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DeSoto Lake in Iowa

Trip Overview

DeSoto Lake was formerly DeSoto Bend in the Missouri River. In 1958, the Army Corps of Engineers cut a straight 2-mile channel to bypass the 8-mile bend, and the latter became a lake. State boundaries don't change when a river moves, so one shore is technically Nebraska, although the lake is on the Iowa side of the Missouri river.

The lake is used by a few fishermen, with a 5 mph speed limit that is enforced, and hardly any canoeists. Even on July 4, with comfortable weather, there are very few people. One can paddle a 10-mile loop trip that ends with a short portage to the Missouri River, a 2-mile run down the river, and a short portage back to the lake. Out and back trips can be any length up to 16 miles.

There are a variety of birds, including wood ducks, geese, herons, and plovers. The lake is very clean and well-kept. People are not permitted on the outside shore, but there are some picnic grounds on the inside shore that offer a nice place for a break.

As an added attraction, the visitors' center on the north end of the wildlife refuge displays artifacts that were on the Steamboat Bertrand when it sank in Desoto Bend in 1865. The steamboat was found and excavated in 1968.

Almost all flatwater in the Great Plains is in the form of large lakes formed by impoundments in a river. Typically, the shoreline is highly developed and the canoeist must contend with motorboat traffic.

DeSoto Lake has the appearance of a natural lake, with only minimal development. For flatwater canoeists, it is like having a small bit of Minnesota in western Iowa.


There is an extensive network of boat docks and fishing piers and lots of parking. There is also a picnic grounds with an outhouse. Other picnic grounds can be found along the route.


There is a $3 fee for day use, or you can get an annual permit for $15.


From Exit 72 on I-29, go west on county road G-12 toward Wilson State Park. When the road to the park turns left, go straight to the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge South Gate area.


"Paddling Iowa" by Nate Hoogeveen, Trails Books, Madison, WI.

  • Duration: Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip