Clear Lake, Iowa, is a name that comes from a natural spring in Cerro Gordo County. The area is well-known for fishing activities, but there are many top things to do in Clear Lake for everyone. What you can do ranges from water activities to exploring around town and getting stuck into great outdoor expeditions.
There are tons of fun things and engaging activities you can do in Clear Lake, Iowa. If you are looking for the best vacation spot in the Midwest this coming summer, choose Clear Lake.
Whether you want to go with kids, your special someone, or as a lone ranger, this place has everything.
Table of Contents
- TLDR; Summary of Our Top Picks
- Best & Fun Things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa
- 1. Clear Lake State Park
- 2. Central Gardens
- 3. Clear Lake Fire Museum
- 4. Surf Ballroom & Museum
- 5. Clear Lake Arts Center
- 6. 1959 Buddy Holly Plane Crash Site
- 7. Kinney Pioneer Museum
- 8. Lake Theatre
- 9. Lake Time Brewery
- 10. PM Park
- 11. Starboard Market
- 12. Trolley Park
- 13. Bicycle Riding at Clear Lake
- 14. Charles H. MacNider Art Museum
- 15. Water Sports at Clear Lake
- Final Thoughts
- What is Clear Lake known for?
- How do you get around Clear Lake, Iowa?
- Is it safe to swim in Clear Lake, Iowa?
TLDR; Summary of Our Top Picks
- Most significant landmark – Surf Ballroom, North Iowa
- Best park – Clear Lake State Park
- Best free activity – Bicycle Riding at Clear Lake
- Best activity for kids – Visiting Trolley Park
- Best activity for adults – Water Sports at Clear Lake
- Best food – Sea salted caramel bars and triple chocolate hot mess caramel fudge at Starboard Market
- Best nightlife – Watching a movie at Lake Theatre
- Best all-round accommodation – Best Western Holiday Lodge
Best & Fun Things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa
Clear Lake is known for different outdoor activities, landmarks, and spectacular sceneries. Here are some of the fun things to do in Clear Lake.
1. Clear Lake State Park
Address: 6490 S Shore Dr, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
Clear Lake State Park is one of the best outdoor recreation features in Northern Iowa. The park sits on a whopping 55 acres of land. It is the best place to be if you like outdoor activities because the park has something for everyone.
Clear Lake State Park offers many diverse recreational opportunities because of its strategic location on the lake and the natural beauty surrounding it. The park’s main feature is a rolling open ground with oak trees and thickets that host owls, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and hundreds of bird species.
Swimming is among the most common activities in Clear Lake State Park. There is an extensive sandy beach, which attracts both young and old swimmers and sunbathers. It also provides the best fishing ground for different local fish species. Many visitors also come here for jet skiing, windsurfing, and sailing.
If you also like picnicking, the park is the best place to be; 10 acres out of the 55-acre space are picnic grounds with tables and grills. There are many shady places for a perfect family cookout. There is also a playground for kids with playing equipment to keep them busy.
The Clear Lake State Park also boasts the best campgrounds with modern restrooms, shower facilities, and a trailer dump station.
2. Central Gardens
Address: 800 2nd Ave N, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
The current Central Gardens was built on the former grounds of several Clear Lake schools existing between 1888 to 1988. The Central School was relocated, and the old building was razed. When Clear Lake City became the owner, the local administration determined it would become a community garden space.
Presently, the Central Gardens of North Iowa has beautiful flowers and trees covering three acres of land, maintained by local volunteers. Its proximity to the city’s central business district makes it one of the most visited places in the area. Central Gardens is open from dawn to dusk every day of the week. It’s free of charge for the public to explore between May and November.
The best activity in Central Gardens is simply walking along the meandering brick walkways and enjoying the surroundings. You can also choose a spot to chill and see your day off as you listen to the melodious songs of birds.
You can walk around to admire local artwork, ponds, stream beds, and themed flower beds. The garden also hosts many events, including (but not limited to) gardening, beekeeping, and crafting festivals.
Since Central Gardens is located just a few-minutes-drive from downtown Clear Lake, accommodation is never a problem. Search for the best budget hotel on Booking.com where you can comfortably spend your night after a whole day exploring the garden.
