one of them.

See a bit of WWII history in Algona

The small town of Algona was once home to a POW camp that housed German, Italian and Japanese prisoners. The story goes that a German POW began constructing a Nativity scene, and in time, he and several others built 65 pieces of a set that’s about half of life-size. It’s on display at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds during the holidays each year.

Reenact a scene out of “The Music Man”

Mason City is the birthplace of Meredith Willson, who wrote the 1962 musical. Head to the Music Man Square to find the 1912 “River City” indoor streetscape, a recreation from the set design of the movie. While there, might as well tour his home and the Meredith Willson Museum, where you can seek out the “76 Trombones” hanging from the ceiling.

Make a music pilgrimage

On Feb. 3, 1959, the airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valence and the Big Bopper crashed in a cornfield in Iowa. A memorial exists at the crash site near Clear Lake that fans visit year-round.

Visit the Surf Ballroom

Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was the last concert venue where Buddy Holly, Richie Valence and the Big Bopper played.

The concert venue where Buddy Holly, Richie Valence and the Big Bopper played was the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Concerts are still held there. You can visit any time, even without a concert ticket – take a self-guided tour of the historic ballroom during regular hours.

Be sure to visit the green room where hundreds of autographs dot the walls (and ceiling).

Des Moines Arts Festival

Every June, thousands of art aficionados take to the streets of Des Moines to view works (and maybe purchase one) in this outdoor juried art show. It’s huge! And, if you’re going with kids, there’s a great area for families you’ll want to visit.

Ride the Fenelon Place Elevator

The Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque is the world’s steepest, shortest scenic elevator. You can see two other states while at the top.

See a windmill up close

One of the closest windmills to Omaha is in Elk Horn, a small town heavily influenced by its Dutch roots. However, if you want to go inside a windmill, head to Pella, where you can take a tour of the Vermeer Windmill, the largest working windmill in the U.S.

Visit Effigy Mounds

Unique places to visit in Iowa include Effigy Mounds, a national monument in Harpers Ferry.
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Effigy Mounds, a national monument in Harpers Ferry, contains more than 200 mounds, many shaped like animals. It’s an American Indian burial and ceremonial site located in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. 

Snap a photo of the Round Barn

Just north of Bedford, you’ll find the beautifully restored Round Barn. Built in 1907 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. The barn is exactly what it sounds like. Find it at the Taylor County Museum.

Go on “America’s Racin’ Vacation”

Boone Speedway, AKA “Iowa’s Action Track,” hosts the International Motor Contest Association Super Nationals each September. For one week, champions are crowned in Modified, Stock Car, Late Model, Hobby Stock, Northern SportMod, Southern SportMod, and Sport Compact races. Many race fans make a week-long vacation out of the Super Nationals.

Visit the only ice harvest museum in the U.S.

Learn what ice harvesting at the Ice House Museum, a round building designed to hold millions of pounds of ice harvested from the Cedar River. There are hands-on activities to try in the museum housed in a former ice house.

See a small town lightshow

The Lewis Memorial Fountain in the Town Square of Sigourney is unique in that it has a nightly rotating light show from May through September. The multicolored, three-tiered fountain has been around for nearly 80 years.

Tackle Snake Alley

Only in Iowa can you bike (or walk) the most crooked street in the world, Snake Alley in Burlington.
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Ripley’s Believe It or Not named Snake Alley as the “CROOKEDEST Street in the World.” Find this curvy road in Burlington.

See the Hula Hoop Tree

Head to rural Jones County to find the Amber Hula Hoop Tree, a whimsical sight to be certain. Hundreds of brightly colored hula hoops hang from the tree. Note: There is no place to park there, so put on your hazard lights when you stop to take a picture (which you will want to do).

Tour the capitol building

This building is gorgeous, but most importantly, taking a tour of the Iowa State Capitol means you get to see the most magnificent law library ever.

Ride in a hot air balloon during the National Balloon Classic 

If you don’t own a hot air balloon, you can still fly in one during the National Balloon Classic held in Indianola in late July-early August. People can make a reservation for the ride. Of course, you can always just watch from the ground, too. 

On the western side of the state, you can attend a balloon glow every September at Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard in Council Bluffs.

Appreciate the (free) public art

The Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines is well worth a detour if you’re near the city. The modern art is creative, huge, and Instagrammable. Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa is also home to a lot of unique public art.

See the Grotto of the Redemption

Here’s a rather unexpected find in West Bend – the Grotto of the Redemption. Taking more than 40 years to complete, this grotto is the largest man-made grotto in the world.

Learn about a Suffragette

Visit the girlhood home of Carrie Chapman Catt, a woman who fought hard for the right to vote throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. The home is located near Charles City. If you visit with kids, there are a few interactives, including some period costumes to try on.

Admire masterpieces

Impressive art museums in Iowa in the Figge Art Museum in Davenport.

No need to travel to the coasts to find stunning works of art. A few art museums worth a visit include Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the Des Moines Art Center.

Stay in a historic hotel

Iowa is home to several historic hotels that continue to offer unique overnight stays. Some of the longest running hotels include the Hotel Julien in Dubuque, which opened in 1839, and the Black Hawk in Cedar Falls, which is more than 165 years old.

Other hotels include Hotel Winneshiek in Decorah, which opened in 1905, and Hotel Pattee, a hotel in Perry that was built in 1913.

Learn hobo history

Britt, Iowa, is home to The Hobo Museum and the National Hobo Convention. The museum contains artifacts to preserve the culture of this small community, including items from Frisco Jack and Connecticut Slim.

Visit the country’s first all-organic city

South of Iowa City is the small town of Maharishi Vedic City, established as a meditation-themed community. The city is designed to promote happiness and balance, and everything is designed right down to which direction the buildings face and with rooms at precise proportions. Also, the city has banned pesticides and non-organic foods.

