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Visitor’s Guide to Big Spirit Lake

In the area of northern Iowa, there is a stunning sprawl of water bodies known as the Iowa Great Lakes. Lying adjacent to the southern border of Minnesota is the largest and arguably most popular of these lakes—Big Spirit Lake.

Read on to learn all there is to know about this beloved lake, including nearby camping and recreation opportunities, the wonderful fishing it provides, and more.

Sunset on Big Spirit Lake

What Is Big Spirit Lake?

Big Spirit Lake—often referred to as simply “Spirit Lake”—is a large, circular lake sporting over 15 miles of shoreline, located in northern Iowa. In fact, it’s the farthest northern lake of all of Iowa’s Great Lakes. Its uppermost borders just about kiss the southern span of Minnesota, making it an attractive lake for residents of both states.

Despite its sprawling size at over 5,000 acres, making it Iowa’s largest natural lake, Big Spirit Lake is comparatively quite shallow. Its average depth is 17 feet, with a maximum depth of just 24 feet. It has a watershed stretching roughly 75 miles, most of which spans into Minnesota.

Due to its large size and shallow depth, Big Spirit Lake is a beloved fishing and swimming spot for folks from Iowa, Minnesota, and surrounding states as well.

When Is the Best Time to Visit Big Spirit Lake?

The best time to visit Big Spirit Lake depends on what you want to get out of it!!

Because of the abundance of water recreation available, many visitors find a jaunt to Big Spirit Lake best enjoyed during the warmer months. This is the optimal time for swimming and boating, as well as for certain types of fishing.

This can also be an ideal time to enjoy the recreation around the park. These include outdoor camping, visiting local parks and playgrounds, picnicking, walking the various trails, spotting local wildlife, and more.

However, folks who are interested in enjoying Big Spirit Lake during the wintertime will still find a visit to be profitable in the cold months. This is when ice fishing is ideal, for example. There is also an excellent opportunity for cross-country skiing on the trails near Spirit Lake as well.

Ice fishing with a drill and ice fishing pole

For those looking to visit in the colder months, some of the campgrounds and recreation areas do offer camping opportunities into the winter months. So you can often enjoy the best of both worlds in any season!

The good news is that no matter when you choose to visit Big Spirit Lake and its surrounding areas, you are sure to enjoy a fantastic time.

Things to Do at Big Spirit Lake


Perhaps the biggest overall attraction for visitors at Big Spirit Lake is the fishing opportunities. This Iowa lake is quite famous for the many fish species it boasts home to…roughly 40 varieties total, with 13 of them being the most commonly caught.

Among the fish varieties that call Big Spirit Lake home are bullhead catfish, walleye, yellow perch, and smallmouth bass. However, with the right lures and good timing, you might also catch some largemouth bass, pike, freshwater drum, carp, channel catfish, or muskellunge. In fact, Big Spirit Lake has an all-time big fish record for both muskellunge and freshwater drum fish!

Visitors to Big Spirit Lake have the opportunity to fish via boat (launched from one of the four major boat ramps), from the handicap-accessible fishing pier, and even through the ice in the cold months.


Hiking in and around the Big Spirit Lake area is a favorite pastime for many visitors! This area includes the Iowa Great Lakes Trail, which traverses several spots in the Iowa Great Lakes Region. Some of these locations are rural, some are urban, and others are more like nature paths.

An additional span of more than 100 miles of trails crisscrosses through Dickinson County, where Spirit Lake is located. These trails offer a safe opportunity for bikers, walkers, runners, and rollerbladers to enjoy their recreation of choice. There are even areas for cross-country skiing when winter comes!

Person on a hiking trail

The town of Spirit Lake itself contains more than 10 miles of trails within the city proper, which then join with the entire county’s trails network. There are so many excellent hiking opportunities in the Big Spirit Lake area!

Water Recreation

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty to enjoy at Big Spirit Lake in terms of water recreation. In addition to the plentiful fishing opportunities, this large lake also boasts several sandy beaches and locations that are absolutely perfect for swimming. As a bonus, the general shallowness of the lake makes it ideal even for younger or less experienced swimmers.

