Frugal Fall Fun: 50 Free and Cheap Festivals That Celebrate Autumn
The end of summer means a new world of agricultural delights and gorgeous autumnal scenery, plus a whole lot of events honoring the new season. There's a rich variety of fall festivals held across the nation, whether they be German Oktoberfests, haunted Halloween extravaganzas, or family-friendly harvest celebrations. Here are 50 of the most noteworthy autumn celebrations happening in every state across the nation, where residents and visitors can soak up a lot of local culture for only a little bit of cash.
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More than 50,000 attendees flood the southwestern portion of Cape Cod for the annual Cape Cod Scallop Fest, which features three days of New England's fried seafood specialties, arts shows, car shows, children's rides, and cornhole, held Sept. 23-25. Admission costs $7 for adults, $2 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for anyone younger and includes access to two stages of live music.
The 45th annual National Shrimp Festival in Gulf Shores is due to attract 250,000 people eager to consumer the festival's delicious namesake shellfish. Free admission lets guests participate in 5K and 10K runs or a sandcastle contest, browse arts and crafts exhibitors, and purchase irresistible Gulf Coast specialties like crawfish-stuffed beignets known as Cajun pistols.
More than 100 musical artists appear on seven stages Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 for the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Fifty food purveyors will be on hand while guests enjoy a diverse slate of both new discoveries and big names like Cyndi Lauper, Steve Earle, and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
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Windward Community College on Oahu hosts the free Windward Hoolaulea festival for the 16th year in a row Oct. 1. The festivities include an oversize garage sale, silent auction, live music from top island artists, children's rides, a gallery exhibit, and specialty cuisine, with all the proceeds funding programs at the college.
The Harvest Moon Fall Festival in Hemingford runs just one day, Oct. 15, but offers enough activities to keep families busy for at least a week. The free event includes homemade beer, chili and wine contests, obstacle courses, lively games like "redneck horseshoes" (played with toilet seats), and dozens of food and craft booths from local vendors.
More than 200 artisans from throughout Pennsylvania will be at Ebensburg's free Potato Fest on Sept. 24 to sell seasonal offerings and celebrate the potato growers of Cambria County. Their crop is peeled, fried, and prepared in every way imaginable at the festival's many food stands. Families and children can enjoy live music or games while adults can pay $10 for access to tastings from local wine vendors.
SalsaFest celebrates all things spicy, drawing crowds from around the southwest to the historic town square of Safford for a free two-day event Sept. 23-24. In addition to a car show, fundraising walk, and beer garden, the festival also includes a salsa challenge, where visitors can bring prepare their own homemade salsa onsite or simply grab some chips and sample the creations to vote for their favorites.
The affiliated villages of Van Buren County in southeastern Iowa show off their seasonal colors during the Scenic Drive Festival Oct. 8-9. Primarily free events like flea markets, art fairs, and pioneer craft demonstrations are held in several nearby communities, but the area's spectacular fall foliage is the true star of this regional celebration.
Often lauded as one of the nation's best harvest festivals, the Bayfield Apple Festival returns to the shores of Lake Superior Oct. 7-9. Admission is free, but prepare to be tempted by a farmers market full of local producers and food booths specializing in delicious apple preparations leading up to Sunday's grand parade.
Be careful where you tread at the Nashville Chalk Fest Sept. 24-25, as the pavement will be covered with impressively intricate chalk art created by professionals and hobbyists of all ages. The free event will also feature diverse bands from across the Southeast, catering from local food trucks, and plenty of kid-friendly activities.
Bring a few non-perishable foods to donate in lieu of cash for admission to the Quad Cities Balloon Festival, held along the Iowa border this year Sept. 23-24. The colorful hot air balloons launch each evening at 5 and offer tethered rides for $15 a person. After touchdown each night, crowds are invited to speak with pilots and crew.
