Your Ultimate Guide to Saylorville Lake in Iowa

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Your Ultimate Guide to Saylorville Lake in Iowa

Welcome to Saylorville Lake! Saylorville Lake is located on the Des Moines River, about 11 miles north of the city of Des Moines. It is a popular outdoor recreation destination for hiking, biking, camping, boating, swimming, and more! 

History of Saylorville Lake 

Prior to the Saylorville Lake project, the Des Moines River had significant flooding issues. In 1958 the construction of Saylorville was approved. Construction of the dam took many years and it was completed in 1977. The 26,000-acre lake has helped to prevent flooding and provides many recreational activities. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates and maintains Saylorville Lake. 

Saylorville Lake Visitor Center 

Address: 8250 NW Horseshoe Road, Ankeny, IA

Saylorville Lake Visitor Center is an excellent place to start your visit. At the center, you will find information on the history of Saylorville Lake and Dam, an interactive map display of the lake, a gift shop, and a turtle named Blastoise. Behind the center is a beautiful overlook of the lake. There are a few hiking trails next to the center as well. You can also park at the center and hop on the Neal Smith Trail. 

Visitor Center Hours: 

  • Mar 1 – Mar 31:  Mon – Fri  ***Closed***; Sat-Sun Noon to 4 p.m. 
  • Apr 1 – May 28:  Mon – Fri 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sat-Sun Noon to 4 p.m. 
  • May 29 – Sept 6: Daily  10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 
  • Sept 7 – Oct 17: Mon – Fri 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sat-Sun Noon to 4 p.m. 
  • Oct 18 – Feb 28:         *****Closed*****

Recreation Areas and Campgrounds

Saylorville Lake offers some of the best camping options in central Iowa. Day-use fees for all recreation areas: $5 per vehicle, $2 for walkers or bikers, or $40 for an annual pass. 

Acorn Valley Campground Area

Address: 9719 Corydon Dr, Johnston, IA 50131

Website: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/233412

Fees: $22 per night for a family site and $14 per night for walk-to tent sites


  • 29 family sites and 54 primitive walk-to tent sites 
  • Flush toilets, showers, drinking water, and dump station 
  • Playground

Bob Shelter Recreation Area

Address: Camp Rd, Johnston, IA 50131

Website: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/233432

Fees: $20-$22 per night for a campsite (only open to reserve April-October) 


  • 67 campsites, all with electric hookups
  • Flush and pit toilets, showers, drinking water, and a dump station 
  • Fish cleaning station
  • Playground 
  • Ponds for fishing

Cherry Glen Recreation Area 

(Cherry Glen Campgrounds is closed for construction for the 2023 season) 

Address: 4338 NW 94th Ave, Polk City, IA 50226

Website: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/233455

Fees: $22-$26 per night for a campsite (only open to reserve April-October) 


  • 125 campsites, all with electric hookups
  • Flush toilets, showers, drinking water, and a dump station 
  • Boat ramp
  • Jet ski launch
  • Playground 
  • Sledding hill 

Cottonwood Recreation Area 

(Located south of Saylorville Lake on the Des Moines River)

Address: 7400 NW 37th St, Ankeny, IA 50023

Website: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234699

Fees: $50 to reserve group picnic areas (only open to reserve April-October) 


  • 9 group picnic areas (for day use only, no camping) 
  • Flush toilets, electric hookups, water 
  • Water trail access 
  • Fishing pier
  • Sand volleyball courts
  • Playground 

Lakeview Recreation Area 

Address: Located on the south end of the lake by the dam. Take NW Beaver Dr. north and it will be on your right-hand side. 


