MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Great fall festivals

Here are the best of the autumn fests in 2017.

A wall of jack-o-lanterns in Highwood.

© Highwood Chamber

Every October, the town of Highwood, Ill., tries to best its own world record for the most carved and lighted pumpkins.

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.

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 2017. 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.

Second weekend in September

Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, MN In this college town south of the Twin Cities, there's a fine-arts festival, tractor pulls, a bike tour, reenactments of the famous bank raid and a Sunday parade. Sept. 6–10.

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. 6–10.

La Crosse Storytelling Festival in La Crosse, WI Listen to local, regional and national storytellers spin tales in Myrick Park. Sept. 8–9.

Sputnikfest in Manitowoc, WI Help celebrate the 1962 crash landing of a 20-pound piece of Russia's Sputnik on a street in Manitowoc. There's a wacky costume contest, a Miss Space Debris pageant, a pet costume contest, a space-themed movie and music. Sept. 8–9.

James J. Hill Days in Wayzata, MN This Minneapolis suburb features a street market and carnival; dachshund races, a craft-beer fest, water-ski show and fireworks on Saturday; and a parade on Sunday. Sept. 8–10.

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. 8–10.

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. 8–10.

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. 8–10.

Harvest Moon Festival in Ely, MN In Whiteside Park, there's an arts fair plus music, an old-time medicine show and pony rides and a petting zoo for kids. Sept. 8–10.

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. 8–24.

Ethnic Fest in Walker, MN Alphornists, Scandinavian dancers and Anishinaabe drum and dance corps perform in this town on the shores of Leech Lake. There's also a parade at 11 a.m. Sept. 9.

Washington County Bluegrass Festival in Lake Elmo, MN Bluegrass 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. 9.

Taste of the Trail in Lanesboro, MN In Lanesboro, Whalan and Peterson on the Root River State Trail, enjoy music, wagon rides and free samples from local restaurants and growers. Sept. 9.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin, WI The famous author's birthplace  celebrates with kids' pioneer games, a spelling bee and traditional music and crafts; pie-eating, fiddle and Laura contests; and a Sunday parade. Sept. 9–10.

Rock Bend Folk Festival in St. Peter, MN This free, easygoing festival in this Minnesota River town's Minnesota Square Park includes local favorites The Divers. Sept. 9–10.

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.

Third weekend in 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. 8–24.

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. 13–16.

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. 13–17.

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. 14–17.

Wo-Zha-Wa Days in Wisconsin Dells, WI There's a juried arts and crafts show,a flea maraket, a street carnival and a parade Sunday. Sept. 15–17.

Oktoberfest in Chippewa Falls, WI Meet the Narren, enter a sauerkraut-eating contest, listen to polka and zydeco and watch the daily parade. Sept. 15–17.

World Food & Music Festival in Des Moines, IA In downtown's East Village, eat at more than 50 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. 15–17.

Grape Stomp in Alexandria, MN Carlos Creek Winery hosts this festival, which features music on three stages, crafts, a logging show, Friday fire dancing and fireworks, grape stomps, "I Love Lucy'' look-alike contests and a reenactment of the Lucy "Grapes of Laugh'' episode. Sept. 15–17.

Riot Fest in Chicago, IL This Douglas Park music festival also features a circus sideshow revue and carnival. Sept. 15–17.

Gemuetlichkeit Days in Jefferson, WI This festival between Madison and Milwaukee is named for the German word for a cozy and congenial atmosphere. It includes sauerkraut-eating, nail-driving, facial hair and costume contests, a vintage car show, music and a parade at noon Sunday. Sept. 15–17.

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. 16.

Taste of the Trail in Fountain/Preston/Harmony, MN On the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, sample local treats, listen to music, visit the National Trout Center, take wagon rides and play games.   Sept. 16.

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. 16–17.

Festival of the Voyageur 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 at the North West Company Fur Post, an hour north of the Twin Cities. For the kids, there's a bead scramble, candle-dipping and a scavenger hunt. Sept. 16–17.

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. 16–17.

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. 16–17.

Fourth 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. 8–24.

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. 20–24.

Oktoberfest in Des Moines, IA Take polka-dancing lessons, enter the Bier Maiden or stein-holding contests and win costume prizes at this outdoor fest under tents downtown. Sept. 22–23.

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. 22–24.

Cranberry Festival in Warrens, WI At this huge festival in west-central Wisconsin, there'll be marsh tours, pie-eating contests and more than 1,300 booths selling antiques, produce and arts and crafts. The big parade is at 2 p.m. Sunday. Sept. 22–24.

Fall Festival in Hayward, WI There's an arts and crafts fair, children's games, contests and live music downtown. Sept. 23.

Taste of the Trail in Rushford/Houston, MN On the Root River State Trail, sample local food, listen to music, tour a museum and visit with Alice the owl. Sept. 23.

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. 23–24.

Tour of Historic Galena Homes in Galena, IL Tour five private homes and the History Museum in this picturesque town in northwest Illinois. Sept. 23–24.