See Related: Best Things to do in Dubuque, Iowa
3. Clear Lake Fire Museum
Address: 112 N 6th St, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
Clear Lake Fire Museum is close to downtown Clear Lake, making it accessible to many tourists. It is one of the best places to visit in the city with families or history buffs.
Clear Lake Fire Museum is Iowa’s first fire museum, built in the early 1900s. Structurally, the building resembles a fire station. It hosts some of the earliest firefighting equipment in Clear Lakes. When you visit, be sure to ask about the 1883 hand-drawn horse cart and 1924 pumper truck.
Clear Lake Fire Museum is currently operated by a team of firefighters who volunteer to tell the old stories. When you visit, you will agree that they love the job that they voluntarily do. These firefighters have ways around with words. They vividly describe the past events with the vintage equipment that brings everything to life.
The museum is only open on Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm and remains closed for the rest of the days.
The vintage items in this museum offer more than what we can describe in words. The best thing to do is to put it on your list of the best things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa, for your next vacation!
Clear Lake Fire Museum is conveniently located near Clear Lake CBD with many accommodation options. You can spend your nights at Lakeside Inn, The Least Little Lake Cottage, Fairfield Inn & Suites, and more. You can explore more options on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
4. Surf Ballroom & Museum
Address: 460 N Shore Dr, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
The Surf Ballroom is a historical site in the United States. It is a historic Rock and Roll Landmark and is associated with the events referred to as The Day the Music Died – immortalized in the song American Pie.
This was the venue where rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Ritchie Valens had their last performance before a fatal plane crash in 1959. Each February since 1979, the Surf Ballroom hosts the “annual Winter Dance Party” tribute show to honor the three stars.
If you are looking for the best things to do in Clear Lake, seriously, look no further. Take a show and tour at the Surf Ballroom. For first-timer visitors, take a self-guided tour here during the day. That’s when you will have all the time to admire the exclusive artifacts in the building. When night falls, it’s time to relieve the history with live performances!
The good news for visitors who go to the Surf Ballroom is the budget-friendly stays. Places like Larch Pine Inn Bed and Breakfast and the Last Little Lake Cottage can deliver a comfortable night’s stay.
See Related: Best Things to do in Iowa & Places to Visit
5. Clear Lake Arts Center
Address: 17 S 4th St, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
The Clear Lake Arts Center is a modern-day spot for new-generation art. It got started in the year 2002, founded by local artists who would use it as a rented space for exhibition and selling their arts. Since then, Clear Lake Arts Center has grown to be a beehive of activities.
Spend your day at Clear Lake Arts Center if works of art warm your heart. Apart from regular exhibitions from local artists, the venue hosts artists and pieces from across the country. There are also regular exhibitions from Clear Lake Arts Center where visitors can still buy pieces of art.
Clear Lake Arts Center is famed for thought-provoking exhibitions of rotating sculpture. So, you will have to keep going back to keep up to date!
The Clear Lake Arts Center also provides art classes. Anyone can join to improve art skills and learn from other artists, or just have fun creating. This facility also offers rental services for conferences and meetings.
If you want to stay at Clear Lake Arts Center overnight, you can make your reservations at nearby hotels. Consider Best Western Holiday Lodge, Microtel Inn & Suites, or Fairfield Inn & Suites. These are just a few-minutes-drive from the venue.
6. 1959 Buddy Holly Plane Crash Site
Address: 3140 Gull Avenue Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
The Plane Crash Site from Buddy Holly‘s last flight remains a significant site in American music history. Though it’s located on private property, the owner understands and allows people to visit from 7:00 am to 10:30 pm (so long as the public respect the property and its owner).
The plane that carried Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed here after a winter show at the Surf in 1959. They and the pilot of their small aircraft perished on that fateful day.
Here you will see a monument of a stainless-steel guitar and steel records. The guitar has names Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Big Bopper. The second monument of their pilot, Roger Peterson, was erected in 2009, finally acknowledging the fourth member of the crash.
So, if you are still looking for what to do in lake Iowa, you can visit this plane crash site to pay tribute to the legendary artist Buddy Holly.
