Buddy Holly glasses marker at crash site
Entrance to the Buddy Holly Crash Site in Clear Lake, Iowa

The Buddy Holly Crash Site and Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa are two of my top things to do in Iowa. Located just a short drive off I-35, these two Iowa road attractions are where you can pay tribute to three rock legends – Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Located less than two hours south of the Twin Cities and two hours north of Des Moines, Iowa, the Buddy Holly Crash Site in an Iowa field is where the music died on Feb. 3, 1959.

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Buddy Holly crash site: the day the music died

I was in first grade when the Grammy-winning American Pie song by Don McLean hit number one in the U.S. And I have many fond memories singing this song with my childhood friend Tina on her front porch (we did performances all the time). We sang loud and clear for all to hear even though I didn’t know what many of the words (like levee and rye) meant at the time.

“Bye, bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye. Singin’ this will be the day that I die. This’ll be the day that I die.”

American Pie: Don McLean

Nor did I know what inspired the song. American Pie, named a Song of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America, was a tribute to Buddy Holly. The song that coined the phrase, “The Day the Music Died.” I recently learned that the song lyrics also referred to the death of McLean’s father, who passed away in front of him when he was only 15 years old.


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Where did the plane carrying Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens crash?

Rock n roll Idols Among Lake Crash Dead Mason City Globe-Gazette newspaper headline in Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa
Front page of the Mason City Globe-Gazette shows crash site photos from the Buddy Holly plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa. Photo taken at the Buddy Holly Museum / The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

I grew up in Iowa, but it wasn’t until years later that I learned the plane crash that killed music legends Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and pilot Roger Peterson happened in Clear Lake, Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959.

In rural small-town Clear Lake.

A place I’d driven through and by countless times as it was close to my great grandparents, and my great aunt owned a lake house on Clear Lake.

And just recently learned from my aunt that my Great Aunt Lucille and Great Uncle Bud were frequent dancers at The Surf Ballroom and were there the day the music died – the night when the plane crashed carrying the rock legends Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.

It was decades later before I visited the Buddy Holly crash site memorial and the museum that bears his name in Clear Lake, Iowa. Our friends Dave and Kierston first told us about the Buddy Holly memorial crash site and gave us directions on how to reach this rural location.

So on my birthday two summers ago, I decided I wanted to take a road trip to Iowa to pay tribute at the Buddy Holly crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa, and visit the Grotto of the Redemption in rural West Bend, Iowa. These are my top things to do in Iowa.

How to get to the Buddy Holly crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa

Side view of Buddy Holly glasses marker at crash site
A marker with an oversized pair of Buddy Holly glasses marks the entrance to the path that leads to the plane crash site that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens and their pilot.

How do I get to the Buddy Holly Crash Site in Clear Lake, Iowa? Don’t rely too much on GPS to find the location of the Buddy Holly crash site. It’ll get you close, but the directions took us a little past on the gravel road so we simply turned around. The entrance to the Buddy Holly crash site is right at the intersection of 315th Street and Gull Lake Road in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Yes, the Buddy Holly crash site memorial is off a gravel road and in the middle of a corn field and soybean field in rural Iowa.

Buddy Holly crash site sign

You can’t really miss the iconic Buddy Holly glasses sign if you’re looking for the marker. However, a large RV blocked our view so that’s why we didn’t initially see the entrance to the memorial crash site for Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson), Ritchie Valens and their young pilot, Roger Peterson.


How far is the Buddy Holly crash site from the Twin Cities and Des Moines, Iowa?

Sunglasses with farm and silo in background
Fans paying their respects at the Buddy Holly crash site leave mementos as well as inscriptions on the iconic marker.

For us in the southern metro of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis – St. Paul, Minnesota), the drive to the Buddy Holly crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa is only about 90 minutes straight down I-35 South until exit 203 onto IA-9 (toward Forest City, Iowa). And then you drive a few more miles on country roads. If you’re coming from Des Moines, Iowa, the Buddy Holly crash site is about a two-hour drive north.

How far do you have to walk to get to the Buddy Holly crash site?

Path leading through fields of corn and soybeans
It was a beautiful summer day when we visited the Buddy Holly crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa – the extreme opposite of the weather conditions on that wintery night in February 1959.

