MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Great fall festivals

Here are the best of the fests in 2014.

Bayfield Apple Fest royalty wave from a giant float.

© Beth Gauper

The local homecoming king and queen ride a giant apple in Bayfield's big Apple Fest parade.

Fall is made for festivals. It's harvest time, and the fields and orchards are overflowing. Trees turn red and gold. And it's the last time we'll enjoy warm weather until spring.

The many people who heed the urge to get out and about on crisp autumn weekends make it the busiest tourist season of the year.

Any town that can hold a fall festival does, and well-established ones, such as Bayfield's Apple Festival (see Big apples), become almost too popular.

"Apple Fest is an anomaly; it's not what Bayfield is like the other 364 days of the year," says Mary Motiff of Bayfield's Chamber of Commerce. "There are two kinds of people: those who love Apple Fest and those who want to avoid it at all costs. "

Other festivals also attract big crowds — Cranberry Fest in west-central Wisconsin, the Fall Art Tour in southwest Wisconsin — and people who haven't reserved lodgings may not be able to get them.

All Oktoberfest celebrations are popular; for a list, see Toasting Oktoberfest.


But small festivals also attract a lot of people, and leaf-peepers will be out en masse in the north woods and along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers (see Great fall drives). Many people combine scenic drives with artist tours (see Autumn in the studios). 

So if you want to travel in fall, plan ahead.

Here are some of the best festivals in 2014. Always check before you go to verify dates and to make sure you catch the best parts of a festival, especially the parades.

For small-town festivals, see Bash on a bike trail.

For art tours, see Autumn in the studios.

For events year-round, see the Events Calendar.

First weekend in September

Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, MN There's a riverfront fine-arts festival, rodeo and Saturday bike tour in this town, a hour south of the Twin Cities, but don't miss the re-enactments of the famous bank raid. Sept. 3–7.

Sandwich Fair in Sandwich, IL This northeast Illinois fair, held since 1888, features exhibits, entertainment and music plus harness racing, tractor pulls and demolition derbies. Sept. 3–7.

Pufferbilly Days in Boone, IA This festival in central Iowa, just west of Ames is named for a steam engine and features a spike-driving contest, parachute jumps, mud volleyball and rides on the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad. A parade is Saturday. Sept. 4–7.

Paramount Blues Festival in Grafton, WI This town on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail, between Cedarburg and Port Washington, holds a place on the Mississippi Blues Trail along with Chicago, Memphis and Clarksdale, Miss. From 1929 to 1932, a Paramount recording studio here produced a quarter of the nation's blues, jazz, and gospel music, or "race records.'' The festival is held in Lime Kiln Park. VIP passes are popular; buy early. Sept. 5–6.

La Crosse Storytelling Festival in La Crosse, WI Listen to local, regional and national storytellers spin tales in Myrick Park. Sept. 5–6.

Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee, WI This lakefront festival features a powwow, canoe rides, Aztec dancers, lacrosse lessons and fireworks. Sept. 5–7.

Festival of the Vine in Geneva, IL There's an arts and crafts show, flower market, music, wine tasting and sampling of food from local restaurants. Sept. 5–7.

Paw Paw Wine & Harvest Festival in Paw Paw, MI This big festival in southwest Michigan wine country features music on three stages, Friday fireworks, an art fair, motorcycle and bicycle tours, grape stomps and a Sunday parade. Sept. 5–7.

Washington County Bluegrass Festival in Lake Elmo, MN Monroe Crossing and other bands will play at this family festival at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, free with $5 vehicle permit. There also will be camping and food vendors. Sept. 6.

James J. Hill Days in Wayzata, MN The festival in this western suburb of Minneapolis is best known for its Saturday dachshund races, in which more than 100 dogs compete in the hurdles, sprints and sofa jump, followed by a costume contest and smart pet tricks. There's also an arts and crafts fair, water-ski show, kids' carnival and parade at 1 p.m. Sunday on Lake Street. Sept. 6–7.

Villa Louis Carriage Classic in Prairie du Chien, WI The Victorian estate on the Mississippi River hosts horses, restored carriages and drivers in period dress for competitive arena and cross-country sport driving, a passion of the frontier aristocrats who built it. Sept. 6–7.

