Iowa : Safety by City
- Arnolds Park
- Cedar Falls
- Cedar Rapids
- Clear Lake
- Council Bluffs
- Des Moines
- Fort Dodge
- Fort Madison
- Iowa City
- Mason City
- North Liberty
- Pleasant Hill
- Polk City
- Sioux City
- Spirit Lake
- Storm Lake
- The Amana Colonies
- West Des Moines
Spirit Lake, Iowa, is the biggest city at the center of the Great Lakes of Iowa.
This unique landscape was carved by glaciers thousands of years ago and now is home to one of the best vacation spots in the Midwest.
Some of the lakes in this area cross over into Minnesota.
That’s how close this is to the state border.
History buffs will remember the name Spirit Lake for the Spirit Lake Massacre.
This was in the 1850s when the Native Americans were starving to death in a rough winter and the settlers weren’t being kind enough to share their portions.
There were some scuffles, but it all came to a head when the Native Americans attacked the settlers.
Up to 40 people were killed and four women were taken hostage.
One of those women who lived to tell the story moved back to this region and there’s now a museum in her honor in Arnolds Park.
(Read our article about that city to learn more about specifics there.)
This region is referred to as Okoboji (“Oh-kuh-BOW-gee”) but that is also the name of one of the cities here.
Spirit Lake is right along East Okoboji Lake to the east and Big Spirit Lake to the north.
There is an old Native American folktale about Big Spirit Lake being haunted by a demonic spirit.
Back in the early days, Native Americans wouldn’t get near the water for fear of suffering a terrible fate on behalf of the demon.
Of course, East Okojobi Lake is said to have a sea monster.
You gotta love ancient folktales, right?
Spirit Lake is the place to be if you want to explore the various sides of the six main lakes here.
It’s centrally located along major highways and is equal distance from both ends of the 12,600 acres of land and water here.
Warnings & Dangers in Spirit Lake
OVERALL RISK : LOW
There's a low overall risk here in personal and property crime. While the city itself just has 5,400 residents, the region brings in a million tourists a year and Spirit Lake is the main city to get through to go to the other cities.
TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK : LOW
You aren't going to find a public bus system here, but you can rent shuttles and buses if you want someone else to do the driving. Rideshares and taxis will be available, but in the summer there will be high demand and not an abundant supply. Having your own car or bicycle will be a blessing in this region.
PICKPOCKETS RISK : LOW
There were 55 thefts reported in 2021, and that's down 18% from 2020. While there's a low risk you'll be pickpocketed or have your purse snatched, you also can't let your guard down because there are a lot of ways to get distracted here.
NATURAL DISASTERS RISK : MEDIUM
There's a medium risk because severe weather can happen any time of year. Even in December of 2021, the area was under a tornado watch, showing that severe weather can happen anytime during warmer days. Flash flooding, heavy rains, lightning, and hail are also possible. In winter, there are snow storms and ice storms. You should review the Dickinson County Emergency Management Plan to see how to handle each unique situation.
MUGGING RISK : LOW
There's a low risk here. There weren't any robberies in Spirit Lake or Dickinson County in 2021 or 2020. The biggest crime category was theft, and as we discussed even that was low for a place that gets such large tourist crowds.
TERRORISM RISK : LOW
You don't have to worry about terror attacks here. The water is used to supply drinking water, but this entire county has only 18,000 people so it wouldn't even hurt a lot of people. Terrorists prefer to find large populations to hurt.
SCAMS RISK : LOW
The most recent scam was a person pretending to be a law enforcement officer and demanding money or threatening to arrest people. If you ever doubt someone's identity, any real officer will never stop you from verifying their identity by calling the police. You should also make sure you are booking a rental through a legitimate website and never wire money to reserve a place to stay. If you're on guard, you'll have a low risk here.
WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK : LOW
The great thing about Spirit Lake and Okoboji is that it is safe for everyone from young women to grandmas. That said, there are a lot of places to party here if you choose to do so, and there are sometimes romantic connections made. Be sure you protect your drink when you're at a concert or party bar. Don't go to a private place with someone you just met. Two sexual assaults were reported to police in 2021. I'm a single woman and if I ever meet someone on vacation at a party bar, I'll take a picture of them (willingly) and send it to a friend. A good guy will understand. A potentially bad guy won't. It's a great way to weed out potential dangers when making new friends.