Dive into wrestling history

The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo explores the 5,000+ years of the sport, including regular ol’ wrestling and professional wrestling. 

Find the Volkswagen Beetle Spider

Just what the heck is this? Well, it’s a black Volkswagen Beetle made into a spider sculpture, of course. Find it in Avoca, a little less than 2 miles south of Interstate 80.

See the world’s smallest church

Built in 1885, the world’s smallest church seats eight people and can be found in Festina, near Decorah. In all, the chapel is 14 feet by 20 feet.

Visit Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum

I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I had my fair share of Cabbage Patch dolls. Even so, I could never compete with what’s on display at Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum in Griswold. See more than 3,000 dolls on display, including some that had the dreaded “Cabbage Patch Pox.” 

Family-friendly things to do in Iowa

Visit a pumpkin patch in the fall

Some of the closest pumpkin patches to Omaha include Pioneer Trail Orchard and Pumpkin Patch in Council Bluffs and McCurdy’s Pumpkins in Atlantic. For a list of 10 pumpkin patches in Iowa, click here.

Have fun exploring science

Family-friendly things to do in Iowa - visit the Iowa Science Center in Des Moines

Two of my family’s favorite science centers are located in Iowa. They are the Iowa Science Center in Des Moines and the Putnam Museum in Davenport.

We make sure to visit them whenever we’re nearby, thanks to the free admission we get with the reciprocal membership benefits we get through out Omaha Children’s Museum membership.

Go to the Iowa State Fair

Sure, there are butter cows at the Iowa State Fair, but I suspect there is something bigger and even greater to see there. Why else was it included in the book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die”? Clearly,  the Iowa State Fair stands out over other fairs.

Ride a historic carousel

Things to do with kids in Iowa - Ride the antique carousel in Story City.

Story City is home to a classic antique carousel that’s still in operation. And rides were pretty cheap!

Walk through history

Living History Farms, located in Urbandale near Des Moines, is an outdoor attraction that recreates farm life from various eras. There are hands-on opportunities and the chance to interact with costumed re-enactors.

Visit a dairy farm…with kangaroos

I don’t exactly know why, but Hansen’s Dairy in Hudson is seventh generation family farm. Take a tour and you’ll meet their kangaroos. Because, why not have kangaroos?

Snow shoe in the Loess Hills

Things to do with kids in Iowa - snow shoe in the Loess Hills of Western Iowa

One of my favorite things to try with my kids this past winter was snow shoeing. We rented snow shoes at the visitor center at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, and enjoyed the fresh air and views.

Ride on Thomas the Tank Engine

Got a fan of Thomas? Check the calendar to see when the annual Day Out With Thomas is at the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone. The engine is the legit Thomas.

Feed a giraffe

Fun things to do in Iowa - Feed giraffes at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines

For just a couple dollars, you can be amazed at the awkwardness and cuteness of a giraffe up close. Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines offers a giraffe feeding experiences as a little add-on to your zoo visit. I highly recommend it!

Exploring Iowa cities

While this list is epic, I didn’t include everything (because that’s impossible). If you want some more ideas, consider these posts for specific Iowa cities:

And if you want to hit a few Iowa cities, consider the Great Iowa Road Trip.

Like this post?

Subscribe to the FREE twice a month(ish) e-newsletter sharing family travel ideas, giveaways and more! Subscribe here.

The ultimate list of things to do, see and eat in Iowa! #Iowa #ThisisIowa #Guide #USA
July 17, 2019

5 Things To Help You Pick Where To Stay In Okoboji

If you’re planning a trip to Okoboji, Iowa, you’re most likely in need of a hotel or other type of accommodations for your family. Okoboji is not a one-day kind of region to visit. We spent three days exploring the area and still didn’t get to a few places on our list. This guide should help you narrow down where you’ll want to stay during your trip to Okoboji!

Disclosure: We were hosted by Vacation Okoboji, which provided some complimentary experiences and hotel stays. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

With several lakes and towns making up the Lake Okoboji region, it's hard to figure out where to stay in Okoboji. Here's a guide to help you figure out the best hotel, resort or other lodging option for your family. #Iowa. #Guide #LakeOkoboji #FamilyTravel.

Where do you want to stay in Okoboji – near the action or away from it?

When I write about Okoboji, I’m referring to a region of Iowa’s Great Lakes, and not just the town of Okoboji. With several lakes (West Okoboji, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Lower Gar, Minnewashta and Spirit Lake), you can easily find a location that suits your preference of being near the action or away from it.

A lot of restaurants and attractions my family visited during our weekend in Okoboji were near Arnolds Park and Okoboji. I would recommend looking for lodging near those two cities if you want to be near shops, Arnolds Park Amusement Park, beaches, and a ton of restaurants.

The downside to being in Arnolds Park and Okoboji is that you will encounter significantly more traffic and noise.

If that’s not what you’re looking for, consider staying further from the center of activity on the western side of the lakes, like Wahpeton or West Okoboji.

Where to stay in Okoboji - There are a variety of lakefront hotels throughout the region,  including Crescent Beach Family Resort.

Our resort, Crescent Beach Family Resort, was in Milford (near Wahpeton), which was a quiet region that was still less than 10 miles from all attractions. It’s near Gulf Point State Park.

The downside to Crescent Beach’s location was there weren’t a lot of dining options nearby for a quick bite to eat. The upside (if you’re into doing so while on vacation) was that our suite had its own kitchen to prepare meals.

Is lakeside lodging important to you?

Of course the lakes are a big for vacationers in Okoboji! You’ll find more than 20 hotels, campsites and resorts that are lakeside.

If you are on a budget, look “inland” for accommodations. The perk with these inland hotels will be that you’re more likely to find a pool there, which for traveling families, is almost a required amenity.

Paddlers paddling near lakeside hotels and vacation homes in the Iowa Great Lakes Region of Okoboji.