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. 23–24.

World War II Days in Rockford, IL Midway Village Museum hosts one of the largest World War II battle re-enactments in the nation, with more than 1,200 uniformed re-enactors and more than 60 vintage tanks and other armored vehicles. Sept. 23–24.

Doors Open Milwaukee in Milwaukee, WI More than 150 historic buildings — theaters, breweries, mansions, cathedrals, hotels, museums — are open to the public, and many offer free guided tours. More than three dozen in-depth walking tours also are offered but sell out quickly. Sept. 23–24.

Children's Halloween parade.

© Beth Gauper

Children march in a Halloween parade.

Last weekend of 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 crackerbox derby, a pie-eating contest, music, a carnival, Saturday fireworks and a parade at 2 p.m. Sunday. Sept. 27–Oct. 1.

Oktoberfest in La Crosse, WI At this big riverfront festival, there's food, music and carnival rides, plus the opening Torchlight Parade and the Maple Leaf Parade on Saturday morning. Sept. 28–Oct. 1.

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. 29–30.

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. Sept. 29–Oct. 1.

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. 30.

Apple Festival in Bayfield.

© Beth Gauper

In Bayfield, Apple Festival draws crowds.

First weekend in October

Chain O' Lakes Blues Festival in Waupaca, WI Listen to the blues at the historic Indian Crossing Casino. Oct. 6–7.

Apple Festival in Bayfield, WI It's the 56th year of this big festival on Lake Superior, which features  orchard tours, history walks, an apple-peeling contest, live music and a big parade at 2 p.m. Sunday. Oct. 6–8.

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. 6–8.

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. 7.

Big Island Rendezvous and Festival in Albert Lea, MN This southern Minnesota festival is great for families, with a voyageur encampment of more than 1,000 reenactors dancing, demonstrating, competing and pulling visitors back into the fur-trade era. Oct. 7–8.

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, Old West shootouts, live music and a parade at 2 p.m. Sunday. Oct. 7–8.

Galena Country Fair in Galena, IL There's a juried fine arts/arts and crafts fair, farmers market, wine garden, bake shop, music and children's games in Grant Park. Oct. 7–8.

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 on Sunday. Oct. 7–8. Autumn on Parade website

Pumpkin Patch Festival in Egg Harbor, WI There'll be music, children's games and arts and crafts in this Door County village. Oct. 7–8.

Fall Heritage Festival in Mount Horeb, WI This town west of Madison offers fjord horses, buggy rides, a Norwegian breakfast, a mini tractor pull, rosemaling and lefse-making demonstrations and photo opps with Jorgen the Troll. Oct. 7–8.

Rivertown Fall Art Festival in Stillwater, MN This juried arts festival along the banks of the St. Croix River includes music and food vendors. Oct. 7–8.

Second weekend of October

Autumn Harvest Fest in Wisconsin Dells, WI On Saturday, there are hayrides, pony rides, music and arts and crafts, pumpkin decorating, a straw dig and a scarecrow-stuffing contest. Also on Saturday, chat with brewmasters and sample beer from Wisconsin breweries at Wisconsin Dells on Tap. Oct. 13–14.

Fall Festival in Sister Bay, WI This Door County festival features pumpkin bowling, chainsaw carving, a pingpong-ball drop and a parade at 11 a.m. Saturday. Oct. 13–15.

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. 13–15.

St. Paul Art Crawl in St. Paul, MN Stop by the studios of more than 400 artists downtown and in the Raymond-University area. On Saturday, there's also a St. Paul Classical Music Crawl, with more than 20 mini-concerts on the hour and half­-hour throughout Lowertown. Oct. 13–15.

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. 14–15.

Oktoberfest in Cedarburg, WI This festival just north of Milwaukee features music and food plus goofy contests: best lederhosen/dirndl, sauerkraut-eating, a German spelling bee and a live Glockenspiel show. Oct. 14–15.

Open House Chicago in Chicago, IL The Chicago Architecture Foundation sponsors this free, behind-the-scenes peek at more than 200 mansions, clubs, churches, hotels and theaters. Oct. 14–15.

Third weekend of October

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. 20–22.

Oktoberfest in Elkhorn, WI This downtown festival near Lake Geneva features wine and beer tasting, music, a car show, arts and crafts and a chili cookoff. Oct. 21.

Laura look-alikes compete in Pepin.

© Beth Gauper

Laura look-alikes compete during Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin, Wis.

Halloween weekend

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.

Jack O'Lantern Days in Fish Creek, WI There will be mask making, pumpkin carving, trick or treating and a Halloween parade at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Oct. 27–29.

UFO Day in Belleville, WI There's a craft fair, kids' games and a Forbidden Forest, but the 1 p.m. parade is the main event in this riverside village just south of Madison, where residents reported more than a dozen UFO sightings in the winter of 1987. Oct. 28.

First weekend in November

Civil War re-enactors march at Norskedalen.

© Beth Gauper

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

Second weekend in November

For more, see Great holiday festivals.


Last updated on March 2, 2017