Clear Lake, Iowa is an easy town to fall in love with. At least for me, it was. There’s just something about the town of about 7,000 in northern Iowa that struck a chord with me. Perhaps it was the Surf Ballroom, the people, the food, the Lady of the Lake paddleboat or even the lake, itself.
All I know was that I found the town charming and welcoming. Fortunately, for me, Lisa did, as well. We’ve been to Clear Lake several times since our first visit in 2015.
As a lake community, several of Clear Lake’s attractions and restaurants are open seasonally. However, Clear Lake does offer year-round activities, making it a perfect weekend getaway only four hours from Omaha, along Interstate 35.
February is a great month to visit, as winter is nearing its end, and the town hosts two of its most popular events – the annual Winter Dance Party and the Color the Winds kite festival.
Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom
The classic Surf Ballroom hosts the annual Winter Dance Party, which dates back to 1959. The 1959 show starred Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, among other acts. This marked the final performances of the three early Rock ‘n’ Roll stars, as a small plane carrying them to Fargo, N.D. for their next show crashed shortly after taking off from the Clear Lake airport, killing all aboard, including the pilot, Roger Peterson.
The Surf didn’t host another Winter Dance Party until a local disc jockey arranged a commemorative concert in 1979, marking the 20th anniversary of the “Day the Music Died.”
When the scheduled performers canceled less than two months before the concert, the DJ contacted world-famous DJ Wolfman Jack for assistance. The Wolfman ended up serving as the concert’s emcee and brought with him early rockers Del Shannon, The Drifters and Nikki Sullivan, an original member of Holly’s band, the Crickets.
Despite stumbles along the way, the renewed Winter Dance Party gained a foothold, eventually expanding to three days, always around the first weekend in February, when the original show happened.
This year, the Winter Dance Party is celebrated from Feb. 3 to 5. Classic rock star Don McLean kicks off the show with a solo concert on Feb. 3. The artist is known for his Holly tribute, “American Pie” and “Vincent,” honoring artist Vincent van Gogh.
The Feb. 4 show features tributes to the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson by their sons – Edan Everly and the Nelson twins. The Feb. 5 show is headlined by Los Lobos, who performed the soundtrack for the movie “La Bamba,” a biopic of Ritchie Valens.
The Surf Ballroom, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a true tribute to vintage music. With memorabilia from the original Winter Dance Party, as well as guitars and other musical instruments from performers such as BB King, Willie Nelson and Kevin Costner. Photos of musical acts – classic and contemporary – line the walls of the ballroom.
On days when the Surf doesn’t host concerts, you can tour the building, including standing on stage and checking out autographs on the walls in the green room, featuring musical greats and politicians. After staying away for several decades, after the death of his friend and bandmate Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings found his way to the Surf Ballroom. It proved cathartic for the star, who left his autograph on the wall. His son, Shooter Jennings, has also appeared at the Surf.
The crash site of the plane, located on private property that the farmer leaves open to the public, is located a few miles outside of town. A challenge for GPS, check the directions for the field at 315th Street and Gull Avenue before leaving town.
While the roadside is marked with a giant pair of Holly’s famed thick, black glass frames, the crash site’s memorial is about a quarter-mile walk into the field. Fans routinely place flowers and other items at the memorial.
Color the Wind kite festival
Hundreds of giant inflatable kites will fill the sky above a frozen Clear Lake on Feb. 19. The annual Color the Wind kite festival kicks off its third decade as kites more than 20 feet long and in all shapes, including animals, entertain hundreds of spectators. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and since it’s on the ice, visitors will want to dress accordingly, including waterproof boots if they plan to walk on the lake because of possible slush. The festival draws competitors from around the country.
Sailing, parasailing and jet skis are among the more popular activities you’ll find on Clear Lake during the summer and early fall. With a dock near downtown, you can rent pontoon boats for a leisurely float as well as dock your own boat. A small beach offers swimmers an opportunity to enjoy the glacial water or do a little sunbathing. A short trail also provides a nice area for lakeside walking.
Lady of the Lake paddleboat
A converted ferry boat, Lady of the Lake is a two-level paddleboat that offers 90-minute tours of Clear Lake. The captain – and your tour guide – shares the history of the area, including how Clear Lake was formed by glaciers as well as unique tidbits such as a resort that may or may not have served liquor during Prohibition.
