Texas summers are notoriously long and brutally hot, so when autumn begins to ease the thermometer back down, the Lone Star State starts to party. Fall months are packed with festival fun including flower displays, culinary celebrations and Old West shootouts.
The biggest fall event in the state is the Texas State Fair (www.bigtex.com). Held in Dallas’ Fair Park, the fair, which began in 1886 as an agricultural exposition, has drawn multitudes of visitors ever since and is now both the nation’s largest state fair and longest running fair. This year’s event extends from Sept. 27 through Oct. 20.
For half a century, the visual centerpiece of the State Fair has been Big Tex, the 52-foot-tall mechanized cowboy who greets arriving visitors with a warm “Howdy” and a friendly wave. Sadly, this oversized symbol of Texas hospitality was nearly destroyed by fire during the 2012 fair. Immediately after the mishap, a fund was established for his restoration and has attracted thousands of donations from the public. The State Fair of Texas organization expects to have Big Tex back and better than ever for this year’s event.
Like Big Tex, the rest of the State Fair is larger than life with a multitude of exhibits, entertainment, food and drink, shopping and sporting events to wow visitors, all taking place among the Art-Deco buildings of Fair Park. The centerpiece of Fair Park is the famous Cotton Bowl stadium, site of the annual football grudge match between the University of Texas Longhorns and the University of Oklahoma Sooners. This year’s contest, now known as the AT&T Red River Rivalry®, takes place Oct. 12.
But football is not the only game in town. The Fair’s extensive Midway presents myriad games of chance and skill as well as the opportunity to ride the enormous the 212-foot-tall Texas Star® Ferris wheel or take an elevated gondola which soars above the Midway. Young riders will thrill to ride the 66 carved wooden horses on the Dentzel Carousel that has been a State Fair fixture since 1914. The Midway offers over 70 rides and amusements to please all ages.
Car buffs will appreciate the State Fair Auto Show and the Truck Zone with two exhibit halls dedicated to showcasing new car and truck models about to be introduced. Outside, the Classic Corral displays collections of nostalgic cars ranging from Corvettes to Cadillacs. Visitors can even test drive new Chevrolet models at the Chevrolet Test Track.
Creative attendees will want to check out the various competitions. Promising Picassos, Ansel Adams and Emeril Lagasses put their skills to the test in the art, photography and food categories.
The original fair was based on agriculture and the tradition continues with several exhibits including the State Fair Fall Garden Exhibition showcasing landscape design, the Livestock Breed Display with different breeds of cattle, swine, sheep and goats on display as well as a livestock auction. Little cowpokes will appreciate the Barnyard area with pigs, sheep and goats to feed, the piglet races and the Pee Wee Stampede, a stick-horse rodeo where little ones lasso bales of hay with their lariats.
Regardless of age, a parade makes everyone feel like a kid again. Providing magical moments for the entire family, a procession of festooned floats and marching bands promenade through the street nightly during the Starlight Parades, led each night by the USMC Drum and Bugle Corps.
With tons of entertainment from which to choose, ticket holders can tap their feet to the beat of the headlining country, pop and Tejano acts that take the mic on the Main Stage. This year’s lineup includes Blondie, Asleep at the Wheel, Cory Morrow and David Lee Garza.
Whatever events you enjoy, you won’t go hungry at the State Fair. A multitude of venues offer sustenance of all kinds: from sipping Texas vintages in the shady State Fair Of Texas Wine Garden and watching celebrity chefs demonstrate their craft in the Celebrity Kitchen exhibit to queuing up for fried delicacies for which the fair is famous – so much so that the fair is also known as the Fried Food Capital of Texas. Since the days when Fletcher’s Corny Dogs were introduced, the fair has been synonymous with fried treats that, through the years, have included everything from fried Coke to deep-fried butter to fried bubblegum. Chefs vie for the annual Most Creative and Best Taste awards, but fairgoers vote for their own favorites with long lines at the top stalls.
