There’s something about seeing a giant kite pig with wings in the sky, the wind hitting its dangling legs just right to make it appear to be running. It’ll make the sourest winter curmudgeon smile. Add to that scene about 200 brightly colored kites, thousands of giggling kids crawling on the ice and their parents gingerly waddling after them in a slip-walk motion on a frozen Iowa lake, and you’ve got the making of Color The Wind, the grandest winter kite festival in the Midwest. It’s winter magic.
Disclosure: My visit to Clear Lake was hosted by the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
I’m more familiar with Clear Lake, Iowa, as a summer destination, so this was a change for me. The spectacularly huge kites in all shapes and sizes were a bright contrast to the winter landscape.
Where is the Color The Wind Festival?
On the third Saturday in February each year, hundreds of professional kite flyers and thousands of spectators flock to the northern Iowa town of Clear Lake for Color The Wind. Clear Lake is located right off Interstate 35, though the scenic lake and downtown area are a couple miles away.
Tip: The next Color The Wind Festival will be Feb. 17, 2024.
One of the closest cities to Clear Lake is Mason City, Iowa, the hometown of Meredith Willson and a sweet spot to gawk at some Prairie School architecture. It’s 115 miles north of Des Moines if you drive Interstate 35; and from Omaha, it’s about a five-hour drive.
Tips for enjoying the festival
I’m a newbie to the festival, but some smart friends of mine shared some wisdom with me in advance, and I learned by my own mistakes a few things as well. Here are some tips to help with your experience at the festival:
- The festival is held on the frozen lake (also named Clear Lake). If you own YakTrax or other spikey type things to attach to your boots, wear them. It’s slippery AF. I saw someone pushing a lawn chair as if it were a walker, and that worked too.
- Dress for winter. Layers are great. Water-proof boots are smart.
- Dress the kids in snowsuits or snow pants. My youngest spend a lot of time just sliding around on the ice like some sort of baby seal. Plus, it’s kinda fun to lay on the ground and look up at the kites, especially the low-flying kites.
- Wear sunglasses. Otherwise, you’ll be squinting all day long.
- You should probably wear sunscreen too. You’ll probably forget it like I did, though.
- Pick a meet-up spot if you lose anyone in your group. Some identifiable landmarks include the amphitheater at City Park and the DJ’s tent.
- Get yourself a hot drink before heading out on to the ice. I envied those carrying their to-go coffee cups and thermoses. It’s not so easy to waddle off the ice and find a beverage near the lake.
- There are a lot of food options in downtown Clear Lake, as well as food trucks at the festival. However, everyone has the same idea as you and will seek food at about the same time. Expect a long wait (the best wait time we found was 40 minutes). Start looking for food before you get hungry.
- You could tell the experienced parents from the newbies: They pulled their kids in wagons or a sled instead of having them try to stay upright on ice.
Advice for getting to the festival
The attendance at this year’s Color The Wind was estimated around 20,000 people. That’s a lot of people trying to navigate to a little spot on a frozen lake in a small town. My best tip is to stay at a hotel with a shuttle. Alas, if your hotel doesn’t have a shuttle, there are other options.
A few weeks ahead of the festival, the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce releases a few maps, notably the shuttle maps. There were two free shuttles in 2022, and a lot of people opted to park at Clear Lake High School’s large parking lot, and take a shuttle to downtown.
Many, many people were driving around downtown looking for parking spots that Saturday of the festival. It had to be frustrating, and not just because a few of the roads were closed for the event. There were a lot of pedestrians and not everyone was paying attention to which streets were open to traffic and which weren’t. It just seemed to me that it would be best to avoid driving anywhere near the heart of the festival that day.
Where to stay in Clear Lake, Iowa (in the winter)
We were hosted by the Best Western Holiday Lodge, which had a convenient location near the interstate and about a quick drive to downtown Clear Lake. You can arrange with the hotel a shuttle ride to the festival, and I’d recommend it because finding a parking spot that day was next to impossible.
If you’re one of those hearty “walk everywhere in the winter” kind of people, there are accommodations closer to downtown Clear Lake and you can just trek to the festival by foot. Several rental homes face the lake, and are within walking distance to the festival grounds. It would definitely beat sitting in car traffic trying to get a close parking spot.
The other places I’ve stayed at in Clear Lake aren’t really options in the winter: I stayed at a yurt, which was pretty cool but definitely not a cold-weather option. The other place I stayed at has a new owner who completely renovated the place. Lakeside Inn looks a lot nicer than when we were there, so I’d tentatively recommend it. I loved its location right on the lake and being able to walk outside in the morning and take in the view.
Where to eat in Clear Lake (in the winter)
I confess: There are plenty of places to eat in downtown Clear Lake; however, trying to find a place without a long wait in the middle of the winter in the middle of a super popular festival is frustrating. I should’ve packed a snack to avoid hanger issues.
If it’s a quick snack you want, Cookies Etc. is a great option. It’s right on Main Street, and the employees worked hard to move the line efficiently. There’s a cookie ATM in front of the store but don’t be tempted by it. The warm, fresh cookies inside are worth the wait. I got the crunchy chocolate chip cookie, which was the special of the month. Delish.
That glorious smell that hits you right by the city park? That’s the Gyro Place on the corner of Main Street and North Third Street. A lot of people were lured into there for lunch, and for good reason – the lamb gyro meat is pretty good. Many people opted to get their food to-go from there and ate it in the park.
There were about five food trucks parked on Main Street offering mini donuts, tacos, boozy slushies, and some barbecue. The one perk of waiting in one of the food truck lines is that there was music playing nearby. Hard to be hangry when there’s reggae in the air.
Things to do at the festival and nearby
Besides gawking at massive kites, there are other things to do at the Color The Wind Festival. A lot of people brought their own kites to fly. Some kids brought sleds and had their older siblings or parents pull them around. One person had a tractor with a few sleds attached to it, and was offering sled rides to kids.
City Park is located next to the lake, and even with the ice and muddy conditions, the playground there attracted a lot of kids. I think it beat trying to keep your kids from slipping on the frozen lake, at least.
The Art Center was open during the festival, and had a few exhibits on view. It’s free to visit, and a good place to warm up.
There are several cute shops on Main Street, and if you have any intentions of shopping do it on that Saturday during the festival and don’t be like me and try to shop the Sunday after. Many shops have reduced hours this time of year. A few shops that were on my list:
- Brin + Lew for cute Clear Lake apparel
- Nash & Ivy for jewelry
- White Barn Picket Fence or The Red Geranium for home decor
Up for a drink? Clear Lake has a brewery (Lake Time Brewery) and a distillery (173 Distillery). The distillery is within walking distance of the festival, and I peeked in there to see if we could snag a table but the place was packed with no front-of-house in sight to maintain order. I’ve been to the brewery on a random August day and loved the atmosphere and beer, but I imagine it was kinda hectic during the festival, as well. Given the traffic and parking situation, I’d say it’s walkable from the festival as well, though not nearly as close as the distillery.