You’ll get an up-close look at the beautiful lake, which is the third-largest in Iowa. Celebrating its 35th anniversary of calling Clear Lake home, Lady of the Lake offers tours during the summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. The paddleboat was the last ferry boat shuffling automobiles between Nebraska and South Dakota on the Missouri River, near Niobrara. I actually rode on it as a kid, when my family traveled to the area to visit relatives.
Central Gardens of North Iowa
A small, but attractive botanical garden, Central Gardens of North Iowa offers a nice spot to stop and smell the flowers or check out wildflowers. You’ll find 20 themed gardens at the three-acre park, including hostas, woodland and butterflies. The park is a nice spot for photos or to enjoy a picnic or coffee.
Kinney Pioneer Museum
Travel through time as you explore the area’s history at Kinney Pioneer Museum. With a variety of unique exhibits, the museum offers a look at early transportation, including horse-drawn wagons, classic automobiles and vintage farm equipment, as well as a living history town featuring a log cabin and one-room schoolhouse. Check out a bullet hole in a bank window that occurred when a bank was robbed by John Dillinger in nearby Mason City.
Lake Time Brewery and 173 Craft Distillery
With 10 regular and special brews, Lake Time Brewery invites visitors to sit back, relax and enjoy one of Iowa’s best craft beers. The brewery, located near downtown Clear Lake, features its own beers on tap, from ales, IPAs and stouts to fruits. Lake Time is a 15-barrel brewery.
Opening this summer, 173 Craft Distillery will serve as Clear lake’s first location for locally produced rum, vodka and bourbon. With a rooftop bar, the distillery will include cocktails and specialty drinks.
Where to eat
As a resort town, Clear Lake is home to outstanding restaurants. Downtown has quite a few nice spots to grab a variety of food, from gyros to wings and a steak. For outstanding Italian fare and pizza, Gejo’s by the Lake is an excellent choice. Open on Friday and Saturday evenings, dine in or take it to go, but you’ll enjoy the selections.
Rookie’s Rockin’ Sports Bar is a fun sports bar, serving a variety of delicious food, including burgers and buffalo wings. Gyro Place offers a tasty menu, serving gyros, burgers, wings and more.
The Landing at Lakeside Inn offers an impressive view of Clear Lake when dining on the patio. Known for excellent burgers and salads, it’s tough not to find something good on the menu.
Open seasonally between April and October, Starboard Market will become one of your favorite delis. I fell in love with the caprese salad there, as well as the chicken tortilla soup. Oh, and the turkey and ham club sandwich. And…you get the picture, right?
If you crave steak, head about eight miles east to the Northwestern Steakhouse in Mason City. More than a century old, Northwestern is a throwback to classic steakhouses, where dinners are served with a salad, choice of potato and plenty of bread and butter to keep local bakeries and dairies open for eternity. The steak is made with Greek seasonings, which create a special flavor that will keep you talking for days about your sirloin, New York Strip or ribeye. Chicken and fish enthusiasts will also enjoy their choices. PM Park and Tiki Bar provides a great breakfast, as well as a nice view of the lake.
For a special treat, stop by Cookies, Etc. and grab a cookie. Or a dozen. The handmade cookies are baked fresh, and the fragrance keeps people lining up outdoors. One of our favorite things to do is to buy some cookies (we love getting a dozen to take home), then stop by Cabin Coffee for a flavored coffee. The coffee shop offers a western motif, complete with saddles at some of the high-top tables. We enjoy taking our treats and grabbing a seat on a bench or the seawall at the lake and enjoy them while admiring the amazing view of the lake, complete with people navigating the water in sailboats, parasailing or zipping by on jet skis.
Where to stay
Whether you prefer hotels, cabins, vacation rentals, bed and breakfast inns or Airbnb, Clear Lake has something perfect for you.
We have enjoyed stays at the Best Western hotel and Lakeside Inn, as well as with Airbnbs. The Larch Pine Inn Bed and Breakfast features four guest rooms on half an acre. Unwind at night with a sit in a whirlpool hot tub and then start each day with a three-course breakfast.
If you prefer hotels, Clear Lake is home to 12, including the new Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott. For a unique hotel experience, consider reserving a room at the Historic Park Inn in Mason City, the only remaining hotel in the world designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. If you stay there, consider a self-guided tour of Mason City’s Wright-inspired murals.