TAP WATER RISK : LOW
The water is safe with low risk. All testing done met or exceeded the required levels in the 2021 Annual Water Quality Report. The only time you should worry is when there is or has been flooding. This can impact the water treatment but the city will issue warnings if that happens.
Safest Places to Visit in Spirit Lake
We have articles about Okoboji and Arnolds Park so you can see a wider range of safety information and places to visit, so this article will stick to the plates in and around Spirit Lake without overlapping places from the other articles.
The Dickinson County Museum and Nature Center are both in Spirit Lake.
The nature center has live animals, a bumblebee exhibit, and interactive displays to learn about the wildlife that keeps this area unique.
You can also play disc golf or explore the trails here.
The museum is located in a former train station from the heyday of the railroad.
Artifacts showcase the cultural, agricultural, and industrial history of the region.
Motorcycle lovers should check out the Indiana Motorcycle Factory, America’s first company to build motorcycles.
There’s a factory tour available here.
There’s an “experience center” (read: museum) on the property as well with artifacts back to the early days of motorcycle development.
JTG Expeditions is located in Spirit Lake.
This is where you can book fishing or boating adventures.
These trips are available throughout the year, so if you’ve never been ice fishing in the winter you can safely give it a try with a guide who knows this area by heart.
Pikes Point State Park is in Spirit Lake and this is one of the best swimming spots you’ll find.
The lake views here are Instagram-worthy.
For a smaller park on the water, head over to Gilbert Park on East Lake Okoboji.
As you go north from Spirit Lake through Orleans and along 260th/270th Avenue, you’ll come across no fewer than seven beaches along the way.
If you go along the western edge of the lake you’ll pass several wilderness areas.
- Templar State Recreation Area: Basic lakeside amenities with boating, swimming, fishing, and hiking
- Center Lake Wildlife Management Area: Hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing on the much smaller Center Lake
- Kettleson Hogsback Waterfowl Production Area: Bird watchers and wildlife fans should visit here
- Marble Beach State Recreation Area: Another park-like area along the shore
- Jemmerson Slough Wildlife Management Area: This is not on the main lake, but does have smaller bodies of water
While I was looking for the best restaurants in Spirit Lake, one place kept popping up.
I checked out the menu and even though the special EVERY DAY is Cheeburger and Fries for $6.95 and the most exotic food is an appetizer called the Half-Naked Ladies (get your mind out of the gutter, those are lightly breaded cheese balls), thee Corner Lanes Bowling Alley restaurant kept coming up.
Local, is it really that good?
Comment below, please!
Places to Avoid in Spirit Lake
This whole area is safe so you aren’t going to wander or drive through a bad part of town.
It’s always smart to stay on the main roads as I’m sure locals can get annoyed with tourists parking in front of homes during high season.
You don’t have to avoid Spirit Lake in the winter because there are a lot of fun things to do in every season.
While the main attractions, like the amusement park in Arnolds Park, will be closed, this is a great city for festivals during each season.
Winter brings snowmobiling, ice fishing, and cross-country skiing.
In fact, Nordic skiing is one of the most popular activities in mountain cities like Aspen, Colorado.
You can be super hip here without paying the rates of Aspen.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Spirit Lake
- There’s a podcast through the Vacation Okoboji website that covers the latest happenings and safety tips from this region. You can listen to some of those on your trip to Spirit Lake and be more informed about what’s happening closer to your visit.
- There are police departments in Spirit Lake, Okoboji, West Okoboji, and Arnolds Park. While they are pretty small departments, they get support from the Dickinson County Sheriff. The non-emergency number for the Spirit Lake Police Department is (712)336-5776. You can still get to the right dispatcher by dialing 911.
- With so many roads to explore here, you need to keep track of construction and weather-related road closures. 511ia.org is a great place to do that. You can see real-time tracking of snow plows in the winter, and those plows are outfitted with cameras so you can even see how good or bad the roads are.
- In the winter, you should pack the car with blankets, snow chains, and plenty of water. Some people buy a strip of old carpet from the store to use as traction if they get stuck in a snowbank. There might be parts of the lake areas where you don’t get mobile reception, so be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back.
