Balloons at the Stratobowl in South Dakota | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota
Balloons at the Stratobowl in South Dakota | Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

Float Into Fall with These 9 September Travel Ideas

Islands, outdoor fests, brand new openings, and more places to travel this month.

After what seemed like the longest summer ever last year, this one just flew by, didn’t it? But never fear: there’s still a few weeks of fun in the sun left. And if you’re ready to bundle up in sweaters and order a PSL, that’s cool too. Anything goes in September (really, go ahead and put out the big skeleton. Halloween starts when you say it does).

This is the month of hot air balloon festivals! Uncrowded beaches! Mysterious lights on the horizon in Texas and the second-largest UFO festival in Oregon. There’s musical fare: from festivals to an outdoor musical in cowboy country. And there’s buffalo. So. many. buffalo. So strap in, mask up, and check out some of these places to visit this September.

Float up and away at a hot air balloon festival

Did you know that if you’re really good at piloting a hot air balloon, they let you play games in them? That’s the premise of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race, anyway, happening in St. Louis (Sept. 17-18). Pilots try to hit a target on the ground with beanbags (or something along those lines) and spectators get to watch and presumably try not to get hit.

In fact, there are so many balloon festivals this month you may just accidentally stumble upon one: like the Stratobowl Historic Hot Air Balloon Launch in Rapid City, South Dakota (Sept. 10-12), or the Paris Balloon & Music Festival in Texas (Sept. 10-12), or the Lancaster Hot Air Balloon Festival in Pennsylvania (Sept. 17-19). Some of them offer rides, others you just post up with a blanket and watch. Meanwhile the Balloon Glow Tour is traveling through St. Louis, Atlanta, and Raleigh. So if you’re still trying to decide where to travel this month, maybe just go up.

Be inspired with a hotel stay in Hudson Valley, New York

New York’s Hudson Valley has its own hot air balloon festival this Labor Day weekend, followed by the Hudson Valley Wine Fest in Rhinebeck (Sept. 11-12). Either fest is a solid excuse to book a room at the new Amelia Hotel, a country-style historic mansion with a pool, or the newly renovated Hudson Whaler, which features non-historic, remote-controlled fireplaces in every room.

If it’s creative inspiration you seek, head to the Maker Hotel. Opened in August of 2020, it occupies three historic townhouses, and each of its 11 rooms are stuffed with art and antiques, loosely themed around a different creative sensibility (The Architect, The Writer, The Gardener, etc.) There’s also a room where you can play with hundreds of fragrances (the owners are the founders of Fresh).

Get desert festive in Marfa, Texas

Think of Marfa and you probably picture a lone, desert-dwelling Prada store (though the famous installation is actually 37 miles outside of town). You might also think of the mysterious Marfa Lights, unexplained-but-possibly-UFO-related lights that dance on the horizon in the Chihuahuan Desert. They’ve inspired the long-running Marfa Lights Festival (Sept. 3-5), which is free to attend and completely outdoors. Come for the bizarre phenomena; stay for the live music and food parade.

Stick around because the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love (Sept. 22-26) returns at 50 percent capacity. There will be workshops, a sandlot baseball game, massage tents, and mechanical bull riding (!). It’s like the music doesn’t even matter. J/k it’s a packed lineup, including Parquet Courts, Meshell Ndegeocello, Courtney Barnett, Ben Kweller, and Sleater-Kinney.

Drink wine and spot UFOs in McMinnville, Oregon

Speaking of Unindentified Flying Phenomena, the town of McMinnville, Oregon, will host McMenamins UFO Fest (Sept. 24-25)—a massive UFO festival second only to Roswell’s in New Mexico. There will be lectures on alien time travel theories, talks by folks who have had close encounters, outdoor fairs, and costume contests. And if you get thirsty (or need to take the edge off of the conspiracy theories) McMinnville is right in the middle of Oregon wine country, so grab a glass of some of their famous Pinot Noir. You can also visit the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, home to Howard Hughes’ massive wooden IFO Spruce Goose. (IFO = Identified Flying Object. Apologies.)