Rock Bend Folk Festival in St. Peter, MN This free, easygoing festival in this Minnesota River town's Minnesota Square Park features local favorites The Divers. Sept. 6–7.

St. Paul Classic Bike Tour in St. Paul, MN Ride a 15-, 30- or 45-mile route along the Mississippi, lakes Como and Phalen and St. Paul parkways, starting and ending at the University of St. Thomas and punctuated by food and live music. Sept. 7.

Scandinavian Day in South Elgin, IL This festival in Vasa Park, along the Fox River, features music, dancing, food and crafts from the Nordic countries. Sept. 7.

A carriage race at Villa Louis.

© Wisconsin Historical Soci

Drivers in vintage clothes race carriages during the Carriage Classic at Villa Louis.

Second weekend in September

Pumpkin Festival in Morton, IL This town near Peoria, home of the Libby's pumpkin-packing plant, calls itself the Pumpkin Capital of the World and serves pumpkin ice cream, pancakes and fudge at its festival, which features a 10:30 a.m. Saturday parade. Sept. 10–13.

Unplugged: The Northern Harvest in Grand Marais, MN The harbor-side North House Folk School celebrates with storytelling, traditional workshops, a fish boil and concerts by songwriter/musicians. Sept. 11–14.

World Music Festival in Chicago, IL There will be more than 80 artists performing at more than 30 venues across the city, with some performances free and some ticketed. Sept. 11–21.

Wo-Zha-Wa Days in Wisconsin Dells, WI There's a juried arts and crafts show, street carnival and parade Sunday. Sept. 12–14.

Michigan Irish Music Festival in Muskegon, MI There's music on three stages, plus dance and session tents, a cultural village, Celtic Kitchen and limerick contest. Sept. 12–14.

Grape Stomp in Alexandria, MN Carlos Creek Winery hosts this festival, which features a Friday barn dance, "I Love Lucy'' look-alike contests, grape stomps, comedy, music and crafts vendors. Sept. 12–14.

Riot Fest in Chicago, IL The Cure, Jane's Addiction and Weezer are among the headliners in this Humboldt Park festival. Sept. 12–14.

Ethnic Fest in Walker, MN Such performers as alphornists, Irish dancers and Anishinaabe drum and dance corps perform in this town on the shores of Leech Lake. There's also a parade. Sept. 13.

Sun Prairie Blues Fest in Sun Prairie, WI There's a whole day of blues at Angell Park in this little town just northeast of Madison. Sept. 13.

Rock the Green in Milwaukee, WI This "near-zero waste'' music festival in Veterans Park on the lakefront features six bands. Sept. 13.

Parade of Nations and Multicultural Festival in Hancock/Houghton, MI The parade begins in Hancock and ends in Houghton at Dee Stadium, where there's a festival with music, dancing and food from around the world. Sept. 13.

Scarecrow Fest in Phelps, WI See early fall color around this town in Nicolet National Forest. There's pumpkin-chucking, pumpkin and scarecrow contests, a craft fair, car show, hay rides and free chili and deep-fried pickles. Sept. 13.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin, WI The famous author was born in the bluffs above this Mississippi River town, which celebrates with guided bus tours to the birth site, kids' pioneer games, traditional music and crafts and a Pepin Laura contest that tests knowledge of the "Little House'' books. Sept. 13–14.

Bacon Bash in River Falls, WI There will be pig races, a pig-calling contest, pig crafts, an amateur bacon cook-off and many bacon dishes, including ice cream. Sept. 13–14.

Minneapolis Bike Tour in Minneapolis, MN Ride a 14- or 36-mile route on parkways along the Mississippi and the Chain of Lakes. Start and finish is Parade Field, across from the Walker Art Center; there's a party afterward. Sept. 14.

Summit Hil House Tour in St. Paul, MN This self-guided tour of homes on one of the nation's best-preserved Victorian streets is held only once every two years. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 on the day of the tour if available. Sept. 14.

Third weekend of September

World Music Festival in Chicago, IL There will be more than 80 artists performing at more than 30 venues across the city, with some performances free and some ticketed. Sept. 11–21.

