Clear Lakes and Surprises

This summer my husband and I visited two Clear Lakes – one in Iowa, and one in Oregon. Despite their same names, the lakes are quite different. But each lake delighted us with surprising features and surroundings.

We stopped by the Clear Lake in Iowa on our way back to Kansas City from Minnesota in early July. We happened to arrive at the town of Clear Lake, IA, about dinner time, so we decided to spend the night.

After checking into a hotel, we drove downtown to look for a place for dinner that would be more interesting than the chain restaurants along the freeway. Once downtown, we encountered a small-town carnival on the lake shore, complete with midway, cotton candy, and souvenirs. After dinner, we walked through the carnival, enchanted by this Americana, but more enchanted by the lake.

IMAG0862 Clear Lake IA

Marina at Clear Lake IA

Most man-made lakes in the Midwest are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Corps does not permit development on its lakes. But Clear Lake in Iowa is surrounded by houses, hotels, and marinas – a vacation oasis in northern Iowa. However, I didn’t think the lake lived up to its name. The water was not clear the evening we were there, but was choppy from wind and boats. It was covered with algae in some spots.

Clear Lake, IA

Clear Lake IA

The next morning, we got back on I-35, and headed south toward home. When I got home, I researched the lake’s history.

Clear Lake in Iowa was formed by a natural spring. The lake was a summer home for native tribes before the white man reached the middle of the continent. It was first surveyed and charted in 1832 by Nathan Boone (son of the famous Daniel), but was not settled by whites until the early 1850s. Today, Clear Lake is best known as the location of the Surf Ballroom, where Buddy Holly performed just before he was killed in an airplane crash.

In August, on our Oregon vacation, we hiked around another Clear Lake. There are actually several “Clear Lakes” in Oregon. The one we visited is in Linn County and is the source of the Mckenzie River, which runs from the Cascade Mountains into the Willamette River. This Clear Lake was created by volcanic flow 3,000 years ago and is now fed by snow from Mt. Washington. The lake itself is 3,012 feet above sea level, in the middle of mountains that soar over 10,000 feet high.

Clear Lake OR

Clear Lake OR

The differences between the two Clear Lakes were immediately obvious. First, there was no paved road around the Oregon lake, though the hiking path was well-maintained. Second, the Oregon lake was small enough to hike around, unlike the Iowa lake, which required an hour’s drive to circumnavigate (with a few stops). Third, the Oregon Lake in fact was clear – we could see to the bottom of the lake at most points along the shore.

Clear Lake OR

Bottom of Clear Lake OR

And the Oregon Clear Lake was undeveloped, if not quite pristine. We passed a state park and one small “resort,” though its cabins looked quite rustic. Boating is permitted on the lake, but the small boats we saw left no wakes or waves, unlike those in Iowa.

Clear Lake OR

Lava rocks at Clear Lake OR

Along the 5.5 mile trail we hiked, we were surprised by a diversity of biospheres and microclimates – from evergreen forest, to river marsh, to lava rocks.

When we finished our hike, we drove back to Sunriver, OR, through the 5,335 foot Mckenzie Pass on Oregon State Highway 242. The highway surprised us again with several miles of hair-raising switchbacks. I was glad I was not driving. But the views of the Cascade peaks and the lava flows were spectacular, and a fitting end to our hike.

Prairie oasis and mountain jewel – two Clear Lakes. On the whole, I thought the Oregon lake was more striking, but both were pleasurable summer experiences.

When have you been surprised by something you encountered on a journey?

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  1. I, too, have driven through Mckenzie Pass. It’s one that I don’t plan on driving again, if I can help it. Most of Oregon’s other Cascade passes are very enjoyable and scenic. Have you ever driven through the pass from Roseburg to Crater Lake? It follows the Umpqua River and is absolutely spectacular, especially during the late spring and early summer. There’s many waterfalls to see here.

    • Peggy,
      I don’t know if I’ve driven to Crater Lake from Roseburg or only from the other direction. If I took the Umpqua River route, it was as a child. But we were usually traveling on Highway 97 to Klamath Falls where my grandparents lived. I’ll keep it in mind for future trips — sounds lovely!
      Thanks for reading,

  2. Sounds like you had a magical trip. I could smell the cotton candy!

    I miss many things about the Midwest, friends of course are first, but camping at various lakes from April – October is a high second.

    My favorite one? Lake Perry.


    Linda Joyce

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  4. Being from Iowa, and spending much time in the summer on Clear Lake, the lake is much more enchanting from the water. If you ever get the chance to go back, take a canoe or small sailboat. It is very relaxing, despite the fact that it is not clear. Also, if you check with the local camps (Girl Scout Camp Tanglefoot or the Baptist Camp), they can give you much more detailed history on the lake and surrounding area. It is amazing to hear the history!

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