Atlanta's Olmsted Linear Park hosts more than 125 displays showcasing all manner of artworks, both traditional and "outsider," for the Festival on Ponce, held Oct. 15-16. Free admission includes access to the park's beloved grounds, local food stands, a children's play area, and, of course, many arts and crafts booths.
The free Alaska Day Festival in Sitka runs Oct. 10-18 on the very spot where the state was transferred to the United States from Russia 149 years ago. This year's theme celebrates nursing with a series of panel discussions, kayak races, and historical re-enactments, as well as a parade led by the pipe-and-drum regiment of the Seattle Fire Department.
One of Louisville's most vibrant neighborhoods enjoys an old-fashioned block party at the NuLu Fest on Sept. 24. The free event in the East Market District goes from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and celebrates everything unique about the neighborhood with regional microbrews, local food favorites, and live music from nearby Sonablast records.
Antique tractors, classic cars, and fire trucks parade the streets to kick off Weston's 28th annual Applefest Celebration, held Oct. 1-2. For a $1 donation per adult, visitors can enjoy booths serving apple dumplings and pies as well as family-friendly activities like pony rides, a straw bale maze, pumpkin painting, and a demonstration of apple butter being prepared over an open wood fire.
Fresh-harvested apples and the pork pudding known as "scrapple" make for a distinctly mid-Atlantic event at the free Bridgeville Apple Scrapple Festival, held Oct. 14-15. The open-air event uses festivities like a trade show, children's games, seafood stands, scrapple carving, a car show, and even an all-you-can eat scrapple breakfast to highlight the rich agricultural heritage of Delaware's Sussex County.
The cider mill in Louisburg invites visitors to enjoy the autumn harvest for the Louisburg Ciderfest. Held the weekends of Sept. 24-25 and Oct. 1-2, visitors can watch fresh apple cider being pressed, try other seasonal specialties like cider doughnuts, and listen to live bluegrass. Admission is free, but it costs $9 for anyone older than 3 to explore the adjacent pumpkin patch and corn maze.
Although they no longer drop turkeys into the town square, Yellville residents have found other ways to celebrate Arkansas' large population of wild turkeys at the free Yellville Turkey Trot, held Oct. 7-8 this year. Homemade, often turkey-themed crafts are available all weekend, and the packed event schedule includes lip-sync contests, a large parade, and two beauty pageants, including Mr. and Miss Drumsticks competitions, in which contestants are judged solely on the basis of their legs, or "drumsticks."
The Estes Park Elk Fest takes place Oct. 1-2 near the entry-point of Colorado's gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park, where the distinct call of local bull elks are a regular feature of autumn. The free event lets guests observe and learn about these proud animals, taste distinctive elk cuisine, browse booths of handmade elk ivory artwork, and listen to Native American music demonstrations.
The Destin Harbor Boardwalk is an ideal place to enjoy all the seafood the Gulf Coast has to offer at the town's 38th annual Destin Seafood Festival. The free event runs Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 and features three stages of live music, plus both booths and bricks-and-mortar restaurants offering many cheap deals on fresh-caught local specialties.
The Trailing of the Sheep Festival in Ketchum is held Oct. 6-9 and includes an array of sheep-themed events, many of them free for guests to attend. Complimentary highlights include readings from prominent Western writers, rancher Q&As, a sampling of bite-size lamb delicacies from top local restaurants, and a six-hour Folklife Fair of craft demonstrations.
The Cruisin' the Coast celebration in the Biloxi area runs Oct. 2-9 this year and brings together more than 7,000 registered vintage and late-model vehicles for a week of hot rods, Gulf Coast cuisine, swap meets, auctions, and live music. The coastal scenery makes a wonderful backdrop for an auto enthusiast's dream festival, which is free for both registered participants and the public.
More than 100,000 visitors come to enjoy New England's bounty of seasonal fruit at Southington's Annual Apple Harvest Festival, held on the weekends of Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 and Oct. 7-9. The free festival makes a wonderful excursion for families, who can enjoy carnival rides, baked goods, live music, and art and crafts contests before settling in to watch the evening fireworks display.
