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.
Where did the plane carrying Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens crash?
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
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.
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?
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?
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.
It was such a peaceful and beautiful day to pay tribute at the Buddy Holly crash site when we visited in August 2019.
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
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.
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.”
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.
Where exactly did the plane crash that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper were on?
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.