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11 Most Popular Recreational Lakes near Des Moines, IA

When it comes to lakes and water activities, Des Moines doesn't disappoint. It has gorgeous city lakes with parks and beaches, as well as large recreational reservoirs perfect for waterskiing, wakeboarding, and tubing.
ItIsWild.com Best Lakes near Des Moines Iowa

When it comes to lakes and water recreation, Des Moines is a fantastic place. This urban hub has gorgeous city lakes that offer kayaking, fishing, and swimming in summer.

And those willing to drive outside the city will find incredible water reservoirs, including the state’s largest – Lake Red Rock, that are perfect for boating, waterskiing, and camping. 

Most of the lakes on the list operate year-round. In winter, they turn into ice fishing, cross-country skiing, and ice boating attractions.

Less than an hour away from Des Moines, there is no excuse to ignore these beautiful lakes. Check them out!

Lakes near Des Moines:

  1. Gray’s Lake
  2. Easter Lake
  3. Blue Heron Lake
  4. Copper Creek Lake
  5. Dale Maffitt Reservoir
  6. Saylorville Lake
  7. Big Creek Lake
  8. Badger Creek Lake
  9. Lake Red Rock
  10. Rock Creek Lake
  11. Lake Ahquabi
Lakes near Des Moines Iowa Comparison Table
Comparison Table

1. Gray’s Lake

Gray's Lake Park
Source: flickr/public domain
  • Website: Gray’s Lake
  • Distance from Des Moines: 2 miles (10 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking

Located just southwest of downtown Des Moines, Gray’s Lake occupies 96 acres along a former oxbow lake of the Raccoon River. Crews installed a sand and rock quarry that expanded the lake to its present size in the 1950s. 

City officials responded to the request of residents to preserve the area around the lake by purchasing adjacent land and turning it into Gray’s Lake Park

Opened in 1970, the park experienced substantial flood damage in 1993, leading a local couple – the Kruideniers – to donate funds to renovate and improve the park. 

Gray’s Lake Park is a popular destination for visitors in the downtown area. With an accessible playground, a 1.9-mile loop trail, a boat ramp, and boat rental facilities, visitors to this park can enjoy an escape from the urban environment around them while still seeing the city’s skyline in this 166-acre park. 

The Kruidenier Trail pedestrian bridge is a particularly popular spot for park visitors. 

Boats located in Gray’s Lake must use electric motors only. Seasonal rentals of paddleboards, pedal boats, kayaks, and canoes are available on-site. 

With excellent shore fishing, anglers can cast a line to catch bass, crappie, bluegill, and channel catfish. 

2. Easter Lake

easter lake des moines
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Easter Lake
  • Distance from Des Moines: 5 miles (15 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking

A short drive southeast of downtown, Easter Lake represents an example of a community transforming a former coal mine into a public gem. 

Crews designed the lake in 1965 along an area of Yeader Creek where a mine had operated. Even after the 165-acre lake was created, it has suffered from urban runoff and sand/silt buildups that have required dredging and occasional draw-downs of the water level. Recent improvements to this artificial reservoir have restored the water quality.

Easter Lake Park provides access to the lake. This 468-acre park offers an ADA-accessible fishing pier and a seasonal swimming area on the north side of Easter Lake. 

The Mark C. Ackelson Trail, a four-mile loop path around Easter Lake, offers a place for hiking and cycling, as well as access to a playground and picnic areas. The trail crosses Owen’s Covered Bridge, an 1887 structure restored and moved to the park in 1967.

The lake is a popular site for kayaks, canoes, pontoons, and other vessels. Fish commonly caught in Easter Lake include bluegill, largemouth bass, walleye, catfish, and crappie. 

3. Blue Heron Lake

  • Website: Blue Heron Lake
  • Distance from Des Moines: 10 miles (20 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking

Located in West Des Moines, Blue Heron Lake sits within Raccoon River Park – the city’s largest public park. This 232-acre artificial reservoir occupies the site of a former open-pit sand and gravel mine that operated between 1950 and 1991. 

After mining operations ended, plans ensued to develop the lake and park on the land the City of West Des Moines had started to purchase in the 1980s. Work on Raccoon River Park began in 1994. 