World Food Festival in Des Moines, IA In downtown's East Village, eat at 30 cultural cafes for $5 or less (or taste for $1), shop at the world marketplace or listen to musicians strolling the streets or on stage. Sept. 19–21.

Cheese Days in Monroe, WI It's the 100th anniversary of this festival, held every other year in the capital of cheese country, the home of Swiss Colony and the last Limburger factory. There are cow-milking and cheese sandwich-making contests, yodeling, tours and a big parade at 12:30 p.m. Sunday. Sept. 19–21.

Duluth Balloon Festival in Duluth, MN Also known as Le Festival des Montgolfières à Duluth, named for the French brothers who pioneered balloon flight in the 1780s, this festival on the bayfront features (if weather cooperates) 12 hot-air balloons and tethered balloon rides. There's also a craft-brew village. Sept. 19–21.

Oktoberfest in Chippewa Falls, WI Meet the Narren, enter a sauerkraut-eating contest, listen to polka and zydeco and watch the daily parade. Sept. 19–21.

Fall Festival in Hayward, WI There's an arts and crafts fair, children's games, contests and live music downtown. Sept. 20.

International Fall Festival in Eau Claire, WI See the Parade of Nations, an international bazaar and music on the World Stage. Sept. 20.

Wine & Harvest Festival in Cedarburg, WI There's a pumpkin regatta — yes, people paddling hollowed-out pumpkins across Cedar Creek — at the fest in this historic mill town just north of Milwaukee. There's also a scarecrow contest, grape stomp, hay rides, juried arts fair and lots of food. Sept. 20–21.

Fall Gathering at the North West Co. Fur Post in Pine City, MN No one's more fun than a voyageur, and they'll be dancing, boasting and trying to best one another at this family-friendly event an hour north of the Twin Cities. For the kids, there's a bead scramble, candle-dipping and a scavenger hunt. Sept. 20–21.

Vintage Illinois Wine Festival in Matthiessen State Park, IL This festival in northwest Illinois features live music and wine-tasting from 25 Illinois vineyards. Sept. 20–21.

World War II Days in Rockford, IL Midway Village Museum hosts the largest World War II battle re-enactment in the nation, with more than 800 uniformed re-enactors and more than 70 vintage tanks and other armored vehicles. Sept. 20–21.

A float from the La Crosse Oktoberfest parade.

© Beth Gauper

In La Crosse, Oktoberfest stretches across nine days.

Fourth weekend in September

Grundy County Corn Festival in Morris, IL The festival in this town on the Illinois River between Ottawa and Joliet offers stagecoach and train rides, a water fight, bed races, a pie-eating contest, a House of Magic, music, a carnival and a parade at 2 p.m. Sunday. Sept. 24–28.

Oktoberfest in La Crosse, WI The big riverfront festival is downsizing this year, with just four days of  partying. There's food, music and carnival rides, plus the opening Torchlight Parade and the Maple Leaf Parade on Saturday morning. Sept. 25–28.

Boats and Bluegrass in Winona, MN This family-oriented festival in Prairie Island Park, on the Mississippi River, features disc golf, paddling and airplane rides as well as music. A weekend pass includes camping and canoeing, and kids under 16 are free with an adult ticket. Sept. 25–28.

Cornish Festival in Mineral Point, WI In the old lead-mining district in southwest Wisconsin, play shove ha'penny in the Kiddleywink Pub, eat figgyhobbin and pasties, listen to tommyknocker tales and tour Cornish miners' cottages. Sept. 26–27.

Kalona Fall Festival in Kalona, IA This Mennonite community just southwest of Iowa City, famous for its quilts, offers pony rides, a pumpkin-carving contest, demonstrations of Old World artisanry, music and homemade potato chips, apple fritters, ice cream and chicken, biscuits and gravy. Sept. 26–27.

Beef-A-Rama in Minocqua, WI In this northern Wisconsin lake-resort town, there's a Rump Roast Run, beef-eating contest and Parade of Beef on Saturday. Sept. 26–27.