  • Restrooms
  • Picnic shelters with picnic tables (no reservations) 
  • Three Boat Ramps
  • Sledding hill 

Oak Grove Recreation Area 

**Only designated swimming beach at Saylorville! 

Address: 5798 NW 98th Ave, Polk City, IA 50226

Website: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234698

Fees: $50 to reserve group picnic areas (only open to reserve May-October)


  • Two group picnic areas with electric and water hookups. (Day-use only facility) 
  • Restrooms, one located by the picnic area and the other by the beach
  • Swimming
  • Sand volleyball court
  • Playground

Prairie Flower Campground

(Closed for construction for the 2023 season) 

Address: 10498 NW Lake Dr, Polk City, IA 50226

Website: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/233594 

Fees: Nightly fee starts at $20 for family campsites and $80 for group sites (only open to reserve May-October)


  • 153 family campsites and 10 group sites, all with electrical hookups 
  • Many of the campsites in the south campground have views of the lake
  • Flush toilets, showers, drinking water, and a dump station
  • Playgrounds 
  • Hiking trail 

Sandpiper Recreation Area

Address: 7101 NW Polk City Dr, Polk City, IA 50226

Website: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234697

Fees: $110 to reserve a large group picnic area (only open to reserve May-October)


  • Day-use facility with one large group picnic area that can accommodate 500 people
  • Restrooms 
  • Baseball field
  • Boat ramp
  • Scenic viewing area
  • Playground
  • Sand volleyball court
  • FYI it is a far walk down a large hill to the water 

Walnut Ridge Recreation Area 

Address: Located on the western side of Saylorville Lake, drive north on NW Beaver Dr.

Website: https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234696

Fees: $50 to reserve group picnic areas (only open to reserve April-October) 


  • Day-use area with three group picnic areas with water and electricity 
  • Restrooms
  • Disc Golf Course

Not into camping but want to stay close? Check out the Qube Hotel, which is adjacent to the golf course, the Tournament Club of Iowa.  

The Neal Smith Trail

  • The Neal Smith Trail is a 26-mile multipurpose trail. 
  • Starts in Des Moines, goes along Saylorville Lake, and through to Big Creek State Park. 
  • Perfect for wildlife watching.
  • Access to the trail from the following recreation areas: Cottonwood, Prairie Flower, Oak Grove, Sandpiper, Bob Shelter, and Cherry Glen. 
  • Explore the Butterfly Garden, which is on the trail and a 10-minute walk from the visitor center. 

Saylorville Lake Marina

Saylorville Lake Marina is a great place to check out the houseboats, take in the view, and have a bite to eat at Fleetwood Bar. It is the only floating restaurant in Iowa. They also opened a new location, the Fleetwood Lodge, located next to the Marina Store. Pets are welcome. They often have live music too.

Boat Launches

Fee for all boat launches: $5 per boat or $40 for an annual pass.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a boat, you have a few options to rent one for the day.

  • Saylorville Lake Marina has a 14-passenger pontoon boat with a water slide, a 10-passenger Cypress Cay, a 10-passenger Princecraft, and a 10-passenger Aloha. Boat rentals start at $265. 
  • Leisure Fun Rentals has two or four-hour excursions available that include water sports of your choice and a captain. 

Other fun things to do at Saylorville 

  1. View the water rushing out of the Dam by the Bob Shelter Campground. 
  2. Drive over Saylorville Lake on the Mile-Long Bridge.  
  3. Practice archery at the Saylorville Lake Archery Range. It is located by the entrance to the Bob Shetler Recreation Area. It features nine ground-level shooting stations and a three-station elevated shooting structure, plus it’s free. 
  4. Go fishing or hunting at Saylorville Lake. You must have a valid State of Iowa Fishing License to fish. There is a fish cleaning station at the Bob Shetler Campgrounds and a fishing pier at the Cottonwood Recreation Area. Hunting is allowed on certain federal lands. Refer to this site for more information. 
  5. Cool off at The Creamery in Polk City. They offer soft serve, hardpack, frozen yogurt, and dole whip. and slushies. 
  6. Be sure to check out Jester Park and Big Creek State Park
Jackie Fioritto

Jackie Fioritto

Hi, I’m Jackie. I am a teacher who recently became a stay-at-home mother of two. My husband and I moved to Des Moines from Green Bay, Wisconsin a few years ago. Originally, I am from Chicago, Illinois. My family has loved exploring Des Moines and all that it has to offer!

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