When it comes to fall festivals, most people think of hay bales, hot cider, and corn mazes. Fewer think of littleneck clams, 19th-century air travel, or an actual world-record breaking amount of lit jack-o’-lanterns. That’s why we’ve scoured the nation, from the Adirondacks to Sonoma wine country, to round up some of 2016’s top fall activities.
Classic harvest festivals
25 years of shattering jack-o’-lantern world records
For 25 years, the New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival has been setting and obliterating the world record for most lit jack-o’-lanterns in one place. The festival established its first record back in 1991 when a group of schoolchildren toted 600 pumpkins to Central Square in Keene, its original home. From there, we were off to the races.
However, Keene hit a slump in 2006 when Boston—in an attempt to outdo a group of elementary-school kids—snatched the record. Keene reclaimed its mantle in 2015 when its Pumpkin Fest lit up the night with 30,581 pumpkins, earning it a spot on USA Today’s list of the best harvest festivals. After a spot of bother with local college students, the fest moved to a new location in Laconia, NH.
If you have four hours: Hop aboard the Pumpkin Express as it embarks on a scenic train journey around the area’s lakes. Other highlights include a pumpkin-themed bake-off, a haunted mill, bowling, and the Pumpkin Dump Derby.
If you only have an hour: Make you way to the fest’s centerpiece: nearly three stories of fire-filled jack-o’-lanterns in the shape of a barn.
As American as, well, apple pie
The National Apple Harvest Festival in Biglerville, Pennsylvania, has been going strong for 52 years, but it doesn’t look like it’s aged a day. The quaint and incredibly family-friendly apple festival embraces Americana to a Rockwellian degree with everything from huggable Johnny Appleseed mascots to an antique auto show.
If you have four hours: Check out the Industrial Revolution–era cider mill in action, catch a chainsaw-carving demonstration at the Appalachian Art area, and get a valet’s-eye view of classic cars. And don’t miss out on the harvest-themed treats, such as apple pancakes, candied apples, and fresh kettle corn.
If you have one hour: Treat yourself to one of the festival’s famous rib-eye sandwiches—a mountain of steak, bacon, and american cheese all topped with a fried egg. Wash it all down with freshly pressed cider while you catch one of the country and bluegrass bands.
Schnitzel on the Scioto
For 50 years, the good people of Columbus, Ohio, have been dusting off their dirndls and lederhosen in preparation for the Columbus Oktoberfest. Housed under 100,000 square feet of historic, 100-year-old pavilions, there’s more than enough room for craft beer and wine gartens for the adults and a massive Kinderplatz complete with jugglers, puppet shows, and bounce houses for the kids.
If you have four hours: Really get into the spirit of this Bavarian extravaganza with the opening ceremony, the Breaking of the Pretzel. From there, spend some time taking in the massive Germanic spectacle filled with polka bands strolling the pavilion, musicians hammering away at glockenspiels, and jumbo cream puffs as far as the eye can see.
If you have one hour: Stop by on Sunday for one of the 30-minute food demonstrations, where you’ll get to try cheese and beer pairings, sample pumpkin cookies, or learn the subtle distinctions between rieslings. Be sure to try an authentic schnitzel from All About the Zel's or the less authentic deep-fried reuben on a stick from Neffy.
Harvest festival, wine-country style
The Sonoma County Harvest Fair (Santa Rosa, CA) gives folks with a love of festivals and a suspicion of fried food a chance to embrace their inner sophisticate. To get a feel for what the comparatively high-brow fest has to offer, it may help to know that last year’s professional food winners included a wild mushroom truffled bruschetta cream canapé and a house-cured ahi tuna salad.
If you have four hours: Head to the Tasting Pavilion for some seriously top-notch gourmet treats and chef demos. Alternately, you could give yourself a crash course in wine tasting at a seminar led by local experts before heading back to the pavilion to test your new skills on more than 500 local Sonoma County wines.
If you have one hour: Get your hands—and feet—dirty by entering the World Championship Grape Stomp. Even though competitors from around the world participate, most people just enjoy the chance to dress up like Lucy and Ethel (or Batman or a bunch of murderous grapes) and go to town.
Shuck, rattle, and roll
There are limits to how many pumpkin-spice lattes and apple fritters a person can tolerate. That’s where Wellfleet OysterFest (Wellfleet, MA) comes in. The Cape Cod festival ditches pumpkins for oysters on the half shell, quahogs, live lobsters, and conch fritters in a display of true New England bravado.
If you have four hours: Go for the gusto by sampling street snacks from the nearly 30 different raw-bar, seafood, and indie vendors. Pair Nantucket clam cakes with locally sourced conch fritters, or try out the fair–inspired fried lobster tails on a stick. Downing a bowl of fresh New England clam chowder on Cape Cod may be worth the cost of admission alone.
If you have one hour: Check out the oyster-shucking competition to see if anyone can beat the 2015 record of 24 oysters in 1 minute and 45 seconds.
Day of the Dead, Hollywood style
Now in its 17th year, Hollywood Forever Presents Día de los Muertos is a cyan- and fuchsia-splashed LA mainstay thanks to its sky-high altars and mix of authentic and whimsical costumes.
If you have four hours: Spend your time soaking in the baroque beauty of the more than 100 community-created ceremonial altars. While you’re there, take in a show by any number of Latin Grammy–nominated artists.
If you have one hour: Make like Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice and head over to the cemetery for the eye-popping spectacle that is the Aztec dancing and rituals portion of the festival.
If you only have 30 minutes: Find your way to the center of the grounds for the Procession—a ghastly spectacle filled with Calaca skeletons, impossibly ornate headdresses, and, of course, women and children in traditional calaveras makeup.
The wizard of oohs and ahhs
There’s something downright Victorian about the Adirondack Balloon Festival in Glen Falls, New York. Maybe it’s the reliance on 19th-century technology that lends the event so much charm—but probably it’s the hundreds of hot-air balloons.
If you have four hours: Commission your own balloon pilot and take to the skies while drinking in sweeping views of the surrounding mountains.
If you have one hour: Feast your eyes on the gravity-defying parade of balloons that is Walter’s Mass Ascension. More than 100 airships, including novelty-shape balloons, transform the sky into a surreal patchwork of primary colors.