Apple Festival in Gays Mills, WI There'll be arts and crafts and music in this southwest Wisconsin village. The big parade is Sunday. Sept. 26–28.

Cranberry Festival in Warrens, WI At this huge festival in west-central Wisconsin, there'll be marsh tours, contests and more than 1,300 booths selling antiques, produce and arts and crafts. The big parade is at noon Sunday. Sept. 26–28.

Fall Fest in Cable, WI In the colorful northwest woods, there'll be hay rides, corn maze, a chili cook-off, fish boil, arts and crafts and fireworks. Sept. 26–27.

Johnny Appleseed Festival in Crystal Lake, IL In this northwest suburb of Chicago, there's pumpkin bowling, a pumpkin train and petting zoo, apple contests, music and a craft fair. Sept. 27.

Tour of Historic Galena Homes in Galena, IL Tour five private homes and the History Museum in this picturesque town in northwest Illinois. Sept. 27–28.

Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago, IL Listen to non-stop music during this free festival at Midway Plaisance, near the Museum of Science and Industry and Lake Michigan. Sept. 27–28.

All-State Barn Tour in Iowa in Across the state, IA It's the Iowa Barn Foundation's annual free, self-guided tour of restored historic barns. Sept. 27–28.

Civil War Weekend in Greenbush, WI Battles are reenacted at this festival at the Wade House historic site near Sheboygan. There's also a traveling medicine show, court martials, a sutler's row, period concerts and appearances by Abraham Lincoln. Sept. 27–28.

Spirit of the St. Croix Art Festival in Hudson, WI Music, food and a juried art show along the St. Croix River, in Lakefront Park. Sept. 27–28.

Dachshund races at a festival.

© Beth Gauper

Dachshund races are held at many fall festivals.

First weekend in October

Oktoberfest in Amana, IA There's German music and food at this Amana Colonies village, plus contests that include the Eisenmann, or Iron Man, competition: Teams roll kegs, walk a balance beam with full steins of beer and saw logs. The parade is at 10 a.m. Saturday Oct. 3–5.

Audubon Days in Mayville, WI The festival in this town next to big Horicon Marsh features bed races, a bike tour, rubber-duck race and parade Sunday. Oct. 3–5.

Northeast Iowa Artists' Studio Tour in Decorah area, IA Drive through bluff country to see 56 artists at 43 sites around Decorah, Burr Oak, St. Lucas, Waukon, West Union, Cresco, New Albin, Lansing, Elgin and Clermont. Oct. 3–5.

Chain O' Lakes Blues Festival in Waupaca, WI Listen to the blues at the historic Indian Crossing Casino. Oct. 3–4.

Apple Festival in Bayfield, WI It's the 53rd year of this big festival on Lake Superior. Highlights include Big Top Chautauqua concerts, Pipes & Drums from Thunder Bay, the lighted Venetian boat parade and the grand parade at 2 p.m. Sunday. Oct. 3–5.

Apple Affair in Galesville, WI In the bluffs above Trempealeau, this festival features a 10-foot apple pie, a hunt for a Silver Apple, a race of floating wooden apples and a bicycle tour with a 20-mile route through apple orchards and hillier 35- and 60-mile routes. Oct. 4.

Oktoberfest in Galena, IL The Lions Club puts on this riverfront festival, which includes wiener-dog races, polka lessons, hammerschlagen, pumpkin-decorating and a beanbag tournament. Oct. 4.

Big Island Rendezvous and Festival in Albert Lea, MN This southern Minnesota festival is great for families, with more than 1,000 reenactors dancing, demonstrating, competing and pulling visitors back into the fur-trade era. Oct. 4–5.

Giant Pumpkin Fest in Nekoosa, WI This town near Wisconsin Rapids calls itself the Giant Pumpkin Capital of Wisconsin and features a pumpkin-pie eating contest, pumpkin rolling for kids, a carnival and craft show. Oct. 4–5.