Blue Heron is a no-wake lake ideal for paddling and fishing. The beach along the shoreline is open for swimmers from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Within Raccoon River Park, a 225-foot fishing pier sits along the northwestern corner of Blue Heron Lake. 

In addition to a boat ramp, other park amenities include picnic sites, trails, and a playground. Anglers who fish in Blue Heron Lake will find perch, bass, catfish, and bluegill. 

The Raccoon River serves as the southern boundary of the park. Immediately south of the river, Walnut Woods State Park offers a nearby destination with campsites, additional trails, and great opportunities for birdwatching. 

4. Copper Creek Lake

Sunset at a lake in iowa
Source: pixabay
  • Website: Copper Creek Lake
  • Distance from Des Moines: 6 miles (15 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping

Located on the eastern border of Des Moines with Pleasant Hill, Copper Creek Lake provides residents a great location for shore fishing and other outdoor recreation activities. 

The 42.5-acre lake has the larger Copper Creek Lake Park with parking and facilities on the lake’s southern side in Pleasant Hill, as well as a smaller Copper Creek Park area in Des Moines on the northwestern corner of the lake. 

Hikers and cyclists may enjoy a trail that encircles the lake’s perimeter.

Bank fishing is a common activity along this beautiful lake. Those casting a line from the shore may catch bluegill, common carp, channel catfish, largemouth bass, and hybrid striped bass. 

5. Dale Maffitt Reservoir

kayakers on a lake in Iowa
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Dale Maffitt Reservoir
  • Distance from Des Moines: 13 miles (25 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking

A drive 13 miles southwest of downtown, Dale Maffitt Reservoir was first built in 1944 to maintain a reliable water supply in the area. 

A terrible drought hit the area in 1939-1940, leading to the decision to purchase the site of a lake and surrounding terrain to create a backup reservoir. 

Des Moines Water Works manages the Dale Maffitt Reservoir Dam and the 200-acre artificial reservoir it impounds. 

Also known as Maffitt Lake, this body of water is a popular place to canoe, kayak, paddleboard, and fish. A carry-down boat launch offers access to the reservoir. 

Picnic areas and hiking trails in the surrounding forest and prairie comprise the 1,500-acre Dale Maffitt Reservoir Park.

Impressive vistas provide an occasional view of geese, ducks, and river otters along the waterfront. The abundant trees in this park serve as an arboretum for the area. 

Year-round access is offered to the reservoir, allowing those willing to bundle up to enjoy ice fishing. Common species found within Dale Maffitt Reservoir include yellow perch, bluegill, channel catfish, and largemouth bass.

6. Saylorville Lake

Saylorville Lake
Source: flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0
  • Website: Saylorville Lake
  • Distance from Des Moines: 12 miles (25 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Waterskiing, Wakeboarding, Tubing, Sailing

The US Army Corps of Engineers impounded a section of the Des Moines River north of the city as a flood control measure to create Saylorville Lake. 

After the dam went into operation in 1977, the 26,000-acre reservoir surrounded by wetlands, prairies, and forested areas began to take shape. 

Parklands offer a variety of access points to Saylorville Lake. Jester Park, a 1,661-acre Polk County park, sits along the lake’s western shoreline. Picnicking and camping are popular here, along with hiking or horse riding trails, a rental lodge and cabins, the Jester Park Nature Center, and other amenities. 

Birding is popular here, as it is approximately four miles south, at the federally-operated Acorn Valley Campground or the Cherry Glen Campground near Polk City, on the eastern side of the lake. 

Immediately south of the dam, the Bob Shetler Campground and recreation area offers access to the dam and the Des Moines River below.

Anglers that cast lines in Saylorville Lake will encounter many fish. Species include bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo, crappie, bass, bullhead, catfish, northern pike, walleye, and quillback. 

The Iowa state record catch for a wiper, or hybrid striped bass, took place here in 2006 with a fish weighing 19.63 pounds.

7. Big Creek Lake

a lake in Iowa with bright sun
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Big Creek Lake
  • Distance from Des Moines: 18 miles (30 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Sailing

Located near Saylorville Lake on the opposite (eastern) side from Jester Park, Big Creek Lake is an impoundment of Big Creek that is 20 miles north of Des Moines. 

