The calendar at this time of year is filled with harvest, beer, and fall foliage festivals, but certain places celebrate autumn in their own unique ways—by launching hot-air balloons in the desert, say, or parading sheep down main street. Although our collection of great fall festivals across the country begins and ends with pumpkins (and it does include an Oktoberfest and an apple fest), in between are a few celebration surprises.
#1: Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, Half Moon Bay, CA
What’s bright orange and weighs 1,524 pounds? A record-setting gourd at the pumpkin weigh-in at the Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival. Farmers from throughout the west vie for the heavyweight title at this mid-October event. Others seek glory in the no-hands-allowed pie-eating contest, where points are awarded for panache as well as quantity and speed. You can savor other hearty harvest-time fare in a leisurely fashion throughout the grounds. Pumpkin-flavored ale helps wash it all down. The good times continue with scarecrow contests, a haunted house, a youth talent show, and smashing good music.
#2: Trailing of the Sheep, Ketchum, ID
When you attend an event that often makes the list of the world’s top 10 festivals, you can be sure there will be plenty of things to do and see. Here are just a few attractions at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival: bag pipers, sheep shearers, wool spinners, Peruvian musicians, fashion shows, story tellers, fiddlers, Basque highland dancers, and scrumptious lamb dishes. Need more? How about watching dogs from around the country compete in a sheep-herding competition? Forget traditional parades. Check out the one where 1,500 sheep “march” down main street. The festival runs from early to mid-October.
#3: Alburquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque, NM
More than 650 pilots bring hot-air and gas balloons to the nine-day, early to mid-October International Balloon Fiesta in Balloon Fiesta Park.
In addition to numerous flights daily, popular activities include evening “glows” (balloons are kept tethered while their burners are fired, setting the dark horizon alight with vibrant colors).
During the Dawn Patrol, about a dozen balloons perform a choreographed twilight launch set to music. The exercise isn’t merely for entertainment—the patrol measures wind speed and direction at multiple altitudes so other ascents are safe and predictable. The festival also has live entertainment, fireworks, and arts and crafts.
#4: Norsk Høstfest, Minot, ND
Many of North Dakota’s settlers hailed from Scandinavia, and the heritage of all their respective countries is celebrated during Norsk Høstfest. Over four days in early October, you can see A-list performers of all types in the Great Hall of Vikings venue as well as shows by lesser-known musicians and Scandinavian performers on side stages.
Be on the lookout for the costumed folkloric characters who roam the grounds, and check out the tatting, wood-carving, or other crafts demonstrations. You can also sample Scandinavian cuisine and shop for Nordic knitwear, clogs, sauna products, silver jewelry, and more.
#5: Bayfield Apple Festival, Bayfield, WI
Given that more than 14 apple orchards surround picturesque Bayfield, which overlooks Lake Superior, the harvest here is truly cause for celebration.
The early October Bayfield Apple Festival features a pie social, pie-making contest, peeling competition, and a crowning of festival royalty. There are also concerts, carnival rides and games, street performers, and arts-and-crafts vendors.
Highly recommended is a cruise to the nearby Apostle Islands National Lakeshore; the fall foliage is doubly spectacular thanks to reflections off the water. The lake also sparkles on Saturday evening, thanks to a parade of light-decorated boats.
#6: International Route 66 Festival, Springfield, IL
Late each September, the state capital rumbles with the sound of classic and vintage cars, trucks, and motorcycles. During the three-day Route 66 Festival, more than 1,000 meticulously restored vehicles line the streets of historic downtown, and some 80,000 spectators pay homage to the American auto industry and the Mother Road.
There’s a festival of cars parade and a Manufacturers Midway. When you’re not admiring all that chrome, concerts, vendors of all types, and appearances by auto-industry celebs keep you busy.
#7: Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, West Lafayette, IN
The Feast of the Hunters’ Moon re-creates an 18th-century French and Native American fur-trading rendezvous. In early October, the reconstructed Fort Ouiatenon hosts period re-enactors, artisans, vendors, and spectators. They come for the traditional dance performances, crafts demonstrations, fife-and-drum parades, tomahawk-throwing contests, military drills, and canoe races. Kids can make candles, listen to Native American stories, and try on period costumes. Everyone can sample colonial and Native American dishes made using period recipes or shop for pewter mugs and other replica 18th-century wares.
#8: Oktoberfest, Frankenmuth, MI
Frankenmuth is considered the most German city in the United States. It has a cuckoo-clock store as well as a beer hall that can hold 5,000 patrons. It also hosts the only sanctioned Oktoberfest outside of Munich. Hofbrauhaus, a Munich-based brewer, is even the festival’s official sponsor. Indeed, Frankenmuth is one of only a few U.S. outlets for its bier. Grab a bratwurst and add some kraut, before settling in for a Gunzenhauser Blous’n (band) performance. Festivities take place during mid- to late September.
#9: Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, Lafayette, LA
When the British forced them from Canada’s Atlantic coast, the 18th-century French colonists known as Acadians settled in Louisiana. Over time, “Acadian” morphed into “Cajun,” and these settlers, along with the Creole population, became legendary for their food, music, and hospitality. All three are part of the mid-October Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, where bands have accordions, fiddles, and washboards as well as guitars and drums. Tempted to dance? Here’s a tip: Cajun and zydeco music is fast, so take the smallest steps you can, or you’ll soon be gasping for breath. Also be sure to pace yourself when sampling all that spicy food!
#10: Keene Pumpkin Festival, Keene, NH
While the pumpkin festival in Half Moon Bay, CA, celebrates size, the mid-October Keene Pumpkin Festival celebrates quantity.
Roughly 80,000 people crowd Keene to see some 29,000 carved pumpkins tower over downtown on a series of scaffolds. The gourds also line every available horizontal surface—from milk crates to road medians to shop windows.
Several times now, this event has held the Guinness Book of World Records for the most lit jack-o-lanterns in one place at one time. Other towns might have beaten this record in recent years, but that hasn’t diminished the spirit or the pumpkin majesty and magic of the Keene celebration. Festivities also include music, food, crafts, a Ferris wheel, pumpkin bowling, and fireworks.