The family-friendly Boats and Bluegrass festival runs Sept. 22-25 in Prairie Island Park in Winona, along the banks of the Mississippi River. A world removed from the hassles of large music fests, guests with weekend passes can camp just 50 feet from the festival grounds, where bluegrass bands will be jamming for at least eight hours each day. Children under 16 get in free with an adult and can enjoy backwater canoe trips before the concerts.
High school students and aspiring artists turn a seasonal gourd into an art form at Woodstown's Giant Pumpkin Carve, a fundraising event hosted by Meals on Wheels on Sept. 24. Adults pay $7 for a full day of fall-centric attractions like straw mazes, hayrides, and miscellaneous crafts before enjoying a vibrant pumpkin light show.
The small town of Madison welcomes 6,800 visitors to its historic main street for an annual Soup Stew Chili & Brew celebration Oct. 8. Three intimate stages host acoustic sets all day while the food stands fulfill the promise of the festival's name and then some. Non-food purveyors offer games, most of them free, just like the festival itself.
Everything you really need to know about the Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival is right there in the title, except maybe that the festival is free. Live blues music and delectable Southern barbecue take over New Orleans' Lafayette Square for the weekend of Oct. 14-16. An enormous art market complements the dozens of barbecue vendors specializing in several regional styles.
The summer farmers market season ends with a bang at Billings' 13th annual HarvestFest on Oct. 8. Fiddlers and dancers entertain families beside rows of food trucks and produce stands offering steak sandwiches or rainbow-colored squash. Events include a pumpkin-pie-baking contest, a gift raffle, and a cattle drive along the city's parade route.
USA Today's runner-up for the nation's best fall festival, the Harvest Festival at Santa Fe's living history museum El Rancho de las Golondrinas celebrates the vibrant traditions and cuisine of the southwestern hamlet with a grape stomp, dance performances, traditional arts and crafts, and homemade tortillas. The event takes place Oct. 1-2, and admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and teens, and free for children under 12.
A cornucopia of fruits and vegetables are grown in the fertile soil of the Columbia River Gorge, and much of the bounty is on display at the Hood River Valley Harvest Fest Oct. 14-16. Tickets are $6 for adults and provide a day's worth of games, produce, pumpkin carving, and samples from local brewers and winemakers.
The variety of North Dakota's apple harvest will be on display Sept. 24-25 at Bismarck's Applefest. Look for returning events, such as a pie-eating contest, paintball, and hayrides as well as recent additions for older attendees like rock climbing walls and inflatable sumo-suit wrestling. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for kids 4 to 18; a family pass for four is $15.
More than 60 Texas artists who favor clay as a medium for expression will display, discuss, and sell their wares at the Texas Clay Festival Oct. 22-23 in New Braunfels, in the heart of the state's hilly wine country. With free admission, guests can browse the ceramic creations or learn about the work that goes into them at demonstrations held throughout the weekend at four separate tents.
The free 27th annual Cornish Apple Festival takes place Sept. 24 with the scenic backdrop of Maine's western mountains. Rain or shine, the celebration includes traditional games, live entertainment, and distinct booths from local artisans selling crafts and seasonal treats like fritters prepared from the area's abundant apples.
Start celebrating Christmas a week before Thanksgiving at Claremore's free Dickens on the Boulevard fest Nov. 18-19. The Victorian-themed event offers familiar Christmas attractions like pictures with Santa or a living nativity in the town's festive downtown, with devoted re-enactors performing traditional dances and demonstrations that teach visitors what life in Victorian England was really like.
During the Beaufort Shrimp Festival, held Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 this year, more than a dozen local restaurants feature their finest shrimp dishes to vie for the Silver Cup. Guests can participate by joining the shrimp-heading competition or running the 5K race. Admission is free, but $1 tickets are required for food and beverage purchases.
