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8 Must-See Fall Festivals and Cultural Events in the West

Celebrate the new season at these festivals in California, Arizona, and more.

Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival in Oakland, CA dragon boat race, picture
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Photo: Courtesy of Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival
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At the Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival in Oakland, CA, watch colorful boats race across Lake Merritt in a flurry of action.

Looking for a fun way to welcome fall? Whether it's paying tribute to autumn's harvest moon or cheering on a fleet of dragon boats, here are eight cultural festivals that are sure to please.

Aloha Festivals in Oahu, HI

Immerse yourself in the music, dance, and history of Hawaii with Aloha Festivals, a statewide cultural showcase. This year the festival celebrates the waters that have shaped the islands and the people who call them home. The festival begins at the former home of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, but the main event is really the Waikiki Hoolaulea—Hawaii's “largest block party” (Sept. 22). The annual Floral Parade closes out the festivities with a procession of colorful floats, traditional pau horseback riders, and hula dancers. FreeSept. 1-30.

Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival in Oakland, CA

Experience the thrill of watching more than 100 vibrant, 40-foot-long dragon boats race across the waters of Lake Merritt in time with Chinese drums. Each boat at the Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival is manned by 20 frenetic paddlers, a drummer, and a steerperson all trying for first place in categories that range from novice to competitive. The weekend begins with a blessing by Buddhist monks, then continues with everything from martial arts performances and a food marketplace to the kid-centric Dragon Land, complete with its own obstacle course. Free; Sept. 15-16.

Lan Su Chinese Garden, picture
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Photo: Jon Bilous / Shutterstock
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Portland's beautiful Lan Su Chinese Garden hosts the yearly Autumn Moon Festival.

Autumn Moon Festival in Portland, OR

The Autumn Moon Festival honors one of the most important holidays on the Chinese calendar with storytelling, sweet-filled mooncake pastries, and traditional and folk dances such as the Lion Dance, which is meant to bring happiness and good fortune. Held at Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden, the evening event takes place on the closest Saturday to the season's spectacular harvest moon (the full moon nearest to the autumnal equinox). A waxing gibbous-version holds court over the outdoor festivities including the Dragon and Lantern Procession that closes out the celebration. Free with garden admission; Sept. 22.

Joshua Tree Music Festival in Joshua Tree, CA

Set up camp for a weekend of sound, art, yoga, and desert living that combines elements of Burning Man with music from around the world at the Joshua Tree Music Festival. Performers—more than two-dozen of them—run the gamut from Desert Rhythm Project, the Mojave Desert's funk, roots, and reggae combo, to Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. Additional highlights include a marketplace where you can find custom-made hula hoops, henna artists, hand-woven hats, and artisanal food such as acai bowls and Equal Exchange coffee with almond milk; and visual arts ranging from an upcycled 3D mural to an installation of alien rabbits. While the event shares a similar love of neon lights and costumes as the Black Rock City jubilee, this desert experience goes out of the way to make families welcome. Child-specific programing runs all weekend in Kidsville, and families can camp in a separate, quieter area. Kids under 10 are free; 11 and up from $60; Oct. 4-8.

Arizona State Fair in Phoenix, AZ, midway, picture
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Photo: Gregory E. Clifford / Shutterstock
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The Arizona State Fair in Phoenix is one of the West's best fairs.

Arizona State Fair in Phoenix, AZ

Arizona's largest festival is also one of its most beloved: a nearly month-long event that brings everything from a coveted concert line-up to a seemingly endless supply of corn dogs, turkey legs, and funnel cake. Since 1905, the Arizona State Fair has drawn people from across the state with carnival rides, livestock competitions, and top performers like Elvis and Cher. This year, expect pie eating contests, a culinary showcase of local and nationally renowned chefs, art and photography exhibits, a petting zoo, and performances that include both The Flaming Lips (Oct. 6) and Sesame Street Live (Oct. 27-28). Each Friday afternoon enjoy two-dollar food samplings from a variety of concessionaires during Taste of the Fair. From $7; Wednesday through Sunday; Oct. 5-28.

Fall Harvest Festival in Wellsville, UT

Ring in harvest season with an old-fashioned celebration at Wellsville's American West Heritage Center, an interactive living history museum that explores the diverse cultures and pioneer settlement which shaped Utah's Cache Valley. Try your hand at cider pressing, learn the art of candle making, and watch a steam engine demo. There are pony rides and a quarter-scale train for kids, and festival admission also includes access to the farm's seasonal corn maze. Wear your best sorcerer attire for Saturday's Witches Walk, and you just may conjure up a discounted entry. From $8; Oct. 20-21.

Read More: Members' Favorite Small Town Celebrations

Mariachis play at Mesa Arts Center's community processional at the Dia de los Muertos Festival, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Slaven Gujic / Mesa Arts Center
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Mariachis play at Mesa Arts Center's community processional to close out the annual Dia de los Muertos Festival.

Dia de los Muertos Festival in Mesa, AZ

Celebrate the lives of the dearly departed at the Mesa Arts Center's Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday commemorating those who have died with music, art, and dancing. Leave a memento honoring your loved one at the artisan-designed community altar, get your face painted, and decorate sugar skulls. Peruse a variety of Mexican handicrafts from jewelry to furniture, and catch dozens of performances by musicians and dancers before ending the day as part of an open procession. Free; Oct. 27.

Read More: Day of the Dead Events in the West

Pahrump Social Powwow in Pahrump, NV

Join a host of American Indian tribes—including the local Western Shoshone and Paiute—as they come together to share their heritage through three days of dancing, music, and storytelling. At the Pahrump Social Powwow, individual tribes carry out traditional dances dressed in colorful regalia, and various members unite for an intertribal performance. Shop American Indian wares such as turquoise necklaces and hand-carved Kachina dolls, and don't miss out on the frybread tacos—a festival treat! Free; Nov. 16-18.

Read More: Big Festivals in the West