There are also cabins, bed & breakfasts, and camping options.

What amenities do you want in your Okoboji hotel?

While typically when traveling with two kids, I just need a place with enough beds and a pool. In Okoboji, the pool was not necessary since we had beaches at our disposal.

What are you looking for in a beach vacation hotel? Okoboji accommodations range from bare minimum motels to spacious resorts that include use of watercraft into their price.

The two-floor, lakeside suite at Crescent Beach Family Resort is one style of lodging option found in Okoboji, Iowa.

Crescent Beach Family Resort is a mid-range resort that offered regular rooms and suites. We stayed in a two-floor suite with lake views, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. It’s ideal for families.

Beyond the amenities in the room, the resort offered free use of kayaks, SUP boards, paddle boats and putters for its mini golf course.

Plus, it had a large playground, fire put, on-site bar and restaurant, and a complimentary continental breakfast.

If that type of resort appeals to you, check out the options for the region at Vacation Okoboji. You’ll find there’s everything from a resort with an indoor waterpark, plus lakeside resorts with pools, hot tubs, and some in-suite jacuzzis.

Are you looking for a kid-friendly resort or hotel?

Okoboji is an incredibly kid-friendly destination. Most Okoboji hotels will be suitable for families, and some have suites available.

At the Crescent Beach Family Resort, you’ll notice right away that they cater to families – the big playground gives it away.

Crescent Beach Family Resort in Milford, Iowa has a large playground and faces West Lake Okoboji.

However, it’s the more subtle amenities that reaffirms its family-friendly atmosphere. They provide kid-sized life jackets when guests check out a watercraft.

Crescent Beach also has a big box of beach toys on the sandy beach. Since I didn’t pack buckets or shovels for the kids for our trip, it was a particularly great find for us.

My daughter spent every chance she had on the beach, digging through the sand and wading into the cool water (it was late May and the water hadn’t warmed much).

If you’re looking for a kid-free getaway, consider staying at a bed & breakfast, which typically cater more to couples and adults looking to stay somewhere quieter.

Do you need an Okoboji rental or hotel large enough for a group?

I think Okoboji would be a great family reunion destination – it’s affordable, it has both indoor and outdoor activities, and it’s in the center of the U.S.

Many resorts are large enough to have rooms or suites for families.

There was a family reunion staying at the Crescent Beach, while we were there. The family had rooms at this resort and met nightly on grassy lawn for a cookout and games.

Crescent Beach Family Resort is an Okoboji resort that can accommodate a large group gathering, including a family reunion.

Crescent Beach does have larger suites and cottages, including one that sleeps 12. You can see in the picture above that the cottage is in the background.

Do your research to find accommodations that suit your group’s needs. If you like the idea of everyone staying in one big home, there are Airbnb options that accommodate 20-30 people.

Start looking for Okoboji hotels

Hopefully, you have an idea of what you’re looking for now and are ready to start planning your trip to Lake Okoboji! Here’s where to find the best lodging for you:

Okoboji Hotels, Motels & Resorts

Lakefront Lodging Options

Cottages & Cabins

Bed & Breakfasts

Campgrounds

Lake Okoboji is a popular destination in Iowa for summer vacation consisting of several lakes and towns. Here's how to find a hotel that's best for you - from determining if you want to be near all the attractions, do you want lake views, and if you need a hotel that's kid-friendly. #Iowa #FamilyTravel #VacationOkoboji

Plan your Lake Okoboji trip

Want to plan an Okoboji trip for your family? Start with this guide to Okoboji in the summer (with kids) and get more inspiration from my Iowa Bucket List.

Once you’re thoroughly inspired, check out these posts that go into more details about things to do in Okoboji:

Best Okoboji Restaurants For Families

Everything You Need To Know About Arnolds Park

The view from Crescent Beach Family Resort facing West Okoboji Lake in north Iowa.

Like this post?

Subscribe to the FREE twice a month(ish) e-newsletter sharing family travel ideas, giveaways and more! Subscribe here.

July 1, 2019

15+ Things To Do In Southwest Iowa With Kids

Southwest Iowa is full of day trip adventures for families in the Omaha metro. One county that’s has a lot to offer is Pottawattamie County, which includes cities like Council Bluffs, Walnut and Crescent. Here’s a list of attractions, activities and other fun things to do with kids in Pottawattamie County.

Related post: Did you know Pottawattamie County is the Trail Capital of Iowa? Read about 14 trails you can find there!

Water activities in Pottawattamie County

If your kids are like mine, it’s always best if it involves water. Walnut is home to a cool splash pad that is up and running.

If you guys are pool purists, the Oakland Pool is big, with a short diving board and plenty of room for friends. If you are more about zero-depth and water slides, check out the Splash Aquatic Center in Avoca, complete with a dog park next door for your furry friends.

Pools in Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa - The Oakland Pool has a diving board and spray ground play area.

Related post: Family-Friendly Outdoor Activities Near Council Bluffs

Indoor things to do in southwest Iowa

If you’re looking for rainy day activities or your children are more the indoor history-buff type, do the Highway 59 museum tour.

Indoor things to do in Pottawattamie County - Learn about Iowa history with a stop at the Pioneer Trail Museum in Macedonia.

Head to Macedonia to visit the Stempel Bird Museum and the Pioneer Trail Museum, then on to Oakland to see the Nishna Heritage Museum. The Nishna Heritage Museum has dolls, tools, and clothing from the early 1900s – complete with a jail cell! 

From there, you can visit the Sweet Vale of Avoca Museum, which has a taxidermied bear in it. And if the sun is shining, be sure to check out the musical garden at the Avoca Public Library, it’s new and fun.

Special events in southwest Iowa

Pottawattamie County is also home to great summer events. Catch the Carson Rodeo Aug. 1-3. Thursday night during the rodeo is the kids’ night, including a chance to mutton-bust. (No worries, moms, they can just watch, too.) They also have a parade that Saturday of the rodeo.