- Review the Iowa Safety Council boating and water guide. You’ll learn about specific boating and swimming rules in this area. You can also see a video showing just how much cold water can impact a person who falls through the ice and learn lessons on how to protect yourself if that happens. There is a cold water rescue vehicle available, but it’s going to take a little while for the boat to get to you if you slip through. Knowledge is the best way to survive something that scary.
- There are a lot of trails in Dickinson County to explore on foot or by bicycle. Iowa has a lot of outdoor groups that regularly go on adventures. Ask at your hotel or the Chamber of Commerce for contact information about the groups. You might be able to tag along and see some hidden secrets or safety shortcuts.
- There is not a bicycle helmet law in Iowa for adults or children, but you should still wear one. The trails can have obstacles that could easily knock you off if you aren’t paying close attention. If you are riding in the snow, rent a fat-tire bike for better traction.
- After being outdoors, you should do a full-body check for any ticks that might be going on vacation with you. The ticks start small, but as they suck your blood they can become the size of a dime or larger. You don’t want to pick out a tick that has been there a while. It’s messy and disgusting. However, when you do find a tick – no matter what stage of feeding on your blood it is in – pull it out at the head using tweezers and then disinfect the skin. Make sure all parts of the bug are out of your skin.
- You’ll see a lot of references to a fake university called the University of Okoboji. This is a joke dating back to the disco era. It has even blossomed into winter games like the Olympics called the U of O Winter Games. If you are visiting during this timeframe in late January, be very careful about how much you drink and the responsible decisions you made regarding alcohol. In 2021, 40 people were arrested during the three days of the games. That’s twice as many as burglary crimes reported in the whole year.
- There has been a trend of drivers not stopping for school buses in Spirit Lake. It is illegal to pass a bus that has its yellow lights flashing or stop signs extended. Do not try to sneak by the bus as you never know when a child might be crossing the street after leaving the bus. Police officers are cracking down on this frequent violation.
So... How Safe Is Spirit Lake Really?
The city of Spirit Lake is the only local jurisdiction that provides crime data.
The next two largest cities only have about 1/5th of the population of Spirit Lake.
Even being the larger city with more traffic going through it, there were still just seven violent crimes in 2021.
Even theft was down 18% from 2020 when a lot of places were locked down due to the pandemic.
The weather and the natural hazards are the real safety risks.
No matter how experienced an outdoor person you believe yourself to be, study the Iowa Water Safety Council guide on boating and water safety.
There are certain risks specific to the water of the Great Lakes of Iowa.
Stay weather aware during your visit here.
Tornadoes are most likely in spring but can happen any time of year.
In December of 2021, there was a tornado watch and severe thunderstorm advisory over much of Iowa, including Spirit Lake.
The Polk County Sheriff commented at the time, “We’re 10 days before Christmas and we’re talking about 70-degree temperatures and near-hurricane force winds.”
There’s a reason people say, “If you don’t like the weather right now, stay a few hours, it will change” in the Midwest often.
The weather can go from clear and calm to stormy and dangerous in a matter of hours.
How Does Spirit Lake Compare?
- Visas - The U.S. Visa interview process is quite elaborate, so plan about three to four months ahead of time. You'll need to reveal all the social media handles and accounts you've had in the past five years even if you don't use the account anymore. There is an in-person interview required too. Once you get issued the visa, you'll need it when you go through Customs, but won't need it to travel through the Great Lakes of Iowa.
- Currency - You can only use the U.S. Dollar here and there are plenty of places to spend it. Exchange your currency at the airport instead of waiting to get to Spirit Lake. Several tourist attractions allow you to book your reservation online, which is ideal, so you can track spending without having to hold onto receipts during a day of traveling.
- Weather - Summer will be hot and humid, with an occasional chilly morning or night. Bring mostly summer clothes that can get dirty or wet. A backpack is going to be more functional than a purse. Winters will get cold, so bring full winter gear, and don't forget to cover your ears, fingers, and face.
- Airports - The Des Moines and Minneapolis airports are both about three and a half hours away but have a lot of connecting flight options. The closest airport is Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is a 90-minute drive away.
- Travel Insurance - Travel insurance is a smart idea since you've got a lot of things that could impact travel here, from the weather to road closures to flight delays.
Spirit Lake Weather Averages (Temperatures)
Average High/Low Temperature
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