7. Kinney Pioneer Museum
Address: Suite G, 9184 265th St, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
Kinney Pioneer Museum holds the history of North Central Iowa and surrounding territories. If you’re visiting Clear Lake or nearby Mason City – good news! You’ll find it at the Mason City Municipal Airport.
Visiting the Kinney Pioneer Museum will bring back the long-lost history of the good old days of life on the American frontier and onward. It was started by Mrs. George Ludeman, who collected bits and bobs of Americana from as early as 1957. Today, the museum boasts the largest collection of vintage items in the area.
You can see historic furniture, antiques, curling devices, vintage vehicles, and much more. There are also handmade quilts from the 1800s.
The Kinney Pioneer Museum also features a one-room schoolhouse, an 1863 log-cabin home, an old jailhouse, and a blacksmith shop.
Kinney Pioneer Museum is open from May to September. The operating hours are between 1:00 pm and 5:00 pm from Tuesday to Sunday.
You have many accommodation options when visiting Kinney Pioneer Museum. Fairfield Inn & Suites and Americas Best Value Inn are within walking distance.
8. Lake Theatre
Address: 4 N 4th St, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
Lake Theater is an irresistible place for movie bugs. It is located in the old Opera House built in 1890, and the name is still visible at the top of the building. The Opera House had a fire incident that led to its collapse in 1920. That, however, didn’t deter its renovation a decade later.
The Opera House came back to life as a Movie Theater in Clear Lake. If you want to pass away your evenings or unwind during weekends, visit Clear Lake Theatre and catch a flick. Here, you can enjoy the latest Hollywood releases and other showings.
Regular showtimes at Clear Theatre begin on Monday, Thursdays, and Friday at 7:00 pm, and weekend shows start as early as 1:00 pm.
Visit the Lake Theater website to see the upcoming shows you can catch. There are different movies, including plenty for children.
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9. Lake Time Brewery
Address: 801 Main Ave, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
Lake Time Brewery is Clear Lake’s favorite local brewery with different expertly brewed craft beers on tap. The company invites all visitors (over 21) to its taproom to taste its popular brews. The products range from pale ales and IPAs to pilseners and even fruit beers.
After exploring outdoor recreation opportunities, walking along the beautiful hiking trails, or coming from the movie theatre, the best way to cap it off is to take a glass of expertly brewed beer, and Lake Time Brewery promises you the best.
They even sell growlers, so you can even carry some to your hotel room!
Speaking of hotel rooms, the closest hotel to the Lake Time Brewery is Best Western Holiday Lodge.
10. PM Park
Address: 15297 Raney Dr, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
What we now know as the PM Park (or Patriarchs Militant Park) has a rich history that dates back to 1819. According to the Patriarchs Militant literature, the PM Park was established in the 19th Century to provide summer camps for children who lost their parents in the Civil War. It also acted as a gathering ground for meetings and training sessions of the Patriarchs.
PM Park is now a popular spot for summer retreats that offer different outdoor activities. The main feature that makes it a haven of activities is the on-site accommodation. So, you don’t have to worry about looking for alternatives if you are comfortable staying at PM Park. The park also offers short-term apartments and summer rentals.
But why else would you go to PM Park?
PM Park is a cyclist’s paradise. There is a designated bike lane from downtown to the Park, where you can enjoy easy cycling with lovely views of the park on all sides.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Voyageurs National Park
11. Starboard Market
Address: 310 Main Ave, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
Your visit to Clear Lake will never be complete without having lunch and desserts at Starboard Market.
Starboard Market is only open for a few hours a day, five days of the week. However, it has made a name as the best food point for travelers and locals.
Starboard Food Market boasts some of the most delicious made-from-scratch soups and salads. Don’t dare miss checking in for lunch and having a bite. Their menu consists of different dishes, including sea salted caramel bars and triple chocolate hot mess caramel fudge.
Starboard Market also has the best staff that makes you feel like having lunch in an old friend’s house. You may need to be at the table on time not to miss some of the dishes that sell out so fast!
