McMenamins UFO Festival
Seems a little foggy in those helmets, but maybe that's how aliens like it. | Photo by Jim Fischer; Courtesy of McMenamins UFO Festival
Seems a little foggy in those helmets, but maybe that's how aliens like it. | Photo by Jim Fischer; Courtesy of McMenamins UFO Festival

The Wackiest, Most Unusual Spring Festivals in the U.S.

From stuffing your face with grits to just watching ice melt, there’s something for everyone.

The weather is warmer, the flowers are blooming. and the animals are emerging. And so, dutifully, are we. With COVID restrictions relaxing we have two years of socializing to make up for. That, plus festival season, means that we’re gonna go hard. And things may get a little wacky.

Sure, you can meet up at more traditional affairs: wildflower viewings, tulip extravaganzas, or music festivals (Coachella returns in just a couple of weeks), but why not do something out of the ordinary? If you’re up for anything—or should your tastes run esoteric—we’ve got some quirky spring festivals to shake off the winter blahs once and for all, UFOs included.

St. George, South Carolina
April 8-9
The region around St. George, South Carolina—just a stone’s throw away from Charleston—consumes more grits per capita than anywhere else in the country. And who can blame them? The creamy and nutty cornmeal staple of Southern cuisine is a chameleon, served with just about anything. Since 1986 they’ve been celebrating their championship status with the World Grits Festival and usually the event includes a “rolling in the grits” competition, where an inflatable kiddie pool is filled with grits and contestants—you guessed it—roll around in it, trapping as many grits on their body as possible in 10 seconds. Sadly the times dictate that they forego the spectacle this year, but there’s still plenty of action over the weekend, from a corn toss contest to a wheelbarrow contest to a grits eating contest. There’s even a parade. BYO corn on the cob costume.

Nenana Ice Classic
The tripod setup at the Nenana Ice Classic. When it falls, someone gets rich. | James Brooks/flickr

Nenana, Alaska
Until the ice breaks
Since 1917, the citizens of Nenana, Alaska—current population 341—have been betting on Mother Nature. In the only legal gambling in the state, every year wagers are made on when the exact moment the ice on the frozen Tenanan river will break, measured by a clock connected to a tripod set up 300 feet from shore. Tripod falls in, clock stops, and winners take home quite the jackpot. In 1917 the pool began at $800, bet on by a group of railroad workers. Last year, it was up to $255,000. A Tripod Days festival is held in early March, with attractions like sled dog races, dance contests, cutest baby and banana eating contests, concluding with the raising of the tripod. But even if you missed that, there’s still time to get a bet in and perhaps get up there to watch the action go down: Tickets are sold all around Alaska for $2.50; time of breakage in 2021 clocked in on April 30 at 12:50 p.m.

Northampton, Massachusetts
April 15-17
In this three-day extravaganza, Carniroll, the carnival-festival hybrid, presents its own hybrid to celebrate Earth Day and 4/20, with a lineup of 50 performers including Waka Flocka, Griz, Method Man, Redman, and Wiz Khalifa. Plus there’s a car show, wrestling matches, seminars on Earth consciousness, hot air balloon rides, and an NFT auction where attendees can bid on tokens for experiences like sitting on a throne on the side of the stage, and pressing the button to kick off the fireworks. And we haven’t even gotten to the weed part yet, except that they must have partaken in quite a bit while planning this thing. Also, you can leave the festival to re-up, by placing an order on Jack’s Cannabis on Weedmaps, then catching a Weedmaps shuttle to the dispensary and back.

Honolulu, Hawaii
April 22- May 1
Did you know that Hawaii consumes 7 million cans of Spam a year? Their love for the processed meat dates back to WWII, when it was a staple of the GI diet. And now, they throw an annual sodium-packed celebration—this year lasting nine days—making it the biggest festival in Hawaii. Sample creative Spam dishes from local restaurants, like crispy wontons topped with avocado and Spam, and Hula pie (macadamia nut ice cream on a cookie crust) with candied Spam (!), participate in Spam-related activities on the Waikiki Beach Walk, and have photo ops with life-sized cans of Spam. Or, rather, people wearing costumes of life-sized cans of Spam.

Mount Olive, North Carolina
April 22
What’s the dill with North Carolina’s affinity for pickles? Specifically, the community of Mount Olive, home of the Mt. Olive pickle brand since 1923? We don’t know, but we’re happy to reap the sweet and sour bounty, at their annual day-long Pickle Festival. Come for the free pickles, stay for the pickle murals, pickle train, competitions like a 5K evening run (costumed, and glowing), a pickle packing challenge, mascot race and, of course, a pickle eating contest, where the winner gets $100 and a year’s supply of pickles. They may not want to see any more pickles after that, but hey, it’s a prime opportunity to make friends.