Special events in Pottawattamie County Iowa - Parades are held each summer, including a Fourth of July parade in Oakland.

Speaking of parades, Avoca and Oakland both have Fourth of July parades with plenty of candy to last the whole summer. Underwood also has Fourth of July festivities with a downhome feel. 

Rural Pottawattamie takes fairs seriously. Swing through the East Pottawattamie County Fair from July 18-21 for plenty of animals to pet, a tractor pull to watch, and art in the park. 

WestFair kicks off July 24-29 in Council Bluffs with livestock shows and carnival rides for everyone!

Summer events in Pottawattamie County - There are two county fairs to attend in July, East Pottawattamie County Fair and WestFair.

Best free thing to do in Pottawattamie County

One of the most interesting, educational whole family activities I know of is geocaching. Pottawattamie County has a lot of spots including one outside Oakland, one in Carson, and one near Crescent. 

Get a little time in nature and feel the excitement of a treasure hunt with geocaching.

Best southwest Iowa parks

You can’t beat the parks in Pottawattamie County! Double check the one you want to visit is open, as a few are closed due to flooding in 2019. Here are a few you can visit:

– The Shelby Trail has historic architecture and ends at the world’s largest corn stalk. 

– Neola has brand-new playground equipment put in May 2019. Arrowhead Park has fishing and camping.

Best parks in southwest Iowa - Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa, has scenic trails and a tall lookout tower to view raptors and other migrating birds.

– The grand-daddy of them all parks in Pottawattamie County is Hitchcock Nature Center. It’s is worth the hike. The view is amazing and they have programming year-round.

Tip: Hitchcock Nature Center is part of the 99 Parks campaign in Iowa. Read all about it in this post.

Whatever you’re looking for, it’s only a short drive away in Pottawattamie County.

Passing through Iowa on Interstate 80 or planning a trip to southwest Iowa? Here are some kid-friendly and fun places to visit and things to do there! This post covers parks, pools, museums in Pottawattamie County. #familytravel #Iowa #Guide

About the guest blogger

This post was written by a good friend of mine, Erica, who I met when she was a blogger but now she’s the director of Western Iowa Development Association. Have any questions? You can email Erica at EricaForWIDA@gmail.com. She also suggested you all check out the upcoming events at www.WIDAIowa.org.

Like this post?

Subscribe to the FREE twice a month(ish) e-newsletter sharing family travel ideas, giveaways and more! Subscribe here.


June 26, 2019

Everything You Need To Know About Arnolds Park

Arnolds Park Amusement Park is a nostalgic gem in the heart of Iowa. This historic attraction has played a lead role in memories for many people in Iowa and Nebraska who’ve vacationed in Okoboji. I’ve never been until I became a parent, but now I can finally check it off my list.

Headed to Okoboji? A visit to the Great Lakes of Iowa isn't complete without a day at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Here's everything you need to know to plan a visit  - prices, best time to visit, and the best tips. #guide #Okoboji #iowa #thisisiowa

Want to plan a visit with your family? Read on for my tips on the park, plus all the important things you need to know about Arnolds Park should you be planning your first visit.

Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Vacation Okoboji and I received complimentary passes. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

What is Arnolds Park?

First off, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about Arnolds Park. There is the town of Arnolds Park in north central Iowa and then there’s Arnolds Park Amusement Park. The amusement park is commonly referred to as Arnolds Park, though.

Things to know about Arnolds Park Amusement Park in Iowa, USA - It's home to the 7th oldest wooden roller coaster in the U.S.

The amusement park dates back to its first water slide into West Lake Okoboji in 1889. Its most famous ride, the wooden roller coaster called The Legend, opened in 1930. Still in operation, it’s the seventh oldest wooden roller coast in the U.S. and the 13th oldest in the world.

Today, there are about 24 rides and attractions at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. It’s on the small end of amusement parks but I think that’s what adds to the charm. You’re not exhausted by the visit.

Plus, it’s FREE! Well, technically it’s free, but if you want to ride any rides, you’ll need to get a wristband. More on that below.

Hidden gems of Arnold Park

My kids will tell you everything is a gem there. However, there are some hidden gems you should seek out during your visit.

Right outside the amusement park and right in front of a line of souvenir shops, you’ll find Harmony Park. The park has several musical instruments to play.

Things to do near Arnolds Park Amusement Park - Play the instruments at Harmony Park. It's a free park right next to the amusement park!

If your child has sensory overload from all the rides, this is a nice place to sit and chill out. It’s rather calming to play the xylophone and bells.

You may have seen pictures of the huge Arnolds Park slide. My husband remembers the slide from his childhood. It’s no longer in the amusement park itself, but you can find it nearby.

Historic Arnolds Park wooden slide - The slide is found inside Arnolds Park Museum located near Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

The slide is located inside the Arnolds Park Museum (which I found by going through the Maritime Museum). Because we had day passes to the amusement park, we could ride the slide as much as we wanted.

Both museums are interesting to wander around, but good luck doing that with young kids. Most will be more interested in the slide or going back to the amusement park.

What’s the best age to go to Arnolds Park Amusement Park?

When I visited, my kids were ages 7 and 9 and that was, in my view, the start of ideal ages to go. They were tall enough to go on all of the rides, including the thrill rides.

The height requirement for a few was 48 inches to ride alone. The Legend being the only one that required a ride be 48 inches to ride with or without an adults. My youngest only needed me to ride with her on the bumper cars since she wasn’t tall enough to drive.

Roll-O-Plane thrill ride at Arnolds Park Amusement Park near West Okoboji Lake in Iowa

And they were small enough to not feel too self-conscious if they wanted to go on kiddie rides. It was perfect!