12. Trolley Park
Address: 3429 Main Ave, Clear Lake, IA 50428, United States
Trolley Park is the best place for families with kids who want to have fun learning about rail travel. The park is home to vintage equipment, old rail cars, and railroad artifacts. It is currently maintained and operated by the Mason City and Clear Lake Electric Railroad Historical Society.
Trolley Park gives you opportunities to enjoy handcar and diesel locomotive rides. There is also a museum in the park where you will learn the history of the infamous Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Depot. Admission to the museum is free!
The park is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
See Related: Best National Parks in the USA to Visit
13. Bicycle Riding at Clear Lake
Clear Lake is known as a bicycling town. Visitors come far and beyond to have a one-of-a-kind experience in Clear Lake. You can go there with your own bike or rent one to ride around the 14-mile Clear Lake perimeter. That is also an adventurous activity that lets you explore the landscape.
The most famous bicycle trails in Clear Lake are the Sister’s Prairie Trail and Trolley Trail. The former begins from Ventura Heights access, west of Cardinal Avenue. This scenic paved trail traverses a mile long through the beautiful prairie pothole region.
On the other hand, Trolley Trail is a 7.5-mile bicycle trail that stretches between Clear Lake and Mason City. It takes some guts to cover twice the entire length, but some legends do it effortlessly. You can also ride here for a lifetime experience.
14. Charles H. MacNider Art Museum
Address: 303 2nd St SE, Mason City, IA 50401, United States
MacNider Art Museum, also known as the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum, is one of the best places to visit in Mason City, just a 10-minute drive from Clear Lake.
It was opened to the public in 1996, and it is home to a former convent. The museum was named after the President of the First National Bank of Mason City, Charles H. MacNider, and his son Hanford Macnider.
The Charles H. MacNider Art Museum has a collection of American art, including paintings, ceramics, prints, drawings, sculptures, fused and blown glass, and textiles. It also has Bill Baird marionettes, ephemera, and puppets. These definitely make visiting Charles H. MacNider Art Museum one of the best things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa.
The MacNider Art Museum is also an active center for the arts, films, studio classes, an imagination playground, special events, and a museum shop.
You can visit the museum using individual tours by making your reservation. However, the best way to discover it is using group tours. Consider the Charles H. MacNider Museum & Architectural Walking Tour for the best experience of the treasure in the museum.
15. Water Sports at Clear Lake
Clear Lake, Iowa, is known for its namesake freshwater lake which is great for water sporting activities. If you are still looking for the best things to do in Clear Lake, consider fishing, water skiing, and boating.
Clear Lake is best known for largemouth bass fishing, but it also has other fish types. If you are lucky during one of your trips here, you can also find catfish, blackfish, perch, Sacramento, crappie, bluegill, and hitch.
Apart from fishing, you can also enjoy boating and other water activities such as windsurfing, water skiing, or riding personal watercraft of all shapes and sizes.
You can use canoes, kayaks, car-top boats, float tubes, non-motorized sailboats, boogie boards, etc. All these make Clear Lake worth visiting.
Clear Lake is a terrific town for a low-key vacation, an American history tour, or a cheeky weekend getaway in the Midwest. Have you been to Clear Lake and have something to add to this list? Know of any other hidden gems in Iowa? Let us know so we can spread the word!
What is Clear Lake known for?
Clear Lake is best known for bass fishing. In fact, it was named the second-best bass fishing lake in 2014 by Bassmaster magazine. But the lake is also home to monster catfish and other fish species.
How do you get around Clear Lake, Iowa?
Clear Lake is a small town in northern Iowa between Des Moines and Minneapolis. You can move around using public transport or hire a taxi or rideshare to aid your movement from one attraction site to the next. It is even better to use guided tours to explore state parks and magnificent landmarks such as Surf Ballroom before stopping by the lake to catch the breeze.
Is it safe to swim in Clear Lake, Iowa?
No. The state water regulators have warned visitors from swimming in the Clear Lake because of the potentially dangerous algae. Even visitors boating in the lake are also advised to steer away from the eastern part of the lake. There are also No Swimming signs along the western shoreline warning visitors not to swim or be in contact with the algal material.
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