But the State Fair of Texas is just one of many great fall festivals that tempt travelers to the Lone Star State. Below you’ll find a list of some of the most popular autumn events to help you put a skip in your step as you celebrate cool weather with festival fun across Texas:
Sept. 20-22. Plano Balloon Festival, Plano. It’s up, up, and away as travelers’ eyes turn to the sky over the “Hot Air Balloon Capital of Texas” during the largest balloon festival in the Lone Star state. The wild blue yonder will be dotted with kaleidoscopic color during five balloon launches, and the rainbow-hued envelopes will light up like fireflies in the dark during early morning and evening balloon glows. Hot air balloon buffs will be on cloud nine when they board a basket for a ride, booked before the festival. Visit www.planoballoonfest.org
Sept. 27-28. Western Days Festival, Lewisville. Dallas-area travelers can take a step back in time to Lewisville’s 1800s origins with a two-day tribute to the Texas way of life. For a rootin’ tootin’ good time, mosey on over to watch the gunfights or, if culinary competitions are your cup of tea, check out cooking demonstrations presented by local chefs – and don’t miss the World Tamale Eating Championship. Release your inner urban cowboy while line-dancing and enjoy two days of Texas tunes. Visit www.lewisvillewesterndays.com
Sept. 27-29. Galveston Island Wild Texas Shrimp Festival, Galveston. Get ready for a crustacean-themed sensation as Galveston’s annual ode to its oceanic gifts serves up a virtual gumbo of entertainment for the entire family. Held in the Entertainment District, this three day salute to shrimp features a shrimp gumbo cook-off, gumbo tasting, a 5K race, the children’s Lil’ Shrimp Parade, a free boat and RV show, live music and more. Visit www.yagaspresents.com/shrimpfestival
Oct. 2-6. Texas Rice Festival, Winnie. Winnie may be a small town, but for the past 44 years the population of the Chambers County community expands like grains of cooking rice for a few days each fall during a salute to a favorite side dish and to the farmers who harvest the crop. Nightly street dances, both barbecue and rice cook-offs, two parades, and lots of live music make this a Texas favorite. Visit www.texasricefestival.org
Oct. 11-13. Cajun Catfish Festival, Conroe. Musicians from Texas and Louisiana entertain at this family-friendly party now in its 24th year. The festival highlights Cajun food, a Go Texan wine and food area, a catfishing (catfish-catching) contest, a kid zone and plenty of Cajun, zydeco, blues and Texas country music. Visit www.conroecajuncatfishfestival.com
Oct. 11-19. Brazoria County Fair, Angleton. Nicknamed “The Largest County Fair in Texas,” this fair south of Houston welcomes families to a carnival, livestock exhibits and a rodeo competition, live music, arts and crafts, and competitions that range from a Clown Face Contest to a Scarecrow Contest. Visit www.brazoriacountyfair.com
Oct. 12-13. Katy Rice Harvest Festival, Katy. Just west of Houston, celebrate Katy’s agricultural contributions to the area at this popular festival always held the second weekend of October. Family-friendly fun held in the historic downtown includes a parade, rice cooking contest, two stages of live entertainment, a carnival, arts and crafts, and all the carnival goodies that you can eat from funnel cake to roasted corn. Visit www.riceharvestfestival.org
Oct. 12-Dec. 1 (weekends only). Texas Renaissance Festival, Plantersville. This festival – one of the largest of its kind in the nation – offers you and your family to time travel back to the days of back to the days of King Henry VIII. Don’t be shy about coming in costume yourself to enjoy Renaissance-era music, food, rides, dancing, demonstrations, and games. Visit www.texrenfest.com
October 17–20, Texas Rose Festival, Tyler. This East Texas city calls itself “The Rose Capital of the World” and this annual event has been held since 1933 to showcase the city’s famous blooms. Each year, thousands of flower fans flock to this three-day event. The festival starts with regal pomp and circumstance at the coronation of the Rose Queen and her court and continues with art shows, flower displays, the Rose Parade through downtown Tyler and an arts and craft fair. Visit www.texasrosefestival.net
Oct. 19-20. Pet Fest, Old Town Spring. Near Houston, the community of Old Town Spring invites you to bring Fido (or Fluffy) and take part in the PetFest Costume Contest. This year’s theme is “The Wizard of Paws” – so look for plenty of Totos at this popular event. You’ll also have the chance to do some shopping, enjoy live music and pet demonstrations, take part in a Blessing of the Pets, and even consult with a pet psychic. Visit www.petfestoldtownspring.com
Oct. 25-27. Czhilispiel, Flatonia. Between Houston and San Antonio just off I-10, this tiny burg becomes a happening hotspot on the fourth full weekend in October thanks to this popular chili festival. Its origins are some of the most interesting of any state festival: Flatonia needed a doctor and held a fundraiser to send a local student to medical school. Today the proceeds continue to assist local students and the community. Activities include a jalapeño-eating contest, chili and barbecue cook-offs, an egg toss, a mechanical bull, live music, a pageant, a carnival, a petting zoo, a car and truck show, arts and crafts and a washer pitching tournament. Visit www.flatoniachamber.com
Nov. 1-10. Wurstfest, New Braunfels. This annual 10-day salute to sausage, suds and song has been drawing revelers to this community north of San Antonio since 1961. Designed to celebrate the German heritage of New Braunfels, Wurstfest is consistently named one of the top festivals in the nation, drawing over 100,000 visitors that come to polka to the sounds of accordion tunes and to sample the sausage for which this event is known. Visit www.wurstfest.com
Before you head off to one of the many festivals in the Lone Star State, be sure to order the free Texas Travel Guide and a state map at www.traveltex.com, the official Texas tourism site.
About the Authors: Paris Permenter and John Bigley are a husband-wife team of travel writers based in the Texas Hill Country. The authors of numerous guidebooks to the Lone Star State, their next book is DogTipper’s Texas with Dogs (Open Road Guides), to be published in November.