If your children are younger than grade school age, there are fewer rides for them. But, you don’t want to skip some of the non-ride attractions like the Mirror Maze and the Tipsy House.

Tip: For the best views of the West Okoboji Lake, ride either the Ferris wheel or The Legend.

Arnolds Park hours and prices

Being an amusement park in the Midwest, you can imagine that Arnolds Park operates seasonally. Arnolds Park opens in mid-May through September.

The hours vary, with the peek operating hours being in June and July. Starting the Friday before Memorial Day, the park starts opening daily at 10 a.m. The closing time varies between 7 to 10 p.m. Check the calendar to plan your visit.

If you want a tip about timing the visit, let me tell you, we went on the Sunday before Memorial Day and it was great! The summer crowds hadn’t arrived yet, so we had minimal waits for rides.

In fact, for my kids’ two favorite rides, The Legend and the Rock-O-Plane, they were able to stay seated and ride a few times before having to exit.

Rock-O-Plane at Arnolds Park - One of the popular thrill rides at the Okoboji amusement park in Iowa

Like most summer tourist attractions, weekends are going to busier than weekdays.

Admission is offered by day pass and season memberships. Day passes are $29.95 if purchased online and two-day passes are $49.95.

Tip: The Sunset Pass is only $24.95 and is good for rides during the last two hours of the day.

You can choose to get some add-ons to your day pass, such adding a ride on the Queen II boat or get the Ultimate Pass that includes a $10 food voucher and $20 in game tickets.

Tip: From experience, the Queen II boat ride is tough for young kids to sit through. The excitement dies down after 3 minutes and then you have about 57 minutes to spend trying to entertain them.

Tip: Not totally unrelated to the previous tip…the Queen II does have a bar. For the kids. I mean, you can get soda and popcorn or candy for the kids. And maybe something for yourself.

The only thing not included with the day pass or membership are the Raceway rides on the Family Track and Slick Track. The Family Track requires riders to be age 9 and older. The Slick Track has the height minimum of 54 inches tall.

Also, if you don’t have a season pass or a day pass, the slide at the Arnolds Park Museum is $1 per ride.

Food at Arnolds Park

Expect to find the typical amusement park concessions at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Food available includes hamburgers, hot dogs, and popcorn.

Food in Arnolds Park - The iconic Nutty Bar Ice Cream shop is within walking distance of Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

Since you can come and go from Arnolds Park Amusement Park whenever you feel like it, there is the option to leave the park. We left twice during our day there to get food.

Tip: I recommend getting ice cream at Nutty Bar, an iconic ice cream stand located across the street from Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

Arnolds Park events

My visit was a bit early for all the summer events Arnolds Park Amusement Park has each year, but you can plan your vacation to coincide with some great (and sometimes free) events!

Ferris wheel at Arnolds Park Amusement Park - For a good view of West Okoboji Lake and all the happenings at the amusement park, take a ride on this ride.

Among the events are:

Live at the Lake: A free concert series at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. These are held on select weekend nights all summer long. Concerts start at 7:30 p.m. at Preservation Plaza.

Jazzed Up Big Band: Tuesdays from mid-June to mid-August are nights for swing music at Arnolds Park. Music is performed by a 16-piece band.

Movies at the Park: Every Wednesday night is a different free, family-friendly movie screening. They start at sunset at Preservation Plaza.

Rock The Roof: Thursday nights are set aside for music and dancing, starting at 6 p.m. Cost is $8 or $15 per couple. Season passes are available.

Roof Garden Concert Series: This is a ticketed concert series held inside the iconic Roof Garden concert venue. Concert dates, start times and ticket prices vary.

Guide to planning a family vacation to Arnolds Park, a historic amusement park in Iowa. Get all the details on rides, food, prices and the best time to visit. #Guide #Okoboji #Iowa

Plan your Okoboji trip

Want to plan an Okoboji trip for your family? Start with this guide to Okoboji in the summer (with kids) and get more inspiration from my Iowa Bucket List.

Coming soon! I’ll go into details of some of our favorite things in Okoboji in these posts:

Best Okoboji Restaurants For Families

Where to stay lakeside in Okoboji

Like this post?

Subscribe to the FREE twice a month(ish) e-newsletter sharing family travel ideas, giveaways and more! Subscribe here.

June 17, 2019

Best Okoboji Restaurants For Families

We recently spent a three-day weekend in Okoboji in northern Iowa that draws a lot of vacationing families because of the lakes. There were some hits and some misses. Here are some of my family’s favorite Okoboji restaurants that I’d recommend if you have kids in your group.

Headed to Okoboji for a family vacation? Here are some of the best restaurants in Okoboji for families to visit while you're there! Get tips on where to go in Okoboji for breakfast, lunch, dinner and ice cream treats. #Iowa #Okoboji #Guide #FamilyTravel

Disclosure: We were hosted by Vacation Okoboji. Some meals were complimentary; some we paid for ourselves.

Best Okoboji restaurants for families for breakfast

Arnolds Perk was my favorite, just because the coffee was so good, and the power breakfast sandwich was filling and delicious.

Where to eat in Okoboji - Arnolds Perk is a family-friendly coffee shop. The decor inside is colorful and comfortable.

I rarely go to a restaurant twice on a trip, but we visited Arnolds Perk twice in three days. It’s just a charming place to sit and relax.

We also had breakfast at the well-known diner O’Farrell Sisters. We got there right before the rush (so, 9 a.m. on a Saturday). Parking wasn’t great, so I imagine finding a spot once a lot of people are there is difficult.

The Friends with Benedicts selection were great (and funny), and I tried the Cake Bene (which included the restaurant’s famous pancake).

Popular restaurants in Okoboji - O'Farrell Sisters is a long-time favorite of breakfast in Okoboji. Expect a wait if you arrive after 9 a.m.