Once you find the Buddy Holly memorial crash site marker and entrance in rural Clear Lake, Iowa, you’ll see a path leading you through a cornfield and a soybean field. The walking path to the Buddy Holly crash site is less than a half mile. We went in the summer so the path was mowed. And you can also visit the Buddy Holly crash site in the winter.

Can you leave mementos at the Buddy Holly crash site?

Yes. At the end of the path is the plane crash site location and where you can leave your mementos or observe moments of silence for Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and pilot Roger Peterson.

Many fans leave momentos at the Buddy Holly crash site to show their respects for the rock and roll legends Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens as well as the pilot Roger Peterson.

It was such a peaceful and beautiful day to pay tribute at the Buddy Holly crash site when we visited in August 2019.


Listen closely and you can hear crickets in the background of this video audio. I thought that was very fitting for Buddy Holly.
Memorials at Buddy Holly crash site
Fans pay their respect at the Buddy Holly crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa to memorialize the young lives of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.
Roger Peterson memorial at Buddy Holly crash site
Buddy Holly crash site memorial for Roger Peterson

What I found surprising was how young they all were. I knew Ritchie Valens was only 17, but didn’t realize Buddy Holly was only 22, The Big Bopper 28 and Roger Peterson 21.

We only met a couple of people on the path and no one at the Buddy Holly memorial crash site. It was just my husband and me so it was a very peaceful and quiet experience to pay our respects to this trio of musical geniuses and the young pilot. Another couple was just arriving when we reached the path entrance on our return. They asked us if we were planning to visit the Buddy Holly Museum at the Surf Ballroom in downtown Clear Lake, Iowa.

We were not planning to visit, but changed our minds when they said the Buddy Holly Museum was worth the stop.

And it was.

Directions to the Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa

Buddy Holly Place road sign
Buddy Holly Place street sign near the Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa

To reach the Buddy Holly Museum, simply retrace your steps back to Clear Lake. Clear Lake is a small town of about 7,500 people so the Surf Ballroom, home of the museum, is not hard to find. The historic landmark is located at 460 North Shore Drive in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Exterior of Surf Ballroom with flag, park bench and blue sky
Exterior of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa – home of the Buddy Holly Museum.
Bench outside Surf Ballroom

The Surf Ballroom was built in 1948 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.

Where was the last performance for Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens?

The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa is the venue where Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens last played along with Waylon Jennings and Dion. Jennings (bass guitarist for Holly at the time) gave up his seat to The Big Bopper who had come down with the flu.

According to interviews with Jennings and The Surf Ballroom / Buddy Holly Museum, Buddy Holly told Waylon Jennings that he hoped his bus would freeze up. Waylon’s response to Holly haunted him for years, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”

Red curtain on a stage
Inside the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa where Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens last performed.

And from what I understand, Dion, who was also a headliner on the tour, didn’t want to pay $36 for a seat on the plane. Valens got a seat after he won a coin toss with Buddy Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsup.

So those who didn’t get a seat on the plane, along with the rest of the musicians on The Winter Dance Party tour, traveled on the unheated bus to their next destination, Morehead, Minn.

And why did Buddy Holly charter a private plane? According to some reports it was because he wanted time to do some laundry before his next gig.

Is the Surf Ballroom where Buddy Holly last performed still open?

The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa still features live music and bands. In fact, they host a memorial concert every year commemorating the day the music died – Feb. 3. You can purchase tickets typically in January or February of each year.

How did Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens end up performing in rural Iowa?

Although located in rural Iowa, the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was a pretty happening place. When you visit the Buddy Holly Museum, you’ll learn about and see all kinds of stars who played and performed at the Surf Ballroom – back in the day and even today.

However, the Surf Ballroom wasn’t originally on The Winter Dance Party tour schedule that featured Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Dion. The Surf Ballroom was a last-minute addition because the venue was available.

Map of Iowa Wisconsin Minnesota
Look at that crazy schedule for The Winter Dance Party featuring Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Dion.

Where exactly did the plane crash that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were on?