Big Creek State Park provides access to this 814-acre lake and its many fishing jetties. Five boat ramps offer lake access before the waters meet a dam and enter into Saylorville Lake. 

The park has a seasonal swimming beach, hiking trails, an 18-hole disc golf course, and a universal fishing pier. 

Open year-round, Big Creek State Park is a great winter destination for cross-country skiing. 

Anglers visit the park throughout the year to fish for walleye, muskie, bass, perch, crappie, bass, catfish, river carpsucker, and freshwater drum. 

8. Badger Creek Lake

  • Website: Badger Creek Lake
  • Distance from Des Moines: 22 miles (30 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Picnics, Hiking, Biking

A drive of approximately 20 miles southwest of downtown, Badger Creek Lake is a destination where visitors can kayak or canoe in a no-wake lake. 

Badger Creek State Recreation Area provides two boat ramps on the 276-acre lake. A picnic area and accessible pier are also available for those who come here to watch birds and nature, or to hunt or fish. 

Sunflower fields on the eastern side of the lake are a popular stopping place when the flowers are in full bloom each summer. 

Anglers who cast a line in Badger Creek Lake may fish in the open lake, one of the many jetties, or along the bank. 

Bass, bluegill, catfish, and crappie are top catches. Other fish regularly found here include bullhead and green and redear sunfish.

9. Lake Red Rock

Lake Red Rock Iowa
Source: flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0
  • Website: Lake Red Rock
  • Distance from Des Moines: 40 miles (50 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping, Waterskiing, Wakeboarding, Tubing, Sailing

Located southeast and downriver from the city, Lake Red Rock came into being to protect an area prone to flooding from future torrents. 

Ironically, six towns that had suffered repeatedly from earlier inundations – Red Rock, Fifield, Rousseau, Coalport, Dunreath, and Cordova – were abandoned as waters rose after the Red Rock Dam went into service in 1969. The 15,250-acre reservoir is now the state’s largest lake. 

In addition to flood control, the dam offers excellent recreation opportunities. Marion County’s 1,100-acre Cordova ParkElk Rock State Park, and North Overlook Beach are a few of the locations where visitors can enjoy the lake. 

Fishing is a top activity along the lake. Anglers often catch bigmouth buffalo, crappie, catfish, bass, and freshwater drum. 

10. Rock Creek Lake

  • Website: Rock Creek Lake
  • Distance from Des Moines: 52 miles (55 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping

Approximately 50 miles east-northeast of downtown, Rock Creek Lake has become a popular recreation location in central Iowa since a dam impounded a section of Rock Creek. 

The 466-acre lake is the focal point of Rock Creek State Park, a year-round destination that opened in 1952. With campsites, trails for hikers and horses, and year-round fishing on the lake, the park offers excellent access to one of the largest impoundments in the state.

Boating, fishing, and ice fishing are top activities that take place at Rock Creek Lake. Fifteen miles of shoreline within the park offer great places for bank fishing and birdwatching. 

Species commonly found at this location include black bullhead, walleye, bass, catfish, and bluegill. 

11. Lake Ahquabi

Summer landscape of water, trees, and blue sky with clouds
Source: dreamstime
  • Website: Lake Ahquabi
  • Distance from Des Moines: 24 miles (35 min)
  • Activities: Fishing, Swimming, Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing, Paddleboarding, Picnics, Hiking, Biking, Camping

Located a little more than 20 miles south, near Indianola, Lake Ahquabi has been a well-known recreation site since the Civilian Conservation Corps built picnic shelters and a stone lodge nearby during the New Deal. 

Lake Ahquabi State Park, a 770-acre preserve opened in 1936, offers year-round access to the lake, as well as trails, a campsite, two boat ramps, multiple fishing jetties, a seasonal swimming area, and an ADA-accessible pier. 

In 2021, the Department of Natural Resources drained the lake for a renovation project that should be completed in 2023. They took this step to remove the invasive gizzard shad fish that harm game fish populations and to address algae blooms. 

The 115-acre lake is known for its channel catfish, panfish, and largemouth bass. 

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