The pancakes are pretty good. They also have “famous cinnamon rolls,” so we split one between the four of us. (Yes, I’m a sucker for items on menus listed as “famous”).

By the way, this place apparently delicious pie that I forgot to order to go. People in the know tell me I could’ve eaten said pie at breakfast and not been judged, but I feel like we indulged plenty already with the pancake benedict and cinnamon roll.

Lunch restaurants in Okoboji

Most of the restaurants in this post could easily be the go-to for lunch. But there’s only one restaurant that stands out for lunch not only for food but for the most pleasant service: Tweeter’s.

Okoboji restaurants for families - Tweeter's is a comfortable restaurant with a kid's menu and tasty dessert.

I ordered a salad at Tweeter’s because I knew I’d want dessert (grasshopper pie, please). A lot of people were ordering taco salads, but I just stuck to a simple Caesar salad. The garlic bread served with it was delicious.

FYI: The kid’s meals come with a chocolate or strawberry sundae.

We also had lunch outside Arnolds Park Amusement Park at the popular Bob’s in Arnolds Park. The view was perfect.

I wish I could say that it was a great lunch, we ordered Bob Dogs and chips thinking that’d be quick. They’re hot dogs.

For whatever reason, the wait was about 45 minutes. The kids were able to play at the beach, at least.

Bob's in Arnolds Park overlooks a beach in Okoboji, making the wait for lunch more manageable.

Tip: They’re known for their Bob Dog, which is just a hot dog. But, if you get one with “everything,” it’s topped with loose meat, onions, ketchup and mustard.

While we didn’t eat at Barefoot Bar, I’d say it’s pretty kid-friendly. This famous spot on the lake is the famously “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” kind of place.

It’s a little confusing ordering at Barefoot Bar, as you can get your drink order taken at the table, but for food, you’ll need to go to the counter. There are a couple counters.

Lakefront Restaurant in Okoboji - Barefoot Bar is a popular restaurant on the lake. Kids enjoy the slide that dumps kids into the lake.

I loved the atmosphere, with the tiki huts, live music and palm trees, but was a little peeved that they’d charge for water. I can only imagine how hot it gets in the middle of summer.

This is the place that has the slide into the lake. Kids were drawn to it like moths to a light, even though the water temperature was cold.

Best restaurants in Okoboji for dinner

The best pizza we had was the BBQ Chicken at Pub 19 Bar & Grill, a restaurant situated on a golf course. We went on a particularly busy Friday night, so the wait was long. We waited on the patio and enjoyed the view, at least.

Restaurants in Okoboji - Pub 19 Bar & Grill is located on a golf course. They're pizza is great, making it a nice place to go with kids.

One night, we had dinner at Snappers Turtle Bay Café, which was a short walk from Barefoot Bar. This fairly new restaurant was pretty casual with yard games to keep the kids busy while waiting.

We had to stalk tables to get one in the sun by the water. For whatever reason, we got a table quickly but the wait for food was long.

Okoboji Store is one restaurant we really want to go to, but didn’t carve out time. It’s another one of those waterfront popular spots, with live music. I guess we’re saving it for next time.  

Finding ice cream in Okoboji

There are surprisingly few places to get ice cream or treats in Okoboji, at least in the areas we visited. Nutty Bar is pretty iconic for the area, so we had some Nutty Bars during a break from Arnolds Park Amusement Park. It’s right outside the front of the park. Service was quick.

Where to get ice cream in Okoboji - Nutty Bar is a long-running ice cream shop near Arnolds Park Amusement Park in Okoboji.

A Nutty Bar is pretty much a cube of vanilla ice cream, dipped in chocolate and rolled in peanuts. You can get cones there, as well.

Family-friendly places in Okoboji to enjoy local beer

I love trying local beers and wine while on vacation (responsibly). Throughout the weekend, I enjoyed trying various West O Beers. You can visit the brewery, which is located in Milford near West Okoboji Lake.

We almost made it to the brewery, actually. The plan was to get dinner to go and bring it to West O. We heard there were games to occupy kids while adults enjoy beverages.

We’ll have to go next time, because I liked all the beers I tried throughout the weekend.

All the waterfront restaurants and bars in Okoboji

With five interconnected lakes, you can imagine Okoboji has some restaurants with epic lake views.

Waterfront restaurants in Okoboji - Bob's in Arnolds Park has patio seating with a view of the sandy beach and lake in northern Iowa.

Here’s a list of all the restaurants where you can dine with a view:

  • -Barefoot Bar
  • -Bob’s In Arnold Park
  • -Dry Dock Lounge
  • -Godfather’s Pizza (the Arnold’s Park location) 
  • -Hi-Point Sky Lounge
  • -Kazarellis
  • -Main Event Bar & Eatery
  • -Maxwell’s
  • -Okoboji Store Bar & Kitchen
  • -Pirate Jack’s
  • -Snappers Turtle Bay Café
  • -The Gardens
  • -The Ritz
  • -Water Edge Grille
  • -Woude’s Bay Bar

Plan your Okoboji trip

Want to plan an Okoboji trip for your family? Start with this guide to Okoboji in the summer (with kids) and get more inspiration from my Iowa Bucket List.

I go into details of some of our favorite things in Okoboji in these posts:

Tips for Visiting Historic Arnolds Park

Where to stay lakeside in Okoboji

Going to Okoboji with kids? Here are kid-friendly restaurant suggestions for breakfast, lunch, dinner and ice cream. Read on for the best Okoboji restaurants for families, including which are waterfront. #Iowa #Okoboji #Guide #familyfriendly

Like this post?

Subscribe to the FREE twice a month(ish) e-newsletter sharing family travel ideas, giveaways and more! Subscribe here.

June 4, 2019

Guide To Okoboji In The Summer With Kids

Okoboji is one of Iowa’s biggest tourist magnets each summer, with its glacier-carved lakes being the main attractions. Built around the lakes are summer staples like a historic amusement park, waterside bars and restaurants, and a ton of kid-friendly activities. It’s the perfect Midwestern summer destination.

