While Iowa may not be the Land of 10,000 Lakes (34 actually, but who's counting?), what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality. That is especially true in Greater Des Moines. Whether your idea of an aquatic adventure involves a kayak, a pontoon, arm floaties, or a sandy beach, there are plenty of ways to dive into the fun. Below is a jumping-off point for your day at the lake in Greater Des Moines!
Boating and Pontoon Rentals
Where: 6170 N.W. Polk City Drive, Polk City, IA (Marina)
Marina Hours: Monday – Sunday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. (Marina)
Available to rent: Pontoons, single kayaks, tandem kayaks, paddleboards
Other offerings: Sandpiper and Oak Grove beaches, picnic areas, fishing pier, river fishing, paved 24-mile Neal Smith Trail for biking and hiking.
While you're there: Check out the nearby Jester Park, one of the coolest parks in central Iowa, with a natural playscape, horseback riding, and bison and elk herds.
Odds are, when a Des Moines-ian tells you that they spent the weekend "on the lake," it was Saylorville Lake. Located just north of Des Moines in Polk City, it is arguably the most popular boating lake in Central Iowa, with pontoons, tubes, and the smell of sunscreen permeating the 26,000 acres of boating bliss.
After you've had your fill of classic rock, boat beverages and exploring the dam and spillway, head back to the Marina and fuel up with tasty eats at one of two bar and grills: Saylorville Sandbar and Grill or Latitude 41 Bar and Grill, the only floating restaurant in central Iowa.
Big Creek Lake
Where: 8550 NW 142nd Avenue, Polk City, IA (Marina)
Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday – Sunday, 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Available to rent: Pontoons, Hobie sailboats, hydro bikes, fishing boats, canoes, kayaks, paddleboats, stand up paddleboards, bikes
Other offerings: Big Creek beach, picnic areas, playground, a 26-mile trail that connects to Des Moines, fishing, shooting range
While you're there: Make an outdoorsy weekend out of it and check out the nearby Tournament Club of Iowa golf course, the only Arnold Palmer designed course in Iowa.
Located just 10-miles north of Saylorville Lake and boasting many of the same amenities, what Big Creek may lack in size, it makes up for in charm and affordability. With volleyball courts, a giant playground, and one of the best concessions in the state, you can make the lake or land your playground.
Kayaks, Canoes, and Tubes
Quarry Springs Outfitters - Johnston
Where: Beaver Creek access at 6701 NW 70th Avenue, Johnston and Terra Lake Park - 6300 Pioneer Parkway, Johnston
Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 – 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Available to rent: One- and two-person kayaks
While you’re there: After a day on the water, cool off with a craft beer and watch movie in the air conditioning at Flix Brewhouse, a movie theater and craft brewery all in one!
Get back to your water routes at the first of 86 total improvement sites as a part of the comprehensive Central Iowa Water Trails project. The newly opened carry down access site in Johnston features ample parking and now offers an outfitter onsite to equip you with everything you need for a day of adventure.
Where: 1086 222nd Drive, Boone IA
Hours: Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Saturday – Sunday, 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Available to rent: Canoes, kayaks, river tubing
Other offerings: Paintball, Gladiator Challenge, stay and play packages, skiing and snowboarding in the winter
While you're there: Boone is also home to the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, a heritage railroad featuring a museum and offering train rides through the beautiful countryside.
Want to explore the Iowa waterways but take out all the guesswork? Let Seven Oaks plan your trip down the Des Moines River valley. They rent canoes, kayaks, and tubes, offering a seven-mile float (2 – 4 hours) for all three vessels and a 15-mile option (5 – 8 hours) for canoers and kayakers.
The scenic routes take you past animals, wildflowers, breathtaking ledges, an iconic bald eagle nest, and under the longest and highest double-track railway bridge in the world with trains passing 185 feet overhead. Suitable for families with kids and friends without, there are plenty of sandbars along the way to explore and stretch your legs. Your trip includes complimentary transportation to and from the drop spots.
Where: 2201 George Flagg Pkwy, Des Moines – Waterworks Park for day trips from WalnutWoods
Hours: Saturday – Sunday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Rentals available: Canoes, kayaks
While you're there: Check out the nearby Science Center of Iowa, a great way to spend an afternoon with the kids.