Pictures of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and Big Bopper

The plane that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper crashed six miles from the Clear Lake, Iowa airport in poor winter conditions. The cause of the crash was attributed to the snow and the pilot’s inexperience. However, evidence surfaced decades later that other factors including weight and balance calculations were off and rudder issues among others may have contributed to the fatal flight.


Buddy Holly Museum hours of operation and admission

The Buddy Holly Museum at the Surf Ballroom is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round; summer hours are Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. (Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends). Check The Buddy Holly Museum website for any impacted hours due to the pandemic.

Admission to the Buddy Holly Museum is a suggested $5 donation for a self-guided tour. Consider leaving more to help preserve this iconic time in rock and roll history.

The Buddy Holly Museum and the Buddy Holly memorial crash site are very tasteful. My husband and I both appreciated that these two places are not exploiting a tragic event, but rather genuinely celebrating the lives of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens decades later.

Buddy Holly Museum photo tour

Until you get an opportunity to visit, here’s a photo gallery to pay tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. As you’ll see in the photos, the Buddy Holly Museum also features musical artists and memorabilia from over the years.

Winter Dance Party memorial

Buddy Holly display of pictures and guitar in Buddy Holly Museum in the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa
Buddy Holly tribute at Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa
Old-fashioned phone on the wall with rotary dial
Pay phone used by Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens at The Surf Ballroom and Buddy Holly Museum
Big Bopper memorial
Big Bopper tribute at Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa


Ritchie Valens collage
Ritchie Valens tribute at the Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa
Surf Museum Buddy Holly Museum
Buddy Holly Museum in The Surf Ballroom
Gift Shop
Buddy Holly Museum gift shop in the Surf Ballroom


Pin it for later: Buddy Holly Crash Site Memorial and Museum


Buddy Holly crash site memorial in Iowa cornfield with trademarked glasses monument
The Buddy Holly Crash Site and Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa are two of the top off-the-beaten-path places to visit in Iowa.
Buddy Holly Memorial in a cornfield

Author

Twin Cities-based blogger sharing memorable emptynester, solo, family and girlfriend-getaway adventures, as well as my day hiking adventures (including all 66 Minnesota state parks), latest book reviews, and updates on my quest for the best adult mac and cheese. Also two WIPs: historical fiction and psychological thriller

70 comments

  1. Hi Karen!
    Bud & Lucille loved to dance & the Surf was their favorite place. They were there the night Buddy’s plane went down. What a great loss. Bud danced every dance with someone, but he always told them not any slow dances. “The slow dances are for my wife only.” Uncle Bud & Aunt Lucille were quite the dancers. Lucille is 92 now & still lives in her own home…take care

    1. Wait! What? I did not know that Uncle Bud and Aunt Lucille were there that night. I knew they danced at the Surf Ballroom a lot. I really need to start listening about our family history more. It’s like the time Grandma casually mentioned we had relatives on the Titanic.

  2. Anything Buddy Holly is worth the stop. I will have to add this to my list of things to do in Iowa. We hope to get there soon.

  3. I remember learning about this when I was in school and watching a movie about their lives leading up to the crash. What an awesome post with lots of facts to jog my memory from a story so long ago.

  4. What a cool place, even if it’s sad. I watched the movie La Bamba about a thousand times when I was younger, so I’d be really interested to see the site and museum. The museum looks very cool–my kind of place. Love your pictures!

  5. What an interesting story. I don’t think I recall ever knowing any of that, but if I knew all of that existed I would go visit the sites if I was going to be in the area or passing through since I’ve heard of them.

  6. I love to find places like this! The history you provided is fascinating, I didn’t know a lot of those details!

  7. An absolutely fascinating post – SOOO much information! It’s good to see that people are still paying tribute all these years later! And such a bonus to hear even more details from your Uncle Bud and Aunt Lucille! GREAT story!

  8. Wow, what a beautiful memorial! I was born in the ‘90’s, but I remember hearing that song on the radio when I would ride in the car with my Dad and loved it! I have to imagine it was a huge loss for a lot of people!

  9. Very cool trip. I love music museums, they always fascinate me with all the memorabilia they have. I also love that people have left glasses on the memorial.

  10. I had no idea there was a museum for Buddy Holly. I loved watching that movie when I was younger. A tragic loss for the music community!