We had a lot to see and do and only three days to do it. (I’d recommend adding an extra day or two to fit it all in at an enjoyable pace.) Want to visit? Here’s my guide to visiting Okoboji in the summer with kids.

Disclosure: Our trip to Okoboji was hosted by Vacation Okoboji. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. 

All the fun things families can do in Okoboji, Iowa this summer - There's plenty to do on the lakes, but read up on outdoor adventures, indoor recreation and kid-friendly dining options. #Guide #Midwest #FamilyTravel

Where is Okoboji?

First off, let’s talk about how Okoboji is more than a single city (though there is the city of Okoboji). When I started planning a trip to Okoboji, I was looking at a map of Iowa, trying to figure out where exactly I should be staying to get the “Okoboji” experience. Turns out, it’s not that simple.

Guide to Okoboji in the summer - Fun things to do with kids outdoors include fishing

Okoboji is a region in northern Iowa and consists of several towns on the edge of the Iowa Great Lakes. Pretty much, you’re in “Okoboji” if you stay somewhere along the lakes of West Okoboji, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Lower Gar, Minnewashta, and the largest natural lake in Iowa, Spirit Lake. Most of the lakes, except Spirit Lake, are interconnected.

For our trip, our lodging (Crescent Beach Family Resort) was in Wahpeton. It was on West Okoboji Lake, which is a pretty blue, spring-fed lake. Depending on your preference, you can stay within walking distance of a lot of attractions or find a place a little outside of the hubbub.

Kid-friendly lake activities in Okoboji

By far, the lakes are the draw for this region, so you’ll likely spend a lot of time out on the water or near it. I paddled the lake with the kids during our stay, since our hotel allowed free use of their equipment. Our hotel also had standup paddleboards and paddleboats.

You’ll find places to rent speed boats and pontoons around the region, plus places that will do parasailing.

Okoboji in the summer means a lot of time on the water - One popular activity for families is canoeing

The Queen II is a famous boat excursion that leaves from Arnolds Park Amusement Park. It’s about an hour long. My kids were impressed with the boat and excited to ride it…for about 5 minutes. I bought some snacks and got another complaint-free 10 minutes out of them. After that, they were not interested in the narration and the remaining 45 minutes were long.

Guide to Okoboji in the summer - Hour-long tours aboard the Queen II are held several times most days

On shore, there are several beaches to play in, including a pretty popular one right by historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Our hotel had a private one that my kids enjoyed. Public beaches include:

  • Gull Point Sate Park on the southwest shore of West Lake Okoboji
  • Arnolds Park City Beach off Highway 71 in Smith’s Bay on West Lake Okoboji
  • Arnold’s Park Amusement Park Beach on West Lake Okoboji
  • Orleans Beach on the southwest shore of Spirit Lake
  • City Park on the south shore of Silver Lake at Lake Park
  • Emerson Bay State Park at the Emerson Bay campground on West Lake Okoboji
  • Okoboji Boat Works Beach in Smith’s Bay on West Lake Okoboji
  • Marble Beach on the western shore of Big Spirit Lake
  • Terrace Park Beach in Brown’s Bay on West Lake Okoboji
  • Pikes Point State Park on the northeastern shore of West Lake Okoboji
Playing at the beach in Arnolds Park in Okoboji. This beach is near Arnolds Park Amusement Park and Bob's in Arnolds Park.

Fishing is another big thing to do in Okoboji, by boat and by land. We didn’t seek out any special fishing holes, and instead, just enjoyed being steps from our hotel room and fishing.

More things to do outdoors in Okoboji in the summer

You can’t write about Okoboji and kids and not talk about Arnolds Park Amusement Park. This historic amusement park was a hit with my kids. We went at the start of the season and enjoyed no lines on some of the biggest attractions, including The Legend, the 13th oldest wooden rollercoaster in the U.S.

Guide to Okoboji in the summer - A visit to the Okoboji region isn't complete without a day at Arnolds Park Amusement Park

Tip: Get the all-day pass for your kids if they’re in grade school or older. My kids loved riding the same favorite rides over and over again, and paying for each ride would’ve racked up a high price otherwise. They particularly loved the Rock-O-Plane, which they stayed on for three rides in a row (the perk of going early in the season!).

Outside Arnolds Park Amusement Park is Harmony Park, a small grass patch in a shopping area with musical instruments to play. It’s a low-key place in the shade, and just right for a break from rides.

Playing the instruments at Harmony Park located near Arnolds Park Amusement Park

If you’ve got bikes, bring them! I found the Okoboji region to be incredibly bike-friendly, with miles of bike path to get you to various attractions. With the kids, we traveled from Dickinson County Nature Center the short distance to Pearson Lakes Art Center, and then onward to Tweeters. That route was really easy for all abilities between the first two stops. Between the art center and Tweeters, though, you’ll cross Highway 71 twice at crosswalk, and end with a brief stint on a sidewalk. Not ideal, but it was fine for our kids to manage.

Things to do Okoboji in the summer with kids (besides being on the lake) - The area is surprisingly bike-friendly with plenty of bike trails.

Our hotel had a large, old playground on property that my kids got to enjoy for a hot minute. If we had an additional day there, I think we’d have carved out more time to play there and probably did a round of putt putt (free at the hotel).

We missed quite a few activities that my kids were hoping to do, actually, including putt putt golf at Treasure Village and the go carts at Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

Kid-friendly indoors activities in Okoboji

The weather isn’t always going to be sunny and blue skies. We found that out on our third day when it was pouring buckets. One of our favorite indoor stops was free: The Dickinson County Nature Center. It has a lot of hands-on activities for kids, including a neat sand table. My kids love animals, so they enjoyed looking at the displays and playing the activities at many of them.