Go see the latest trippy art installation from Meow Wolf

You know where else you’ll find aliens? In Denver, at Convergence Station: Meow Wolf’s third art exhibit/immersive experience/giant funhouse (opening Sept. 17). The 90,000 square-foot complex centers around an intricate backstory (classic Meow Wolf) involving an interplanetary crash and underlying themes of immigration and assimilation. There are tons of mind-bending rooms and pockets to play in, many of them designed by Colorado-based artists including Katlyn Heffernan and Gregg Ziemba of the band Wheelchair Sports Camp.

Stick around and explore Colorado

Explore outside of Denver with these seven mountain towns you’ll want to hit before the weather turns cold. And might we suggest a Rocky Mountain road trip? We’ve curated the ultimate Colorado road trip itinerary: past Golden for its cool new breweries and concert lineup at Red Rocks; Breckenridge for all kinds of fun mountain action; Buena Vista for whitewater rafting; and Crested Butte for floral-filled hiking.

And if you’re up for a hike with a little extra incentive,reward yourself after summiting Pike’s Peak—Colorado’s highest mountain and the inspiration for “America the Beautiful”— with a donut. Yes, friend, 14,115 feet up in the air is a decommissioned weather station that’s been turned into a purveyor of coffee and delicious fried wonders for just $1.29 a pop. Also we lied: you don’t have to hike there, you can also get to the top by driving, or take the train. Donuts for all!

Spin right round (baby right ‘round) at an outdoor music festival

This year thanks to a little pandemic, a few music festivals usually held in the summer have been pushed to September. But we’re not mad at it. We love a fall breeze. Gather in Chicago for the Pitchfork Music Fest (Sept. 10-12) and catch headliners Phoebe Bridgers, St. Vincent, and Erykah Badu (ladies let’s gooooo) plus way too many others to list—just check the website.

Over in Dover, Delaware, is the Firefly Festival (Sept. 23-26) with a roller rink, silent disco, Pride parade, and performances from The Killers, Cage the Elephant, and more. That same weekend is AFROPUNK in Atlanta (tagline: We Outside!!!), and Governors Ball in New York: show up for Billie Eilish, A$AP Rocky, Future Islands, Megan Thee Stallion, and Post Malone. And come hungry: Gov Ball is also known for its food curation, from baos to ceviche to lobster rolls to local fave La Newyorkina Mexican ice pops.

Pick a Dakota, any Dakota

If you haven’t checked in with the Dakotas in a while, September would be an excellent time. Start up north at the oft-overlooked Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a vast landscape of petrified forests, steaming coal trails, and multi-colored views of the park’s signature Painted Canyon. Then head next door for some entertainment. Through September 11th, you can catch the Medora Musical: a 90-minute revue recounting the history of small town Medora and the life of Theodore Roosevelt. It’s in an outdoor amphitheater, backed by a Hollywood-style “Medora” sign. And there’s dinner too, in the form of fried meats lowered into a boiling vat on a giant pitchfork. You know, North Dakota-style.

Then, go south. It’s a magical time to visit Custer State Park, located in the Black Hills of western South Dakota and home to around 1,400 bison. This month is the annual buffalo roundup (Sept. 23-25) when cowgirls and cowboys (some are public volunteers, which in the future could be you) corral the furry beasts for counting, vaccination, and health checks. It’s a spectacle of Wild West proportions and you can watch it all go down: just bring a folding chair, something warm to drink, and keep an eye out for any steaming piles.

Soak up the last rays of summer

OK, doing stuff is cool, but maybe you’re tired and you just want to relax on a beach with a good book and cocktail in hand. We feel you, we’ve got you, and here’s a secret: some of the most iconic beach towns are even better in the shoulder season. There’s more parking, less people, and you can actually get a reservation at restaurants. And in Virginia Beach, there’s even an International Sand Sculpting Championship (Sept. 24-26), part of the annual seaside Neptune Festival.

For a chill, classic New England beach vacation, we’re all about Block Island, an underrated beach getaway that’s just a quick ferry ride from Rhode Island. Sample Rhode Island clam chowder (it’s clear, not creamy), take lazy strolls with sweeping ocean views, hop on a bike for a self-guided tour, and hunt for sea-glass along the shore— oh, and keep your eyes peeled for glass floats (or orbs) hidden along the island trails by local glass artist Eben Horton.

Summer’s not over until we say it is.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She has been to the buffalo roundup, and met a cowboy in his 80s named Bob. She hopes he is doing well.