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It’s summer and the mountains are calling. Aside from the normal checklist of activities (hello hiking, biking, and boating), Colorado’s festival season has begun. Here are 11 of the most unique and underrated festivals happening in Colorado’s mountain towns. Trust us, they’re worth the drive.
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Mike the Headless Chicken Festival
One of Colorado’s most unique festivals celebrates Miracle Mike, an infamous Fruita-born chicken whose butchering went awry. Headless Mike went on to live 18(!) more months, and garnered a Guinness World Record for Longest Surviving Headless Chicken. The two-day event features an eclectic mix of activities, including a disc golf tournament, cornhole tournament, 5K run, a poultry show, a rooster-calling contest, and of course, a chicken dance. With a host of other festival-like activities and live music, we don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t fly the coup and head to Fruita right now.
Where: Fruita (254 miles from Denver)
Perfect companion: The lover of the obscure and the one with the will to live
FIBArk, or “First in Boating the Arkansas,” launched in 1949 when six boats started down a 57-mile run on the Arkansas River from Salida to Cañon City. Today, the country’s oldest whitewater festival has grown into a multi-day festival that celebrates paddling enthusiasts. The river races, open to adults and youth, range from freestyle kayaking to raft sprints to a hooligan race (featuring anything that floats that isn’t a boat) and everything in between. While you can participate in these events or spectate, the festival also has a number of ways to keep your feet on solid ground, including disc golf, mountain biking, and live music.
Where: Salida (142 miles from Denver)
Cost: Free to spectate; participation costs vary from $10 to $70 depending on the event.
Perfect companion: Your friend who doesn’t go anywhere without their wetsuit. Or your Dad—it is Father’s Day weekend, after all.
Rapids & Grass Beer and Music Fest
June 30–July 1
There are few things that are more “Colorado” than bluegrass, river sports, and craft beer. For two days in Buena Vista, you can experience unlimited beer tastings from 41 craft breweries while jamming next to the Arkansas River. If the river is just too tempting, you can join in on a seven-mile float (ticket required) from the venue to the Riverside Grill on Sunday, July 2. Headlining acts include Rapidgrass, Head for the Hills, Gipsy Moon, and more.
Where: Buena Vista (134 miles from Denver)
Cost: $40 for the festival pass, $70 for the festival pass, plus the seven-mile raft adventure on Sunday, July 2
Perfect companion: The Chaco-wearing, harmonic-playing friend who is quick to judge your Coors Light
Green Box Arts Festival
If you believe context matters to an artwork’s meaning, then you’ll fit right in at the Green Box Arts Festival. Since 2009, this summer arts showcase has used the scenic mountain setting of Green Mountain Falls as a backdrop for performers to share art, dance, and music. This year the festival features dazzling light sculptures from British artist Bruce Munro, who cited 2001: A Space Odyssey as the inspiration for the exhibit.
Where: Green Mountain Falls (85 miles from Denver)
Cost: Free to see performances, but artist workshops require paid tickets
Perfect companion: Your friend who loves Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like, dude, we get it, it’s a classic.
These days you can find lavender in everything from jellies to essential oils. Palisade’s unique lavender festival—the only in Colorado—offers an in-depth look into the industry, from bloom to product. Whether through motor-coach tours on Friday or the self-guided tours on Sunday, you can travel the valley and visit a number of businesses and farms that grow the plant. On Saturday, there will be a festival in the park with vendors selling lavender-inspired or -infused foods, beverages, and products (bath and beauty, jewelry and more), and a number of workshops and demonstrations throughout the day.