McMenamins UFO Festival
The aliens (or whatever this is) at the McMenamins UFO Festival come in peace. | Photo by Jim Fischer; Courtesy of the McMenamins UFO Festival

McMinnville, Oregon
May 13-14
Whether you’re all-in on extraterrestrials or just curious about what lurks in the final frontier, the annual McMenamins UFO fest will be sure to enlighten. Based on an actual UFO sighting in the area in 1950, this year’s festival has expert speakers like author and UFO experiencer Whitley Strieber, and Bryan Bender, who focuses on the Pentagon, NASA, and the defense and aerospace industries for POLITICO. So maybe some of your questions will be answered. Or maybe not. Either way, there’s free events like an Alien Costume Ball, UFO parade, and pet costume contest, plus live music, vendors and plenty of wine: the Willamette Valley happens to be one of the wine capitals of the US. So, if you don’t believe in aliens when you first get there, maybe just have a couple of drinks then see how you feel.

Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival
So pretty, so invasive. | Courtesy of Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida
May 14-15
You may know lionfish as the striped showstopper sprucing up aquariums in dentists offices throughout the land, but there’s a dark side to its beauty. When this invasive predator species finds its way into coastal waters—especially reef ecosystems—it wreaks havoc, consuming over 50 species of fish, competing for food with dwindling populations of native dwellers, and taking out the species that actually help the reefs. To raise awareness about the problem, and celebrate those who help curb it, the Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day Festival was created. The two-day festival includes tastings of lionfish, conservation booths, and information on how you can become a Reef Ranger (worth it just for the title). It coincides with the annual Emerald Coast Open tournament, where teams harvest as many lionfish as they can for prizes and glory.

Picking out antlers at Elkfest. | Harvey O. Stowe/Shutterstock

Jackson, Wyoming
May 21-22
Mid-March, when the weather beckons toward spring, is when elk (and deer, and moose) shed their antlers. Hunting for these sheds has become a favorite pastime in Wyoming, a way to emerge from winter by getting some fresh air and exercise, and perhaps come home with a prize. These sheds are also the reason for Elkfest, an annual celebration centered around an antler auction (and anything else collected, like skulls), benefiting the National Elk Refuge and local boy scouts. Other events on the roster: learning about elks from wildlife experts, boy scout training, and chili. The whole thing kicks off Jackson Hole’s Old West Days, spanning Memorial Day weekend with ranch tours, brewfests, nightly Old West shootouts, and a free concert (last year it was Travis Tritt).

Chittenango, New York
June 3-5
Boy, do people love to celebrate Wizard of Oz. In Kansas alone there’s a yellow brick road in Sedan—the world’s longest, with its own Yellow Brick Road festival—plus Dorothy’s House and a Land of Oz in Liberal, and the Oz Museum in Wamego. But while the books and movies have a nebulous “Kansas” as a setting—allowing them all to lay claim to the fiction, in Chittenango, New York, they have more concrete evidence: it’s the birthplace of author L. Frank Baum. And as such they celebrate, with fireworks, a parade, and special shows and events. See landmarks from Baum’s life, like where he was married, and visit the All Things Oz Museum, with Oz memorabilia, including Munchkin costumes, original props, and Judy Garland’s autograph.

Fort Valley and Byron, Georgia
June 3-4 and 11
Want to see the world’s largest peach cobbler? You’ll find it at the Georgia Peach Festival, a joint effort between the cities of Fort Valley and Byron that kicks off peach season, which runs through August. Peaches were first planted in the area in the 18th century, with the first commercial production happening in the mid-19th century. Today, the festival celebrates the farmers that make it all happen, with pancake breakfasts, concerts, fireworks, and plenty of peaches. Including that colossal cobbler, made annually and measuring 11 feet by 5 feet, 8 inches deep, housing 75 gallons of peaches. Bring your own container and you’re welcome to shovel some in to take home with you.

Duck Tape Festival
Duck Tape, but make it fashion. | Rona Proudfoot/Flickr

Avon, Ohio
June 16-18
Avon, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, is the home of Shurtape Technologies, makers of Duck Tape brand duct tape. And they love that fact. Because coming in just under the wire of spring—sealing their chances to be in this roundup—is the annual Duck Tape Festival. As dads love duct tape, it takes place on Father’s Day weekend, and is free to attend, with crafts, games, food, a parade, a fashion show and lots of stickiness (be careful what you touch). Plus, life-sized Duck Tape sculptures. This year’s theme is “Knock It Out of the Park,” so expect plenty of baseball-themed shenanigans.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Tbh watching ice melt sounds to her like a great time.