Calendars ready? Here’s a passel of festivals throughout the West that’ll more than meet your fun quotient for 2019.
We’re certainly not saying that the other half of this fun-loving country doesn’t know how to throw its fair share of quality parties too. But how can we not be just a tad partial to those special annual happenings here, there, and virtually everywhere out west?
From Southern California open-air art extravaganzas to the Black Hills powwows and colossal Kansas Speedway cookouts. To blue-ribbon rodeos in southern Arizona and northern Wyoming, heart-of-Montana folk fests, Colorado cold-season carnivals, and Texas cow-town cowboy tributes. The best Western festivals inspire a certain yin-yang — a playful reminder that it’s not just all of that expansive beauty and powerful solitude that naturally draw us out here. It’s the people and the occasional wild times, too.
Singling out our favorite festivals in an American West chock-full of them is some fun, but ultimately futile, business. Futile because there’s so much to choose from that every list ends up being just a little arbitrary. Fun, of course, because attending any of these standout celebrations promises good times and good memories. Some of the festivals that made this year’s list are 100 years old. Others are relatively new. At least two require some reliable winter boots. Many of them invite a very hearty appetite. All of them satisfy a craving for festive times enjoyed with similarly spirited folks in an incomparable Western setting.
Where: Steamboat Springs
When: February 6 – 10
Woo-hoo: Horses and skiers mingle at one of the world’s top 10 winter carnivals.
Long before northern Colorado’s curiously named cowboy town (purportedly coined by 1800s French trappers who mistook its noisy nearby mineral springs for an approaching steam engine) became Ski Town, USA, Steamboat Springs’ Winter Sports Club had devised a local carnival in the dead of winter as an antidote to cabin fever and the hardships of unrelenting snow season.
The plan, you might say, worked a little too well.
More than a hundred years later, the longest-running winter carnival west of the Mississippi is now shortlisted by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 Winter Carnivals in the World — in a picturesque mountain valley where snow is treasured and mass ski resort tourism can challenge the place’s folksy profile.
Come carnival time though, the community’s singular alpine-Western heritage wins out — with kids on skis being pulled down Main Street by horses and the nation’s only skiing high school band parading through a white-blanketed town. High-adrenaline spectacles, like Nordic jumping, downhill racing, and Rocky Mountain-backdropped fireworks share center stage.
When: February 16 – 24
Woo-hoo: In the dead of winter, it’s pushing 72 degrees at one of the PRCA’s biggest outdoor early season rodeos.
Launched in 1925, Tucson Rodeo Grounds’ “Celebration of the Cowboys” has evolved into one of the top pro rodeos in the country. The nine-day bull and bronc riding, barrel-racing, steer-wrestling, team-roping barnburner features an A-list of rodeo names among nearly 500 male and female contestants in the year’s first major outdoor rodeo on the PRCA calendar.
Kicking off the festival — one of the state’s largest of any kind — is what’s fittingly billed as “the world’s longest nonmotorized parade” of Western-themed floats, vintage horse-drawn coaches, Mexican folk dancers, marching bands, and riders in full regalia with an estimated 200,000 onlookers.
Favorite family events include mutton bustin’ for 4- to 6-year-olds getting their riding chops on sheep, a junior rodeo for under-12 up-and-comers, and a big barn dance featuring an evening’s worth of live entertainment.
When: February 22 – March 3
Woo-hoo: Alaska’s biggest winter festival draws more than 30,000 fans and includes the nation’s only “Running of the Reindeer” event we know of.
Lower 48ers may wonder what exactly there is to celebrate about the coldest months of the year in the country’s most unforgivingly frigid way-upper corner. And local Anchoragians will continue to take some stalwart satisfaction in that during the 84th anniversary of the Last Frontier State’s biggest winter bash.
Launched in the rather bleak 1930s to stoke civic pride and honor the hardy pioneering mojo of Alaskans, downtown Anchorage’s first Fur Rendezvous (aka “Rondy”) was a relatively small — and hugely successful — three-day affair attended by most of the city’s 3,000 residents at the time, including miners and trappers returning from the field with a winter’s worth of wares. Featured events included skiing, hockey, basketball, and a local kids’ sled dog race down a threadbare Fourth Avenue followed by a torch-lit parade and, of course, a fur auction.
