Bring on the pumpkins, harvests, and Halloween! Here are the biggest celebrations, spookiest locations, tastiest treats, and most unusual activities across the country you’ve got to experience at least once.
Salem’s Haunted Happenings
Salem, Massachusetts, isn’t just one of the world’s 15 spookiest travel destinations: It’s a fall must-do event for Halloween lovers of all ages. Notorious as the site of the 17th-century Salem Witch Trials, the town now pays homage to the victims by celebrating all things witchy and wicked. The Grand Parade kicks off the October season; then visitors enjoy ghost tours by trolley, psychic readings, candle magic demonstrations, family fall activities, and Horror Fest lectures and film screenings. More events tied to the town’s history are also happening at the real-life House of the Seven Gables (the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale), the Old Witch Gaol (Jail), and Gallows Hill museum and theater. Plus, visitors can meet Hocus Pocus star Kathy Najimy—the cult classic was filmed in Salem. It all leads up to the frightfully fun Halloween celebration, topped with fireworks.
National Apple Harvest Festival
Next to pumpkins, no fruit has a bigger claim to fame in fall than the apple. You can pick your own around the country at the best places to go apple picking in every state, but there’s only one National Apple Harvest Festival, at the South Mountain Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania apple country near historic Gettysburg. For two weekends in October, visitors can watch cider being pressed, sample scrumptious fare, attend a pie-baking contest, listen to live music, pet farm animals, and stop by arts and crafts vendors.
It wouldn’t be fall without Oktoberfest, that celebration of German culture and, of course, its beer. Cincinnati’s “Zinzinnati” is the largest Oktoberfest in the country, but the most picturesque is Leavenworth, Washington’s celebration, taking place over three weekends in October. With its Bavarian-inspired architecture, the village will truly make you believe you’re in Germany. Colorful costumes, German food, and traditional music round out the festivities set against a gorgeous mountain backdrop.
Austin City Limits Music Festival
This annual fall music event is one of the most popular in the country, so get your tickets early. With two weekends, eight stages, and over 130 bands, the festival highlights the Texas city’s thriving arts scene—a must for music lovers. It’s crowded and may get a little crazy, but visitors can splurge for a VIP experience that features its own shady space, spa treatments, and private restrooms. The event also includes a family-friendly mini-fest, and Austin Kiddie Limits.
Dia de los Muertos, Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery isn’t just a burial ground for celebrities: It’s a cultural venue that celebrates the stars past and present. Along with performances and outdoor movie screenings, the cemetery also hosts the largest Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Meurtos, event in the United States. With traditional costumes and performances, authentic face-painting, food vendors, beautifully decorated shrines and altars, crafts, art exhibits, and bands, this early November festival is an unforgettable and joyous way to remember those who are no longer with us.
The Sleepy Hollow Experience
Although Washington Irving’s classic tale of the Headless Horseman is fictional, he based it on real locations and even real people. Sleepy Hollow may be one of 13 places in America that are said to be cursed, but this town in the Hudson Valley plays up its haunted history with a series of fall activities for the Halloween season. Visitors can spend the day exploring the legends of the village: The Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground, where you can see the graves of those who inspired Irving’s characters, hosts dramatic readings of Irving’s story. You may even see a costumed Horseman himself wandering the adjacent Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where the author is buried. Cross the (now modern) bridge where Irving imagined Ichabod Crane met the Horseman. Down the road, historic Philipsburg Manor transforms into the scary Horseman’s Hollow haunted house (for older visitors only), and Lyndhurst Mansion becomes the creepy Jay Ghoul’s House of Curiosities. Take a tour of Irving’s home, Sunnyside, and watch an immersive performance of the legend.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
The largest balloon festival in the world and said to be the most photographed event on earth. Hundreds of hot-air balloons of all shapes and sizes take to the skies as awe-struck onlookers watch, and a lucky few can score official rides as well. “Balloon Glows,” in which lit-up balloons ascend at night followed by fireworks, are one of the fiesta’s most popular events. Although not free, general admission is only $10: Not bad for this once-in-a-lifetime fall event. This October festival in New Mexico is one of 50 iconic adventures for each of the 50 states.
Warrens Cranberry Festival
The popular Thanksgiving fruit peaks in fall and harvest events across the nation celebrate the bog-loving berry. But none can beat the world’s largest cranberry festival in the Cranberry Capital of Wisconsin, Warrens, at the end of September. Sample every variety of cran-tastic treats, including cranberry cream puffs, deep-fried cranberries on a stick, and a warm concoction over ice cream called Cranberries Jubilee. The festival also features a farm market, arts and crafts booths, and a huge parade; visitors can also tour a working cranberry marsh.
Oysters from Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod are considered some of the best in the world: The location’s water temperature, salinity, tides, and water quality boost their taste and texture. Celebrate the start of oyster season in October with Wellfleet’s Oysterfest, one of the 10 best small-town festivals in America. Seafood connoisseurs can learn how to shuck an oyster—or if you’re already an expert, compete in the Oyster Shucking Competition. Plus, visitors can enjoy live music, participate in oyster tastings, and tour a shellfish farm.
Trailing of the Sheep
You’ve got to see it to believe it: Huge herds of sheep fill the streets of Hailey, Idaho, on their annual migration to winter pastures. It’s not a reenactment for tourists: This Trailing of the Sheep is the real deal, a necessity for the shepherds of the region. Honoring its sheep ranching and herding heritage, the accompanying cultural festival celebrates the woolly mammal with sheepdog trials, woolens workshops, sheep storytelling, farm-to-table lamb dinners, live music, and, of course, the sheep parade.
National Shrimp Festival
The weather stays lovely into October in the beach town of Gulf Shores, Alabama, perfect for the 48th annual National Shrimp Festival. This oceanfront event features live music, a sand-sculpting contest, arts vendors, children’s activities, the Miss Shrimp Festival pageant—and of course the star of the show itself, shrimp, shrimp, and more shrimp. Dozens of food vendors tempt visitors will all kinds of shrimp dishes; non-seafood lovers can also find plenty more delicious Southern fare. Find out the best fall activities in every state
Village Halloween Parade
Die-hard Halloween fans must participate at least once in the Greenwich Village, New York City, Halloween parade, the largest and perhaps most famous in the country. Marching in the parade is free, but it’s mandatory to wear a costume, so get creative with this year’s theme of “Wild Thing!” to come up with your wildest and most outlandish getup. Non-costumed revelers can feel free to participate as spectators and watch as huge puppets, bands, dancers, artists, and tens of thousands more make their way up Sixth Avenue. Find out the fall bucket list activities that are local to you.
Arkansas Cornbread Festival
Forget the corn maze: Who doesn’t love a good piece of cornbread? The delectable Southern side dish gets the star treatment at this Little Rock festival in October. It’s held in the historic and eclectic district of SoMa (South Main Street), and the funky spot is the perfect place to enjoy live music, local brews, family activities, and all the tasty entrants in the cornbread competition with a Cornbread Tasting Ticket. Bring your refillable water bottle: This event aims to go plastic-free. The Cornbread Festival is just one of the fall food festivals you have to try this season.
Article by Tina Donvito