Olde English Faire/Autumn on Parade in Oregon, IL This festival at Stronghold Conference Center features swordfighters, minstrels, magicians and the Gremlin's Garden for children. In town, more strolling performers appear at the Autumn on Parade Festival, and the Harvest Time Parade is at 1 p.m. Sunday. Oct. 4–5. Autumn on Parade website

Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg, WI This fest in the scenic hills of southwest Wisconsin is not only about pickles and sourdough bread but also cheese, chocolate, beer and wine. There are classes, tastings, performances, the 50-mile Farm/Art DTour, with Roadside Culture Stands, and Bike the DTour. Oct. 4–13.

Second weekend of October

Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg, WI This fest in the scenic hills of southwest Wisconsin is not only about pickles and sourdough bread but also cheese, chocolate, beer and wine. There are classes, tastings, performances, the 50-mile Farm/Art DTour, with Roadside Culture Stands, and Bike the DTour. Oct. 4–13.

Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival in Alpena, MI Five Lake Huron lighthouses, at Tawas Point, Sturgeon Point, Forty Mile Point and Presque Isle, will be open for tours, and visitors can take boats or helicopters to see the lights on Middle Island and Thunder Bay Island. Oct. 9–12.

Scarecrow Festival in St. Charles, IL There's a big scarecrow contest plus a carnival and the Autumn on the Fox arts show in this town west of Chicago. Oct. 10–12.

Apple Festival in Charlevoix, MI In this Lake Michigan town, there's a pumpkin-carving contest, children's activities and an arts and crafts show. Oct. 10–12.

Harbor Country Harvest Days in Harbor Country, MI The Lake Michigan towns just north of the Indiana border, including New Buffalo, Union Pier, Three Oaks and Sawyer, celebrate Columbus Day weekend with wine tasting, hay rides, pumpkin-carving contests, live music and fine arts. Oct. 10–13.

Madison County Covered Bridge Festival in Winterset, IA John Wayne was born there, George Washington Carver lived there and the famous covered bridges still are there. The festival in this town southwest of Des Moines features guided bus tours to the bridges, free horse-drawn wagon rides to Wayne's house, appearances by Carver and other historical figures, spelling bees, a belt-buckle auction, live music and an antique vehicles parade at 2 p.m. Sunday. Oct. 11–12.

Galena Country Fair in Galena, IL There's a fine arts/arts and crafts fair, farmers market, music and children's games in Grant Park. Oct. 11–12.

Scenic Drive Festival in Van Buren County, IA In the southeast corner of Iowa, 11 villages feature quilt shows, scarecrow contests, bake sales, tours of historic sites, wine tasting and street fairs. Oct. 11–12.

Oktoberfest in Cedarburg, WI This festival just north of Milwaukee features music and food plus goofy contests: wife-carrying, sauerkraut-eating, a German spelling bee and a live Glockenspiel show. Oct. 11–12.

Pumpkin Patch Festival in Egg Harbor, WI There'll be music, children's games and arts and crafts in this Door County village. Oct. 11–12.

Oktoberfest in Lake Geneva, WI There will be wagon rides, music, magic, free pumpkins and crafts on downtown streets. Oct. 11–12.

Fall Festival of the Arts in Red Wing, MN There's a juried show of more than 90 artists downtown, plus music and food. Oct. 11–12.

Shadows of the Blue and Gray in Princeton, IL This Civil War festival off I-80, half an hour west of Starved Rock State Park, includes battle re-enactments both days. There will also be a Grand Entrance parade with the Lincolns, a Lincoln look-alike contest for kids, period music and fashion, a musket loading and firing competition and a period barn dance followed by a cannon fireworks show. Oct. 11–12.

Civil War Heritage Weekend at Norskedalen in Coon Valley, WI This pioneer farmstead in the coulees southeast of La Crosse is wonderfully atmospheric, and the crackerjack re-enactors of the Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry's Company B give the region's most affecting portrayal of war. Oct. 11–12.

Harvest Fest in Stillwater, MN There will be a pumpkin pie-eating contest, a pumpkin regatta on the St. Croix River, a microbrew tasting, a pedal tractor pull and a street dance. Oct. 11–12.

Harvest Fest in New Glarus, WI See old-time artisanry at the Swiss Historical Village, including sausage-stuffing and cheese-making in the 1890s cheese factory. Oct. 12.