  11. What an interesting visit to both places! I love the historical info you included too. Such a shame the musicians died so young.

  12. Such a tragic moment to have lost several talents in 1 night! I loved the movie La Bamba about Richie Valens and saw he died in that crash with Buddy Holly. Didn’t know the crash sight was so close to the Twin Cities. If we’re on that side of town, we’ll have to visit the site and museum

  13. I had no idea there was so much behind that song and I haven’t heard of this crash site! Very interesting.

  14. Now I will be singing that song for the rest of the day! 😉 That is great that there is a memorial for him, as I never knew that.

    1. My pleasure… highly recommend stopping at the Buddy Holly crash site and museum in Clear Lake, Iowa to learn more about him, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.

  15. That is so flipping sad. I had no idea he was so young when he died either. Imagine how much more music he could have made/how much more fun he would have had if that flight had made it. 🙁

    It must have been strange to visit somewhere so sad, on such an incredibly beautiful day!

    1. It is so sad! I knew Ritchie Valens was only a teenager, but didn’t realize Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper were so young. Visiting the Buddy Holly crash site and museum in Clear Lake, Iowa was such a meaningful visit.

  16. Great article! So interesting to learn more about this tragedy and those young musicians. I think a few of my mom’s friends were planning to go to the performance up north Moorhead/Fargo. I truly enjoyed reading this one!

    1. Thank you! And wow that your mom’s friends were planning to attend Buddy Holly’s next performance. So tragic to lose him, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in this plane crash – so much talent!

  17. What a fascinating story and a fitting tribute to these music legends. I didn’t know much about Buddy Holly before reading your post and I didn’t know about the plane crash. Memorials are the death site are such odd places, but it is heart-warming to see that people still visit to pay their respects today. I’d love to visit the Buddy Holly Museum to learn more. Thanks for the great guide!

    1. Thank you and my pleasure. I’m a huge fan of Buddy Holly – such a tragic story. I learned so much more by visiting the Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa.

  18. Buddy Holly’s music has long been on my playlists. I would love to go to the memorial and see some of his old stomping grounds. I remember when Don McLean’s song came out but didn’t know until years later that it referred to the plane crash.

    1. I didn’t realize American Pie was about Buddy Holly until years later. I highly recommend visiting the crash site and museum. Great way to honor the victims.

  19. Loving the Iowa tips! We don’t look too far from there and have been wanting to head into more Midwest territory for a while. American Pie was one of everyones favorite movies growing up!

    1. Thank you. If you live in or near Iowa or on a road trip, I highly recommend stopping by the Buddy Holly Crash Site and Buddy Holly Museum in Clear Lake.

    1. I hope you get the opportunity. The Buddy Holly Crash Site and Buddy Holly Museum is a great tribute to some of the best musical legends.

  20. I made read this to my boyfriend too, he is passionate about rock and roll and made me discover some songs by Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens! thanks for putting this together

    1. Thank you and my pleasure. The Buddy Holly Crash Site and Museum in Clear Lake, Iowa are such a wonderful tribute to the legacy of the rock legends – Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.

  21. I sang and listened to that song all the time as a kid. I never knew what it was about (and as a kid never gave it much thought.) I didn’t know it was a tribute to Buddy Holly. That makes so much more sense now.

    1. Same! My friend and my sister sang it all the time – and I didn’t realize until years later that American Pie was about Buddy Holly. And recently learned in an interview with Don McLean that the lyrics also referred to his father.

  22. I am from IOWA too- and have yet to visit this place– hard to believe they were all so young and yet their MUSIC lives on — moving moving piece !

    1. Thank you. I was very surprised at how young these rock legends were. I grew up in Iowa and it took me a few decades to discover the Buddy Holly Crash Site and Museum. I highly recommend.

  23. As generations come and go, it is so important to keep history alive. I was born in 2000, so I had no idea about this crash or the museums! Thanks for sharing

    1. Thank you. I agree. I believe history is a responsibility. And love that the legacy lives on for Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.

  24. The Buddy Holly Crash site and Museum look super interesting. I will definitely add it to my list of places to go in Iowa when there. Thank you for sharing all the details!

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