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A Tourist Town Takes on RAGBRAI

Clay Masters

The Okoboji area is known for its tourism industry. The most recent data from the Dickinson County Chamber of Commerce says 255 million dollars are spent annually from tourism. But for last 40 years, cyclists on the Register’s Great Bike Ride Across Iowa have never stayed overnight in the Iowa Great Lakes. The natural barrier is a winding highway that goes from four to two lanes to wind around the lakes and an amusement park. But the RAGBRAI moved through the Iowa Great Lakes with no major problems.

Credit Clay Masters / IPR
IPR Morning Edition Host Clay Masters's bike rests against a light pole at Arnolds Park Amusement Park in northwest Iowa.

It was back to business as usual for Terri Pope’s aptly titled “The Coffee Shop” in Milford on Monday  afternoon. Hours before, hundreds of cyclists had popped in for breakfast before they continued their journey to Emmetsburg. There were even more people in for dinner the night before. Pope was armed with plenty of strawberry rhubarb pies and pulled pork sandwiches. 

“We ordered 150 pounds which for a little place like this,” Pope said. “We mostly sell coffees and smoothies. So that’s a lot of food, that’s a lot of sandwiches.”

Milford rests on the south side of the Iowa Great Lakes region in northwest Iowa. It’s a crowded place in the summer.

You always have those people that go ‘I just have no idea how we’re going to be able to do that we’re already a tourist destination, we already have all these people coming to our area’,” said Arnolds Park Amusement Park Marketing and Communications Manager Di Lorenzen. “You know what, we are a tourist destination. We can handle all these people. Especially on a Sunday night. Little bit different on a Saturday night we have a lot of tourists already here. On a Sunday afternoon everybody exits the town.”

That makes it a little sleepier; a perfect time for another party. The surrounding cities came together and filled out an application to host the riders.

On Monday, the remnants of the after party lingered. A few dozen people strolled along the boardwalk and jet skis still raced along Lake Okoboji. On Sunday night, Lorenzen estimated about 15,000 people were here for fireworks and concerts.

The sprawling layout of the region had cyclists camping throughout 7 miles. When riders Larry Pick and Jamie Miller got into Milford they were taken aback a bit when they realized they had to keep going.

“We were totally mentally done and then we thought we have to go five more miles?” Miller said while laughing.

“In a car it doesn’t seem (that far), but if you’re got to ride a bicycle… Okoboji’s quite a bit north of Milford,” Pick joked.

But overall, the two enjoyed their stay in Okoboji. For Utah riders Brad and Lori Mortensen, every Iowa stop is welcoming.

“I gotta say, Iowa has the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Brad said.

“I feel more at home here than I do in Utah sometimes,” Lori said with a laugh.

That makes the trip’s overnight stops more about the people than the town.