More than 80 years later, many of those hallmark activities endure in an expanded 10-day festival that has grown with the town. Highlights include the all-popular Blanket Toss spectacle (an ancient Native Alaskan tradition), the World Championship Sled Dog Race, a 5K Frostbite Footrace, and the Running of the Reindeer — a gentler version of Pamplona enjoyed by a far broader international audience than the original Rondy’s throng of doggedly upbeat locals.
Where: Laguna Beach
When: July 5 – August 31
Woo-hoo: Famous-painting reenactments live large at one of the West Coast’s oldest, most unique art extravaganzas.
It takes a former artists colony with enduring vision and quirky imagination to host one of the nation’s biggest, longest-running, most inimitable summer art shows. Thankfully the historic plein-air lair of Laguna Beach has been up to the task for the last eight and a half decades.
Even if those original rule-shunning, glitz-eschewing, outdoors-preferring painters who founded Laguna Beach’s thriving artist enclave back in the early 20th century wouldn’t exactly be inspired by today’s Ferrari and boogie-board traffic in the OC’s toniest beach town, they’d surely approve of the nearly 150 artists of all kinds gathered in a lovely 6-acre canyon stuffed with exhibits, demos, and workshops ranging from painting (Wine and Painting Nights!) and printmaking to sculpture and ceramics to photography and woodworking.
The event’s headliner is the weirdly beautiful and utterly fascinating Pageant of the Masters, a mesmerizing series of nightly tableaux vivants (“living pictures”) featuring real-life reenactments of classic works accompanied by live narration and a musical score.
Where: Cody’s Stampede Park
When: July 1 – 4
Woo-hoo: The biggest four days in one of the country’s most hallowed pro-rodeo stops celebrates its centennial this summer.
While more than one town might be billing itself the Rodeo Capital of the World next summer, Cody has some serious buckaroo bragging rights — not to mention roots — to back up the claim. The famed northwestern Wyoming outpost hiding near the remote eastern gates of Yellowstone National Park — and co-founded by namesake William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody himself back in the 1890s — is home to one of the longest-running rodeo must-sees on the circuit.
Launched in 1938, Stampede Park’s Cody Nite Rodeo remains the only seven-nights-a-week rodeo of its kind throughout the summer. The season’s main PRCA event — the Cody Stampede Rodeo — celebrates its 100th season this summer with four full days of top rodeo and all the Independence Day pageantry (including three parades down Sheridan Avenue) that can be squeezed into a national-holiday week.
When: July 12 – 14
Woo-hoo: One of the summer’s most happening traditional music fests is perfectly situated between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
What does a historic mining boomtown tucked in the northern Rockies between a pair of primo national parks do after serving its three-year tenure (2008 – 10) as
host of the National Folk Festival — the oldest traveling traditional arts fest in the country?
Answer: Launch its own successor festival that’s there to stay.
Since spinning off in 2011, Butte’s three-day Montana Folk Festival now proudly claims to be one of the largest free outdoor music happenings in the Northwest. And most diverse — showcasing the talents and works of more than 200 top live performers and artisans from across the nation.
Last year’s lineup of musicians alone featured a cross section of genres — New Orleans brass, Native American hip-hop, Mali guitar, Greek rebetiko, South Asian qawwali, bluegrass, klezmer, rockabilly, Swedish traditional fiddle, cowboy swing — that rarely graces the same state or continent, let alone stage.
Rounding out the event are the Montana Traditions Arts Market and the First Peoples’ Market — a pair of distinguished art fairs offering a broad array of local and Native American works, along with demos, workshops, and nearby rows of local and ethnic food vendors, where the best huckleberry shake in the region can reputedly be found.
Where: Rapid City
When: October 11 – 13
Woo-hoo: The biggest, oldest, all-welcome powwow this side of the Plains.
No surprise that one of the nation’s foremost American Indian heritage events happens on Native Americans Day, or Indigenous Peoples Day, over a weekend in the first state to establish the observance in lieu of Columbus Day.