Where: Palisade (231 miles from Denver)
Cost: Free to attend the festival and some workshops; costs for tours and additional workshops range from $20 t0 $95
Perfect companion: The one who loves all things crafty, if you can pull them away from their weekly farmer’s market trips
You’ll have to get to Bald Eagle Lake at 6 a.m. to see the hot air balloons inflate and launch, but this scenic, choreographed take-off is worth it. About 30 hot-air balloons will soar across Steamboat from the very early morning until the semi-early morning (read: 9:30 a.m.). Once the balloons are up, grab some much-needed coffee and a bite from local vendors stationed around the lake. For late-risers, you can still catch the balloons at the Balloon Glow, where they’re parked on the ground and lit up as night falls over Steamboat Springs.
Where: Bald Eagle Lake, Steamboat Springs (156 miles from Denver)
Perfect companion: The morning-person. No, seriously, leave the snoozers at home.
A trip to Gunnison should already be on every local adventurer’s summer travel itinerary. The funky ranching town is surrounded by stunning views and easy access to kayaking, SUP, and canyon hikes. But the perfect time to visit has to be during the 117th Cattlemen’s Days—a 10-day festival that highlights everything we love about Colorado’s western roots. Rodeo events, horse shows, and a boot-stomping show at I Bar Ranch catapults the fest to can’t-miss status.
Where: Gunnison (200 miles from Denver)
Cost: General Admission: Adults, $20; Kids under 12, $5 with paid GA adult; Grandstand Tickets: $25
Perfect companion: The friend who never needs an excuse to wear cowboy boots
Vail International Dance Festival
July 29–August 12
Since 1989, Coloradans have flocked to the Vail Valley to see world-class dance in action. The annual two-weeks-long Vail Dance Festival brings some the industry’s finest performers to the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. Our pick? The August 7 show, “Celebrating Women Choreographers,” which features tap performances from elite dancers such as Michelle Dorrance, Lauren Lovette of the New York City Ballet, and ballet choreographer Claudia Schreier.
Where: Vail (97 miles from Denver)
Cost: Price varies, but ranges from about $23–$115
Perfect companion: The one who would prefer tap dance over a night at the club
Colorado Scottish Festival
This massive festival in Snowmass is the living tradition of the Scottish Highland Games. Relive the competition of these games through Highland dancing, piping and drumming, and traditional Scottish sports , including caber tossing, a 56-pound weight toss and the clach neart (similar to shotput). Aside from the more traditional activities, attend for a parade of English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh dog breeds, whiskey tastings, a bonnie knees contest (judging the prettiest and most manly of kilt-wearers knees), a nighttime ceilidh (or gathering of friends similar to a bonfire) and a number of other Scottish food and vendor festivities.
Where: Snowmass (195 miles from Denver)
Perfect companion: Your whiskey-drinking, kilt-wearing, and Nessie-loving comrade.
Boom Days Leadville
Hosted in Colorado’s most notorious mining town, this festival pays homage to the industry that founded the Centennial State. This year’s 67th installation will feature food vendors, live music, face painting, beer gardens, and pie-eating contests—but what makes this festival stand out is its number of mining competitions (gold-panning, hand-mucking and more). A crowd favorite is the International Pack Burro Race, where participants literally haul ass. The annual parade features modern and historic modes of transportation and dress, as the town and its visitors come out to celebrate the past life of this mountain town.
Where: Leadville (100 miles from Denver)
Cost: Free admission, additional costs associated with certain events
Perfect companion: Your history buff friend (the strongest one; mining competitions require a lot of muscle) or the whole family
Jazz Aspen Snowmass
What better way to close out summer than with a Labor Day weekend music fest? Catch the soulful up-and-coming Lake Street Dive as it opens for Daryl Hall & John Oates on day one of this musical extravaganza. Those who stay later will be rewarded with shows by The Roots, local-favorite Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, and Maroon 5. That, of course, is to be enjoyed in addition to the beautiful scenery of the Aspen–Snowmass area.
Where: Snowmass Town Park (194 miles from Denver)
Cost: Friday general admission starts at $89.95; Saturday and Sunday GA starts at $100; a GA weekend pass is $255
Perfect companion: A music lover who still gets down to mainstream acts