There are also opportunities for other water recreations on Spirit Lake. This includes things like kiteboarding, boating, and more!

Other Recreation

In and around Spirit Lake, there are lots of recreational activities to enjoy. There are plenty of fun town destinations to walk through and enjoy, including some local parks with great playgrounds where kiddos can burn off their energy! Along the lakeshore, there are also shelters, picnic areas, and lodges that can be visited or rented out for events of various sizes.

Wildlife fans will most certainly enjoy a visit to the nearby Kettleson Hogsback Wildlife Area. This sprawling prairie land in the greater Spirit Lake region is home to many species of birds, mammals, and other wildlife, all scattered among its habitats. These terrains include marshes, uplands, woods, and of course, lakes!

Where to Stay at Big Spirit Lake

Best Camping Spots

There are a variety of camping opportunities among the state parks and recreation areas scattered around Big Spirit Lake, as well as in several towns. Lodging opportunities are abundant in the form of lodges, campgrounds, and even hotels in various towns!

Tent camping near a lake

Camping opportunities can be found in places such as Emerson Bay State Recreation area, located on the southwest shore of nearby West Lake Okoboji. There is also Gull Point State Park located near Okoboji as well, which features a restored rustic lodge in addition to traditional camping opportunities.

On the west side of Big Spirit Lake, you will find Marble Beach State Park. This park’s campground area boasts a whopping 224 campsites, with a sandy beach that is fantastic for fishing as well as family swimming and water sports.

Booking, Fees, and What to Bring

The various camping sites around the Big Spirit Lake area all have their own seasons, their own booking necessities, specific fees, and more. You can make a reservation online through the Iowa State Parks website, which will inform you of current fees and booking specifics at the location of your choice.

When planning a camping trip at one of the areas surrounding Big Spirit Lake, campers should first ensure that they have gear that is in good repair. Some camping necessities, depending on where you plan to camp, might include a tent, a good all seasons sleeping bag, and potentially a rain fly.

good camping chair can also be a fantastic item to bring along, even just during a day visit or while shore fishing. Always make sure that even brand-new camping gear is in good repair before heading out on a camping trip! Inspect your items for any tears, mold or mildew, or other compromises.

Campers and day visitors alike will want to make sure that they have appropriate attire for their visit to Big Spirit Lake. This may include a pair of good hiking boots if you plan to traverse the trails and hiking paths. Also, seasonal attire that is suitable for the time of your visit is a must, particularly if you are visiting in the cold months.

Wearing layers can be a great idea when visiting the lakeshore since the wind coming in off the water can occasionally become rather brisk, even in the summertime.

Anglers will undoubtedly want to ensure they have fishing gear in good repair, as well as the correct tackle, lures, and bait for the kind of fish that can be found at Big Spirit Lake. Check out our guide to Fishing in Minnesota for all you need to know.

When fishing from a boat, as well as simply enjoying Spirit Lake by boat or swimming, visitors will want to have floatation devices handy for optimal safety.

Swimmers should bring appropriate swimwear, as well as swimming gear for little swimmers. Beach items like a small cooler and oversized beach towels can also come in handy.

Having some other safety items on hand is also a must for campers and day visitors alike. This includes bringing along your sunblock of choice, some insect repellent to combat mosquitoes and other water-loving insects, as well as having a fully stocked first aid kit.

Folks visiting the Kettleson Hogsback Wildlife area, in particular, will want to bring along some sturdy, high-quality binoculars. A fully charged phone or camera is also an excellent option for those who want to capture the beauty of Big Spirit Lake and its surrounding scenery forever.

Pier at Big Spirit Lake

Wrapping Up the Big Spirit Lake Visitor’s Guide

Excited about your visit to Big Spirit Lake? Be sure to make some time to check out the various lakes in nearby Minnesota as well! There’s no end to the lakefront fun this region has to offer.