For a full-service outfitter in the heart of the city, check out Argo Adventures, with trips departing twice a day at 8 a.m. and noon on weekends. Located in Waterworks Park near Gray's Lake, you will paddle 8 miles down Racoon River by either canoe or kayak (feel free to bring your own).
Where: 2101 Fleur Dr, Des Moines
Hours: Park - 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily; Water Rentals – 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. daily through August 9; 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. weekends August 10 – September 7
Rentals available: 2-person canoes, 3-person canoes, double kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, pedal boats.
While you're there: Located right off the Gray's Lake bike trail, Confluence Brewery is one of Des Moines' most hopping stops. Grab a Des Moines IPA on their brand-new outdoor patio!
Look up 'picturesque urban oasis,' and one of the first results may very well be Gray's Lake. (If it's not, it should be.) A 167-acre lake ringed by a two-mile trail, illuminated bridges, and with a view of the Des Moines skyline, it is practically screaming for a picnic and a game of catch. Rentals are available in half-hour and hourly increments, so Gray's Lake is the perfect option if you want to dip your toes in the Des Moines waters without dedicating an entire day, leaving you more time to explore the city.
Racoon River Water Trail
Where: Multiple access points
While you're there: Check out nearby West Des Moines, the shopping mecca of Greater Des Moines, where you can stock up on all of your boating and outdoor needs.
Are you more the BYOB (Bring Your Own Boat) type? You don't have to travel far to find one of the best kept paddling secrets in central Iowa. Located about 10 miles west of Des Moines amid 31 acres of wildlife refuge, the Puckerbrush Boat Ramp is a popular fishing, an access point for scenic canoe and kayak floats along the North Raccoon River Water Trail. For a quick half-day adventure, drop your kayaks at Puckerbrush and enjoy a leisurely trip to Booneville, about 8 miles downstream. If you want to rent from the same area, try Raccoon River Rentals.
For other kayaking and paddle boarding access points and rentals, check out Polk County Conservation, the 5 Waters Project in West Des Moines. And check out water conditions before your trip with the Iowa DNR’s Interactive Paddling Map.
Lake Red Rock
Where: 971 Highway S-71 (Whitebreast Beach); 1007 Highway T-15 (North Overlook Beach), Pella, Iowa
Red Rock Marina Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Rentals: Pontoons, cruzes, fishing boats, explorer Tandems, paddleboards
While you're there: Nearby Pella is known for both it's world-famous Tulip Festival in April and also it's Dutch heritage, replete with windmills and delicious Dutch letters and homemade bologna.
A bit farther out from Des Moines, but well worth the trip, outdoor enthusiasts will love Iowa's largest lake, Lake Red Rock, with more than 15,000 acres of water. It has two beaches, Whitebreast Beach and North Overlook Beach, with nearby campgrounds, fishing areas, and hiking trails. North Overlook is the larger of the two and has volleyball courts, showers and restrooms, and a view of the dam, while Whitebreast is a bit smaller with views of the cliffs.
Lake Ahquabi State Park
Where: 16510 118th Avenue, Indianola
Boat Rental Hours: Sunday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Saturdays and holidays, 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Rentals: Rowboats, pedalboats, canoes, kayaks, fishing kayaks and stand-up paddleboards
While you're there: Consider yourself a bit of a renaissance person? You wouldn't guess it, but Indianola is the home to the Des Moines Metro Opera, hosting world-class productions every summer.
For our money, the most beautiful lake in Central Iowa is Lake Ahquabi, situated 6 miles south of beautiful Indianola, which looks like something out of a Grant Wood painting. The 115-acre human-made lake features a large sandy beach, with a multitude of rentals available. Offering campsites that are lakeside and ample hiking trails around the lake, this is the place that offers a little something for everyone.
Water Parks and Pools
Where: 3200 Adventureland Drive, Altoona
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Rentals available: Waterpark cabanas, campsites, Adventureland Hotel
Adventure Bay is the water park area of Adventureland amusement park, a Des Moines staple, and one of the biggest draws in the state. Featuring a wave pool, tons of slides for all ages and courage levels, a lazy river, Kokomo Bay for the kids, and a swim-up bar for the parents, if you squint hard enough, you'll swear you're on an island paradise. And with an attached hotel, ample campgrounds, and the burgeoning city of Altoona at your disposal, your fun-filled day can easily stretch into a fun-filled weekend.