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21 Unique California Events

21 Unique California Events

These regional celebrations show a quirky, diverse side of the Golden State

Thanks to the harvest seasons, annual wildlife migrations, and a lot of fascinating history, California hosts a cool festival pretty much every weekend. Plan a trip around one of these special events to celebrate garlic, whales, frog-jumping, and more—and also to embrace the spirit of these interesting places. Ed. note: Before traveling to any of the following events, check with their respective websites for exact dates.

1. Bigfoot Days, Willow Creek

The furry Sasquatch hermit gets feted with a parade, ice-cream social, watermelon-eating contest, lawnmower races, and a Bigfoot Calling Contest every Labor Day weekend. Sponsored by the local history museum, Bigfoot Days—sometimes spelled “Daze”—honors not just the hard-to-find hominid but also Humboldt County’s logging heritage. Extend your visit with this Bigfoot Byway Road Trip

2. Kinetic Grand Championship, Humboldt County

Artists, engineers, and athletes build human-powered vehicles resembling high-heeled shoes, submarines, chickens, and chocolate éclairs, then race them over 50 grueling miles of land, sea, sand, and mud from Arcata to Ferndale. The three-day May race—part art, part science, and all zany good times—has been a revered tradition since 1969. (Kinetic Grand Championship)

3. Red Bluff Round-Up, Red Bluff

The largest three-day rodeo in the country, this bucking-bronco bash in Tehama County features barrel racing, mutton busting, and roping exhibitions, plus some activities that horses can’t take part in, like Western line dancing, a chili cookoff, and a bowling tournament. Don’t miss the Wild Ride, in which top-rated cowboys and cowgirls compete in full costume and are judged for their riding, creativity, and showmanship.

4. Mendocino Coast Whale Festivals, Mendocino Coast

When you’re celebrating a creature as big as a whale, why not super-size the fun over three weekends and four towns? Every spring, the Mendocino County towns of Little River, Fort Bragg, Mendocino, and Westport take turns celebrating the magnificent gray whales passing by their shores, and local culinary experts elevate the party—reserve a spot for chowder, wine, and beer tastings. (Mendocino Coast Whale Festivals)

5. Gravenstein Apple Fair, Sebastopol

Taste just about any treat that can be made with Gravenstein apples, a variety that ripens in late July. Tart-crisp Gravs have just the right flavor for applesauce, cider, and pitch-perfect pie. Sample them all at this late summer festival, along with other Sonoma County farm-to-table specialties like black mission figs, artisan cheeses, and succulent olives—then attend a presentation on backyard beekeeping or how to raise your own chickens. (Gravenstein Apple Fair)

6. Lodi Grape Festival, Lodi

Midway between Stockton and Sacramento, Lodi is a hip-and-happening wine-tasting destination, but its family-oriented grape festival has been around since 1937. At this September celebration, sip peppery Zinfandels and sweet Pinot Grigios inside the Grape Pavilion while your kids have fun petting goats and watching turkey races. Don’t miss the mosaic-style murals made entirely out of grapes.

7. Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee, Angels Camp

In 1865, Mark Twain publicized the Gold Rush pastime of frog-jumping in his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and ever since, the Calaveras County town of Angels Camp has made sure the sport endures. Bullfrogs steal the spotlight at this four-day May event, which kicks off with a parade, carnival rides, and music performances. The revelry culminates in the International Frog Jump Grand Finals, in which 50 frogs leap across the stage toward amphibian glory. Since 1986, no frog has been able to break Rosie the Ribiter’s record of 21 feet plus almost 6 inches. (Calaveras County Fair & Frog Jump Jubilee)

8. San Joaquin Asparagus Festival, Stockton

Grilled, skewered, deep-fried, roasted, boiled, broiled, or baked—if there’s a creative way to cook asparagus, you’ll learn about it here. A springtime homage to the skinny green stalks loaded with antioxidants, this three-day extravaganza attracts thousands of visitors to Asparagus Alley and Asparagus Plaza, open-air food courts where you can taste asparagus lumpia, asparagus corn dogs, and asparagus ice cream, and take in a midway lined with carnival rides, cooking demonstrations, car and craft shows, and live music. 

9. Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua, Lee Vining

Show off your ability to mimic a mountain chickadee or a varied thrush in the Mono Basin Bird Calling Contest, a popular feature of this June avian festival. Birders come from all over the country to see what species they can spot in the wildly diverse mountain and desert landscapes surrounding Mono Lake. Renowned ornithologists, bird guides, and wildlife artists make presentations and lead field trips.

