Jack-o’-lanterns. Wool sweaters. Aspen groves trembling in gold. Fall might be America’s favorite season—a quick stretch from September 23 to December 21 when we celebrate the art of gathering. From pumpkins harvested from a field to friends clustered around an oyster feast, it seems our autumn gatherings are as diverse as the people who organize them. Here are seven fall festivals too good to miss.
Trailing of the Sheep
October 9–13 | Sun Valley, Idaho
This fall, more than 25,000 people from around the world will watch 1,500-plus ewes and their lambs parade down Ketchum’s mountain-framed Main Street. Even if nobody showed, third-generation ranchers would still herd their sheep through town to alfalfa-rich pastures on the Colorado River. That’s because Trailing of the Sheep is not just a spectacle but a reminder of a 150-year-old way of life. Today’s festival includes sheepdog trials, sheepherder hikes, Basque dance performances, and Zapotec botanical wool-dyeing classes. Saturday’s final block-party Sheep Jam segues perfectly into Sun Valley’s autumn jazz festival.
Natchez Balloon Festival
October 18–20 | Natchez, Mississippi
Spanish moss and massive magnolias fringe antebellum estates throughout Natchez, the oldest city on the Mississippi River. During the 34th Annual Natchez Balloon Festival, cooler weather is greeted by hundreds of hot air balloons lifting off from the riverfront bluffs of pre-Civil-War-era Rosalie Mansion.
Stroll through the evening Balloon Glow, catch some fireworks, or groove to live music from acts including the Allman Betts Band, Bishop Gunn, and New Orleans funkmaster John “Papa” Gros. If the weather is right, balloons will race across the river to a traditional champagne toast.
Dixville Notch, New Hampshire
Apple Butter Festival
October 12–13 | Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
Copper kettles balanced over open flame have been used in Appalachia for centuries. In Berkeley Springs’ cozy town square, the tradition is preserved at the annual Apple Butter festival: Competing cooks use long-handled wooden paddles to stir spices into silky apple butter poured warm into jars and sold on-site. The festival kicks off with a float parade followed by a beard show, apple pie bake-off, hog-calling contest, blacksmith demonstrations, live bluegrass, and a vintage antique market. After taking a turn stirring the pot, visit local thermal springs or stroll through Cacapon State Park’s 6,000 acres of prime fall foliage.
West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta
October 18–19 | Tualatin, Oregon
On October 19, contestants costumed as unicorns and superheroes will awkwardly lower themselves into enormous, hollowed-out pumpkins bobbing in Tualatin’s chilly Lake of the Commons for the 16th Annual West Coast Giant Pumpkin Regatta. Some pumpkins will be big enough to hold two people. At least one will capsize. And 20,000-plus raincoated onlookers will cheer as racers progress approximately two inches per every eighty paddle strokes.
After the regatta’s triumphant finale, stick around for pumpkin bowling, pumpkin golf, pumpkin pie eating contests, and a giant pumpkin weigh-in so mindblowing that last year’s 2,469-pound winner was also ranked the world’s second largest pumpkin.
Día de los Muertos
October 26–27 | San Antonio, Texas
Held this year in a former world’s fair site, San Antonio’s free, two-day Muertos Fest is Texas’s largest Day of the Dead festival, with close to 70,000 attendees. Muertos Fest celebrates all lost loved ones with poetry readings, live music, art vendors, children’s face-painting, and the largest open altar exhibition in the city. Rows of vibrant ofrendas layered in marigolds, monarchs, and cherished photos lead to the festival’s unforgettable Dance, Drum, & Puppet Procession, a skeleton-led parade held on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. (Here’s what to know about Day of the Dead.)
Nantucket Cranberry Festival
October 12 | Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
Every October, the island’s conservation foundation hosts the Nantucket Cranberry Festival, a free outdoor festival where visitors can bounce cranberries through vintage fruit-sorting machines, tour cranberry bogs on foot with local experts, and even wade in to help with a traditional wet harvest. Nantucketians have cultivated cranberries since 1857. And these days every cranberry at the festival is organic—from those freshly picked around Milestone Cranberry Bog to those tucked into vendor Sushi Sean’s savory Chinese black rice. Hourly public buses run directly from the ferry landing to the bog, but reserve ferry tickets to the island ahead of time.
Kona Coffee Cultural Festival
November 3–10 | Kona, Hawaii
Re-enactments during Kona’s 49th Annual Coffee Cultural Festival tell the 200-year-old story of the Big Island’s multicultural coffee history. The ten-day festival features a professional coffee cupping contest, Kona coffee recipe contest, lantern parade, and more. Visitors can sample from more than 30 of Kona’s 650 coffee farms, pick ripe coffee cherries on the UCC Hawaii estate, take a seed-to-cup tour, then groove to a nine-piece Hawaiian swing band under the stars during the Taste of Kona! finale.
- Nat Geo Expeditions