Guide to Okoboji in the summer - If you're traveling with kids (and even if you're not), plan a stop at the free Dickinson County Nature Center for several hands-on exhibits

The nature center had a large honeycomb to climb through. It entertained the kids for a good 30 minutes.

Tip: If isn’t raining, don’t miss the outdoor nature playscape at Dickinson County Nature Center. There are things to climb on, a tunnel to crawl through, and a sandbox.

The Pearson Lakes Art Center is another free option for families. If you’ve got young kids, head downstairs to the ArtSMART room. My kids loved playing with the blocks and putting on a short play with the costumes.

Guide to Okoboji in the summer - The ArtSMART room at the Pearson Lakes Art Center is a fun indoor option, especially on rainy days.

Don’t leave without seeing the art center’s collection of Russian Impressionist art. This was a hidden gem that you’ll be surprised to find. It’s the second largest collection outside of Russia, and it’s impressive (if you love Impressionism).

The large Russian Impressionist collection at The Pearson Lakes Art Center is a good indoor activity and doesn't take too long.

The Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum, located outside Arnolds Park Amusement Park, is also free. While the maritime portion may or may not appeal to the little ones, you’ll want to go in anyway because it’s home to old amusement park items like the giant wooden slide from olden days at Arnolds Park Amusement Park (I believe, technically, it’s in the Arnolds Park Funhouse Museum). If you have a day pass to the amusement park, you can go down it repeatedly, which my kids did. You can also pay a couple dollars to slide down it if you don’t have the day pass.

Take a ride down the indoor slide at the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum. The wooden slide was once located in Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

It’s a tall slide and looks pretty intimidating at the top, but it’s not nearly as fast as you think it would be. It was totally manageable for my 7-year-old, at least.

Okoboji Classic Cars is part museum, part art gallery, and 100% designed to appeal to car fanatics. It’s a little pricey, and you have to take the tour, which could be a disaster with an uninterested kid. Still, even I was impressed with the collection and I’m only mildly interested in cars. Kids are given a scavenger hunt to complete during the tour, which was enough to please my kids.

Okoboji Classic Cars is part museum, part art gallery. It's a good rainy day activity in Okoboji since everything is indoors.

Family-friendly restaurants in Okoboji

Okoboji has A LOT of restaurants, but it’s not too easy to figure out which ones you’d want to bring your kids to. I go into details about the restaurants we visited in this post, but until then, here are the restaurants we liked the most during our trip:

Arnolds Perk Coffee House was my favorite place for breakfast, just because the coffee was so good, and the power breakfast sandwich was filling and delicious. I rarely go to a restaurant twice on a trip, but we did visit Arnolds Perk twice. It’s also just a charming place to sit and relax.

Another good option is O’Farrell Sisters, just get there early to avoid a wait.

Everyone's going to tell you to try breakfast at O'Farrell Sisters, and they're going to tell you to get the pancakes and/or the cinnamon rolls. But it's a small place, so get there early.

The most friendly service we had was during the lunch hour at Tweeter’s Bar & Grill. The menu if huge – burgers, salads, Mexican, etc. They have a kid’s menu.

While we didn’t eat at Barefoot Bar, I’d say it’s pretty kid-friendly. This famous spot on the lake is the famously “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” kind of place. I loved the atmosphere, with the grass-thatched huts and palm trees, but was a little peeved that they’d charge $2.50 for water. After that, I decided not to even check the price of pizza.

Looking for a good outdoor restaurant for families in Okoboji - The Barefoot Bar is a popular place for boaters and families visiting the area. It has a slide that goes into the lake.

Bob’s in Arnolds Park is a popular spot for families who are spending the day at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. We went on a Sunday and the wait was very long. Luckily, there’s a beach right in front of the restaurant, so the kids were kept occupied.

For dinner, we found most places had a long wait, so go prepared to keep your littles occupied. The best pizza we had was the BBQ Chicken at Pub 19 Bar & Grill, a restaurant situated on a golf course.

We also had dinner at Snappers Turtle Bay Cafe, which was a short walk from Barefoot Bar. To keep the kids occupied here, there are a few yard games set up on Astroturf. It did the job.

There are surprisingly few places to get ice cream or treats in Okoboji, at least in the areas we visited. Nutty Bar Stand is pretty iconic for the area, so we had some Nutty Bars during a break from Arnolds Park Amusement Park. It’s right outside the front of the park. Service was quick. A Nutty Bar is pretty much a cube of vanilla ice cream, dipped in chocolate and rolled in peanuts. You can get cones there, as well.

Family-friendly restaurants in Okoboji - It's not summer without ice cream. The Nutty Bar Stand is a long-time favorite ice cream stop for families vacationing there. It's near Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

Plan your Okoboji trip

Want to plan an Okoboji trip for your family? I’ll go into details of some of our favorite things in Okoboji in these upcoming posts:

Best restaurants for families in Okoboji

Tips for visiting Arnolds Park Amusement Park

Where to stay lakeside in Okoboji

Okoboji has been on my bucket list for years. Read this Iowa bucket list post to get inspiration to round out planning a trip to the Hawkeye State. Want Iowa travel inspiration that’s less bucket list and more realistic for a family? We spent about a week exploring central Iowa, riding a train, staying in a yurt and playing in lakes during what I call the Great Iowa Road Trip.

Planning a trip to Okoboji in the Iowa Great Lakes region? Use this guide to get ideas on kid-friendly things to do there, both on the lake and indoors. Plus, read up on recommended Okoboji restaurants for families. #Iowa #VacationOkoboji #familytravel

Get travel inspiration in your inbox!

Subscribe to the FREE twice a month(ish) e-newsletter sharing what’s new in Omaha, family travel ideas, giveaways, and more! If you subscribe now, you receive a FREE guide to family dining in Omaha! Subscribe here.