10. San Francisco Pride Parade & Celebration, San Francisco

The City by the Bay puts on one of the largest Pride festivals in the world with an all-day parade, rainbow-hued floats, over-the-top costumes, cabaret performances, inspirational speeches, and a joy- and hope-filled vibe. The massive event attracts people of all orientations who wish to celebrate the huge strides made by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer civil rights movement—and who can resist a great party? (San Francisco Pride Celebration & Parade)

11. Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival, Half Moon Bay  

This coastal farming town bursts with pumpkin pride, and in October, the gourd-worship reaches full tilt at this annual festival. Dress up in orange and race in the 5K Pumpkin Run, sip pumpkin-flavored beer, watch Farmer Mike carve 300-pound pumpkins into whimsical sculptures, or stuff your face in the pumpkin pie-eating contest. The premier event is the World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, in which mega-gourds the size of Volkswagens tip the scales at more than 2,000 pounds. (Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival)

12. Gilroy Garlic Festival, Gilroy

Garlic lovers from around the globe pilgrimage to Gilroy to attend this food and wine fest celebrating one of Central California's biggest crops, the “stinking rose.” Follow your nose through Gourmet Alley, where garlic cloves are incorporated into all the expected foodstuffs—garlic fries, shrimp scampi, escargot—plus a few surprises like garlic ice cream and garlic upside-down cake. Live bands entertain the crowd from multiple stages, artists sell their wares, and the children's area offers games, crafts, and other kiddie fun.

13. Artichoke Festival, Monterey County

You can stuff artichokes into burritos, pair them with foie gras, puree them in soup, and dip them in aioli. Or you can go for the shock factor and bake them into cupcakes. The “Artichoke Center of the World” sponsors this food-centric festival featuring chef demonstrations, an artichoke sculpture contest, a charity golf tournament, and plenty of old-fashioned charm. (Artichoke Festival)

13. California Avocado Festival, Carpinteria

Expand your avocado horizons at “Avofest,” an October gala honoring this nutrient-dense fruit (no, it’s not a vegetable). The three-day party features live music, art shows, and vendors serving up yummy green concoctions from avocado smoothies to refreshing avocado ice cream. Enter your recipe in the guacamole taste-off, learn about Santa Barbara County’s avocado industry, and don’t miss the Largest Avocado Contest. The champion usually tops four pounds.

14. Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, Santa Clarita/Newhall

Polish up your pointy-toe boots and practice your swagger for this April hoedown at William S. Hart Park, in this area north of Los Angeles. Cowboy culture is the focus of an event roster featuring a cowboy cook-off, chuckwagon barbecue, roping demonstrations, mechanical bull riding, and readings by cowboy poets. Five stages showcase live bands playing folk, country, and bluegrass music. Even if you can’t spin a lasso, you’ll want to eat the Dutch-oven peach cobbler.

15. California Strawberry Festival, Oxnard

You’re probably familiar with strawberry margaritas and chocolate-dipped strawberries, but this May celebration may be your first chance to taste strawberry-infused tamales, beer, nachos, and pizza. Traditionalists can build their own shortcakes or enter the strawberry-pie-eating contest (no utensils allowed). (California Strawberry Festival)

16. International Surf Festival, Los Angeles County

Top athletes wow the crowds in this four-city surfing festival, but they’re not pros competing for big money. Local lifeguards are the stars, with teams competing in events like the Lifeguard Medley Relay, a pier-to-pier swim, and a six-person beach volleyball tournament. The South Bay cities of Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, and Torrance take turns hosting events.

17. Indio International Tamale Festival, Indio

Indulge in tamale goodness at the Coachella Valley’s homage to this beloved Mexican dish. Taste the creations of more than 70 tamale vendors. Go traditional with pork, beef, or chicken, or go maverick with blueberry cream, pineapple, or pumpkin. The tamale festival made it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1999 for the largest tamale—40 feet long and over a foot in diameter.

18. Pageant of the Masters, Laguna Beach

Local residents dress up in costumes and pose in front of elaborate stage sets, creating living imitations of classical paintings and statues at this longtime festival in Orange County. They’re accompanied by an orchestra, sophisticated stage lighting, and live narration. Tickets sell out way in advance for this summer spectacle, which runs simultaneously with the Festival of the Arts. (Festival of Arts, Pageant of the Masters)

19. Festival of Whales, Dana Point

Bring your kids to this family-friendly cetacean celebration to fuel their dreams of becoming marine biologists when they grow up. The March festival includes a whale-themed parade and 5K run, sand-castle-building workshops, cardboard dinghy races, marine mammal lectures and exhibits, and of course, whale-watching cruises. Since Dana Point is a Whale Heritage Site, you have a great chance of seeing gray, humpback, or minke whales. 

20. Festival of the Sea, San Diego

San Diego’s bayfront Embarcadero brings the era of nineteenth-century tall ships to life every Memorial Day weekend as majestic vintage ships parade across San Diego Bay and fire their cannons in mock battles. On land, maritime fans enjoy great food and beer, plus nautical-themed attractions: presentations on sailing history, pirate shows, and tours of historic vessels. 

21. Death Valley ‘49ers Encampment, Death Valley

Bring your fiddle, banjo, or mandolin to this six-day celebration of the Gold Rush pioneering days, when wagon trains passed through Death Valley on their way to the goldfields. Join the encampment at the Oasis at Death Valley and test your skills at gold panning, wheelbarrow races, or liars’ contests; go for a wagon ride pulled by Belgian draft horses; browse through the craft booths; or just kick back and listen to the musicians fiddling and yodeling like it’s 1849.

California Winery

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