Burgoo Festival in Utica, IL The street party in this northern Illinois town, gateway to Starved Rock State Park, features vats of "pioneer'' stew, a crafts fair and music. Oct. 12.

Cheese Days parade in Monroe.

©

Bernese mountain dogs pull a flower cart during the Cheese Days parade in Monroe.

Third weekend of October

Fall Festival in Sister Bay, WI This Door County festival features camel rides, a sloppy joe-eating contest, pumpkin bowling, a pingpong-ball drop and a Saturday parade. Oct. 17–19.

Southwest Wisconsin Fall Art Tour in Southwest, WI This popular studio tour includes artists at studios between Mineral Point, Spring Green, Dodgeville and Baraboo. Oct. 17–19.

Moose Madness Festival in Grand Marais, MN This Lake Superior town offers  a medallion hunt, family geocaching contest, fun run, appearances by Murray the Moose and family courses at the North House Folk School. Oct. 17–19.

Halloween at Heritage Hill in Green Bay, WI Ride the haunted tram, have your fortune told, walk a graveyard maze or visit the Ghost Town in 13 historic buildings. Oct. 18.

Applefest in Alexandria, MN Enter a pie-eating contest, play garden chess, go on a horse-drawn wagon ride and watch a pumpkin-catapult contest at Carlos Creek Winery.     Oct. 18.

Autumn Harvest Fest in Wisconsin Dells, WI Along with hayrides, pony rides, music and arts and crafts, there will be pumpkin decorating, a straw dig and a scarecrow-stuffing contest. On Saturday, chat with brewmasters and sample beer from Wisconsin breweries at Wisconsin Dells on Tap. Oct. 18–19.

Civil War re-enactors march at Norskedalen.

© Beth Gauper

Re-enactors march through Norskedalen during Civil War Weekend in southwest Wisconsin.

Fourth weekend of October

Over Halloween, anything that can be haunted — zoos, airplane hangars, corn mazes, nature centers, historic houses, cemeteries, trolleys and trains — will be haunted. For more, see Horror around the corner.

And tours make the rounds of ghost haunts in Chicago, Galena, St. Paul, Wausau and other towns. For more, see Ghosts on the prowl.

Mystery at the Fur Post in Pine City, MN Solve a mystery by lantern light at the re-created North West Company Fur Post, an hour north of the Twin Cities. Reservations are recommended. Oct. 24–25.

Jack O'Lantern Days in Fish Creek, WI There will be mask making, pumpkin carving, trick or treating and a Halloween parade at 1 p.m. Saturday Oct. 24–26.

Halloween at Heritage Hill in Green Bay, WI Ride the haunted tram, have your fortune told, walk a graveyard maze or visit the Ghost Town in 13 historic buildings. Oct. 25.

BatFest in Batavia, IL This Fox River town hosts a pumpkin roll, Halloween parade, hay rides, costume contest, "Thriller' dances and a haunted quarry. Oct. 25.

Pumpkin Festival in Edina, MN In this south Minneapolis suburb, the popular 50th & France area hosts a costume contest, trick-or-treating, cake walk, horse-drawn trolley rides and face painting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 25.

Halloween Parade in Galena, IL The town's annual parade is along Main Street at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25.

First weekend in November

Wisconsin Dog Fair in Madison, WI Demonstrations and seminars on more than 150 breeds at Alliant Energy Center. Nov. 2.

Second weekend in November

Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival in Madison, WI This festival, based at Monona Terrace, includes farm and creamery tours, tasting seminars and cheesemaker dinners. Nov. 7–8.

Veterans Day Parade in Milwaukee, WI It's at 11 a.m. downtown. Nov. 8.

Trainfest in West Allis, WI The nation's largest operating model railroad show includes more than 60 scenic railroads, clinics for hobbyists and a Kids' Activity Zone with racing trains, face painting and a Circus Train. Nov. 8–9.

Beacon lighting at Split Rock Lighthouse in Beaver Bay, MN This event, which commemorates the 1975 sinking of the ore freighter with 29 men, is the only time the public can see the interior of the light tower when the beacon is lighted. Nov. 10.

For more, see Great holiday festivals.



Last updated on March 10, 2014
sign up for our free newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter

Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early — directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.