Attend the Ultimate Fall Festival in the 'Pumpkin Capital of the World'

Pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin cupcakes, pumpkin donuts, etc.

As evidenced by the abrupt omnipresence of pumpkin spice on menus and in grocery aisles, it’s clear that fall has—unofficially—arrived. After all, the Starbucks calendar is more accurate than the Gregorian. In addition to potable pumpkin, it’s also the season for festivals oriented around the orange gourd, wherein quaint communities serve up pumpkin treats with all manner of fanfare. And although pumpkin patches and fall festivals can be found all over the country, from Dallas-Fort Worth to New York City, there’s one place in particular that holds the crown for the ultimate pumpkin festival: the Pumpkin Capital of the World, aka Morton, Illinois.

For the uninitiated, the central Illinois community of Morton is responsible for 85% of the world’s canned pumpkin, which means pumpkins far outnumber the people in this city of 17,000, and if they were ever to become sentient, its residents would have a big problem. It also means it’s the nexus of fall festivities, as the longtime home of Morton Pumpkin Festival. This year’s festival, taking place September 13 - 16, marks its 57th year of pumpkin merriment, and it’s only grown over time to become a state fair-sized spectacle.

What started in 1967 as a humble celebration of the harvest, and the canning season at local Libby’s Pumpkin Plant, has evolved into a major money-maker for the community—and a core part of its identity, as the Governor declared it the Pumpkin Capital of the World in 1978. Nowadays, a far cry from its modest roots, the festival has more than 30 events and venues featured over the course of a few days, upwards of 75,000 attendees, and annual themes—voted on by a very serious-sounding Pumpkin Festival Advisory Committee—like Pumpkins Go Hollywood, Superhero Pumpkins, and this year’s: Farmin’ Pumpkins.

Over the course of the fest this year, visitors can expect parades, live music, pageants, competitions, costumes, and of course, pumpkin-centric eats, including a pumpkin pancake breakfast, pumpkin cupcakes, pumpkin donuts, and a pumpkin drive-thru for one-the-go snacks. There’s also a carnival with Americana kitsch like corn dogs and lemon shake-ups. Beyond the food, the festival features a pumpkin store filled with merch and swag, an arts and craft market, competitions like pie-eating contests and a pumpkin-decorating contest, and a Pumpkin Pride parade where everyone is encouraged to wear orange. The festival is free to attend, and tickets can be purchased for carnival rides and games.

Morton Pumpkin Festival

Drive time:

2.5 hours from Chicago.
3 hours from Indianapolis.
3,5 hours from Milwaukee.

More things to do in Morton:

In case you aren’t pumpkin’d out from the festival, you can keep the theme going with a visit to Roth Pumpkin Patch, complete with a playground, barn snacks, petting zoo, and the opportunity to simulate milking a cow. Ackerman Family Farms is another festive option, ripe with gourds, specialty foods, and even a sprawling corn maze.

It’s not all pumpkins around here. The town of Morton is also filled with curated boutiques, many of which are decked out in pumpkin decor for the season. Thr3ads Boutique has pumpkin tank tops, sweatshirts, and candles; The Nook features all sorts of accessories, apparel, and housewares; Pudik’s Antiquities is a treasure trove of jams, jellies, and vintage finds; and Lulu’s on Main is a family-friendly affair with toys, games, and puzzles aplenty.

For more family fun, the Children’s Discovery Museum in nearby Normal, is a great place to get hands-on and whimsical, with three floors of interactive edutainment and exhibits. While slightly less hands-on and whimsical, the Ronald Reagan Museum in Eureka is another option. Or there’s the Peoria Riverfront Museum, a vast collection that covers everything from the human heart to West African art.

Feeling the need for outdoorsy adventure? The Wildlife Prairie Park has everything from kayak rentals and disc golf to train rides and hiking trails. Come October, the park also features Wildlife Scary Park on weekends, with the likes of trick-or-treating, hayrides, live music, and food vendors.

Where to stay in Morton:

Fairly straightforward, the Morton area has all your standard budget hotel chains, while the Cornerstone Inn—in nearby Washington—is a charming B&B in a historic building where Abe Lincoln formerly held meetings before he was President.

Where to eat in Morton:

Considering the town’s affinity for pumpkins, there is no shortage of pumpkin-themed eats, cafes, and restaurants around Morton. In the morning, rise and shine with pumpkin chocolate chip scones and requisite pumpkin spice lattes at Four30 Scones, or opt for pumpkin waffles—and pumpkin spice waffle nachos—at Sucre. On the savory side, Office on Main is a frills-free pub that serves items like pumpkin chili and pumpkin pulled pork, while Schooners of Morton offers a reprieve with things like breaded mushrooms, wings, chicken tenders, and whitefish platters. Seasons Gastropub is more contemporary, serving up craft beer and smoked meatloaf in rustic-chic environs. For more beer, direct from the source, visit nearby Peoria and stop by Rhodell Brewery or Bearded Owl Brewing.

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Matt Kirouac is a Thrillist contributor.