It takes 10 city blocks to contain the free Atlantic Antic street festival in Brooklyn, which takes place Sept. 25. Thousands gather to pay tribute to Brooklyn's rich cultural heritage, with live performances spanning multiple genres and discounted fare from local merchants. Families can enjoy a block devoted to children's activities like pony rides and bounce houses.
More than 100 of the best artists working in the American West participate in the Buffalo Bill Art Show & Sale, Cody's celebration of Western heritage and culture held Sept. 23-24. Before browsing the original paintings and sculptures for free admission, early birds can eat breakfast and see artists in action at the Saturday morning Quick Draw, when artists complete a work in just an hour's time.
Rather than an agricultural harvest, the town of Newport celebrates the "harvest of the sea" Oct. 15-16 at the Bowen's Wharf 26th Annual Seafood Festival. It's a wonderful and free way to enjoy the waterfront without the summer crowds while listening to diverse local music. Celebrated fresh seafood dishes like lobster rolls and fried calamari are available for purchase.
Rapid City hosts its own beer stock exchange, or Bierbörse, for the sixth year on Oct. 1. All are welcome to enjoy polka music and other events for free, but guests 21 and older must purchase tasting tickets to sample microbrews and homebrews alike. An unlimited tasting ticket costs $30 for pre-purchase and $35 for the day of.
Stowe celebrates the season in style at its 8th annual Vermont Pumpkin Chuckin' Festival this Sept. 25. The $5 admission lets guests enjoy the gorgeous scenery and delicious produce that characterize a New England autumn and marvel at the catapults built by local DIY enthusiasts for the festival's titular event.
The Vegas Valley Book Festival, the largest literary event in Nevada, will be held Oct. 15. Thousands of guests attend the free festival to celebrate the joys of reading and writing, by browsing shelves of discounted used books or attending one of many readings and workshops hosted by visiting authors eager to share their love of the written word with the crowds.
The Fell's Point Fun Festival in Baltimore celebrates its 50th year with yet another free celebration on the weekend of Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. Browse seafood and craft vendors while listening to more than 10 bands (as yet unannounced,) play on two stages with the city's scenic harbor as their backdrop.
Held by the Nisqually Tribe, the Eatonville Salmon Fest on Oct. 15 lets visitors view, learn about, and eat the salmon spawning along the Nisqually River feeding into nearby Puget Sound. Admission to the family-friendly celebration is free and includes access to display booths, live music, and hands-on activities, such as DIY salmon print T-shirts.
The Mount Sunapee Fall Festival and Pig Roast brings the summer to a close and celebrates the new season the weekend of Oct. 8-9. Carve pumpkins, take a hay wagon ride, or play disc golf while trying to resist the intoxicating smells of pulled pork and cornbread served outdoors. Admission is free. A skyride tram ($8) provides unparalleled views of New Hampshire's fall foliage.
Enjoy live music near some of the Southwest's most scenic vistas at the Zion Canyon Music Festival in Springdale, just outside the entrance to Zion National Park. Guests can enjoy the music or be a part of it at the ongoing drum circle, or browse vibrant artworks from local artisans at the adjacent booths. Admission is $5 for adults and free for anyone under 21.
The West Point Crab Carnival takes place Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 this year just beside the York River, whose waters provide the fresh seafood that goes into each vendor's tasty offerings. The free event offers more than just crab cakes however, including a children's bike race, band performances, crab races, a parade, and fireworks.
Four different stages featuring music and dances enliven one of the Southeast's largest one-day art events, the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival in Wilkesboro, which attracts more than 160,000. On Oct. 1, visitors can enjoy a free event offering more than 425 arts booths, 100 concession stands, demonstrations highlighting Appalachian arts and crafts, and, of course, a huge variety of apples from local growers.
More than 50,000 people pay the $7 admission fee to enjoy the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival in the town of Milton, held this year Oct. 6-9. Guest can watch an enormous parade through town, view the vibrant colors of the Appalachian foliage and squash harvest, and participate in demonstrations held by local craftspeople and artisans.