There’s plenty to like about this town of approximately 8,000 residents – from legendary music destinations to an incomparable watery playground. This charming community lies less than two hours drive from Des Moines, just off of I-35.
Despite its Midwestern location, USA Today has named this lake area a Great American Beach. During summertime, its population swells to more than 16,000 people.
Iowa’s third largest natural lake features 3,684 surface acres and 15 miles of shoreline. A favorite summer camping ground of Sioux and Winnebago tribes, in the 1830s, the town had become the state’s most popular ‘watering place’ 40 years later.
In 1931, a devastating tornado assaulted the area, including the legendary wooden roller coaster at Bayside Amusement Park. Formed several years later, Clear Lake Yacht Club now holds races every weekend, during the peak boating season.
Today the city is known for its annual parade with more than 100 entries as part of a spectacular July 4th celebration. After dark, lit boats and fireworks create an image reminiscent of a Mediterranean painting.
Explore the water on the 24-foot-wide Lady of the Lake paddle wheel vessel. A local fixture for decades, it features an enclosed lower level and an open upper deck, cash and snack bars, a dance floor and restrooms. Private charters and specialty cruises take place from Memorial Day through Labor Day; most are about 90 minutes.
Where the Music Died
After World War I, more ballrooms per capita operated in Iowa than in any other state. When Carl Fox designed the Surf Ballroom during the 1930s, he wanted farmers to feel like they were dancing along the shore at night.
Destroyed by fire in 1947, the popular facility was rebuilt across the street in 1948. Glen Miller, Lawrence Welk, and Roy Orbison performed here during ‘the Surf’s’ heyday. Bill Haley and The Comets were the first big rock ‘n’ roll band to play here, in 1956.
But the Surf Ballroom became infamous on Feb. 2, 1959, when performers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (and their pilot) perished in a small plane departing Clear Lake during wintry weather. Dubbed the ‘Winter Dance Party,’ the three-week-long Midwest tour ended abruptly with their deaths. Today, the crash site lies on private property near Highway 18, where wreckage was thrown 300 yards. Don McClean referenced the fallen musicians in his iconic ‘American Pie.’
The Dean Snyder family restored the ballroom to its original splendor In the 1990s. A nonprofit museum, and entertainment venue, there’s still something happening here every week – from country to jazz or pop and rock ‘n roll – and Martina McBride to ZZ Top. Dozens of photos and replica guitars from artists such as B.B. King document the ballroom’s long music legacy. Hundreds of artist signatures line walls and ceilings in the green room too.
By 2009 the Surf Ballroom was designated a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Landmark and it reached the National Register of Historic Places two years later. Tour the Surf Ballroom from Memorial Day through Labor Day; check for specific hours.
Image credit: Lisa Waterman Gray