The 33rd annual He Sapa Wacipi Na Oskate — or Black Hills Powwow — welcomes locals and visitors alike to partake in three days of festivities led by hundreds of traditional dance and musical groups, artisans, athletes, and cultural preservationists.
Headlined by a Native Americans Day parade through downtown Rapid City and headquartered at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, the powwow proffers an inclusive theme extended to everyone: “Come Dance With Us.” Organizers note: “We want everyone to feel welcome and to enjoy the beauty of Great Plains indigenous song and dance.”
A full lineup of Native American singing and dancing performances, drum groups, art shows, hand games, and sports competitions attracts thousands of fans and spectators from all over the hallowed Black Hills and beyond.
When: July 24 – 27
Woo-hoo: The Pacific Northwest’s preeminent beer bash toasts more than 80 top breweries down by the river.
In Oregon — a craft beer Mecca with 7.4 breweries per 100,000 residents (translation: a ton) and an overwhelming supply of inspired annual suds shindigs like the Northwest Coffee Beer Invitational, Puckerfest, Zwickelmania, Portland Fruit Beer Festival, and Hood River’s Hangover Beer Fest — it’s saying something when you’re considered the granddaddy of them all.
Entering its 32nd year, the Oregon Brewers Festival, aka Beervana, will be expecting more than 70,000 beer buffs from far and wide at downtown Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park by the pretty Willamette riverside. Their joint mission: raising frothy mugs of pales, pilseners, sours, saisons, and so on from dangerously close to a hundred elite U.S. craft breweries around the country.
Ciders, wines, and tasty-food vendors will be costarring, along with complimentary craft soda for kids and designated drivers.
Where: Fort Worth
When: October 25 – 27
Woo-hoo: The nation’s premier Western heritage event.
Every October, the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District welcomes actor, musician, and poet Red Steagall’s annual gathering. The purpose of this bash is “to celebrate the history, traditions, values, lifestyle, and the working skills of the men and women who make their living horseback working cattle, providing beefsteak to the dinner tables of America.” There’s ranch rodeo (bronc riding, team sorting, calf and maverick branding, mutton bustin’, team doctoring, and wild-cow milking), invitational team roping, a chuck wagon cook-off, fiddle contests, a trade show, cowboy poetry and music, and more.
Before all the yeehawing even begins, you can saddle up on the annual trail ride and wagon train that makes its way from Jacksboro about 60 miles to the Fort Worth Stockyards in time for the weekend events. You bring food, horse, tack, wagon, gear, etc. And, since this is a heritage ride, you wear what’s required — Western apparel. Once you arrive in Fort Worth, enjoy a full daytime roster; then get gussied up for music-filled Friday and Saturday night, when Red and the Boys in the Bunkhouse deliver dance-inducing Western swing.
Where: Kansas City
When: September (dates TBA)
Woo-hoo: The world’s largest annual barbecue competition celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with more smokin’ slabs than the palate can comprehend.
Few cities hold a candle to KC for finger-lickin’ barbecue even when the World Series (of Barbecue, we’re talking — tapped as the biggest event of its kind on the planet) isn’t underway. But during those two toothsome days in mid-September, the smokin’ hot anticipation reaches fever pitch.
This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Paris of the Plains’ signature culinary event, complete with live music, carnival rides, a mechanical bull, and enough inspired ribs, brisket, pulled pork and crackling chicken to fill the Kansas Speedway. The headlining competition includes nearly 350 teams from more than 10 countries at last count, all vying for the title of Open and Invitation Grand Champion.
Launched by the American Royal (formerly the National Hereford Show) — Kansas City’s famed autumn horse and livestock showrunners since 1899 — the organization can at least partially take credit for influencing the naming of the Royals baseball team. But, back to barbecue, thankfully at least one World Series happens in KC every year.
Photography: Melissa Fears/Courtesy Oregon Brewers Festival, Louise Serpa/Courtesy La Fiesta De Los Vaqueros, Erik Judson/Courtesy Fur Rendezvous, Courtesy Festival of Arts of Laguna Beach, John Zumpano/Courtesy Montana Folk Festival, Timothy Horn/Courtesy Oregon Brewers Festival, Shutterstock, Clarice Lakota, ThunderBird Eye, Courtesy Black Hills Powwow
From the February/March 2019 issue.