U.S. National Whitewater Center
Facility and festivities at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, near Charlotte, North Carolina (Photo: Courtesy U.S. National Whitewater Center)

9 Great Outdoor Labor Day Festivals for Music and Fun

At these Labor Day Outdoor fests, for three sweet days, you can be outside, hike, hear live music, swim, boat, and run. Plus: there's food and beer.

U.S. National Whitewater Center
Courtesy U.S. National Whitewater Center

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Government-sponsored time off only comes around a few days a year. Labor Day weekend is an opportunity to get outside, hike a lot, see some friends, hear some music, and then sleep in on Monday, to hell with Slack. Festivals are a great way to cram a lot into these three sacred, carefree days.

I’ve covered dozens of festivals over the past decade, and rounded up some of the best, all with great outdoor access, to help you make the most of your long weekend.

1. Bumbershoot, Seattle, Washington

Bumbershoot fest
The scene at a Bumbershoot Festival at the Seattle Center (Photo: Timothy Hiatt/Getty)

As large corporations gobble up major festivals, it’s not easy to maintain an event as art-forward, experimental, and strident as Bumbershoot, but the Seattle institution hopes it has finally found the right formula. After a four-year hiatus, the decades-old Bumbershoot is relaunching with a lineup of local stars—like Sleater Kinney, Band of Horses, and Dave B—who’ve made it big. The new fest promises a return to its early creativity and chaos: you will be able to pole dance, roller skate, wrestle, extreme pogo-stick, and explore immersive art.

Bumbershoot arts and music festival
Shown is one of myriad outdoor art performances at Bumbershoot arts and music festival. Note the balloon chain visible in the sky above. (Photo: Courtesy Do206 by Equal Motion)

Bumbershoot is an urban festival, but Seattle is spitting distance from Snow Lake, Mount Si, and the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Both Snow Lake and Mount Si have trails through jagged mountain peaks and tall pines, while the six-mile out-and-back Snow Lake Trail wraps around a lake. For a more kid-friendly or relaxing outing, walk along the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk, a four-mile elevated path that crosses over the top of Nisqually’s tidal flats, allowing seals, sea ducks, salmon, otters and minks to live peacefully underneath.

bumbershoot immersive art
These balance games are part of the art and immersion scene at Bumbershoot in Seattle (Photo: Courtesy Grandstand Media)

2. U.S. National Whitewater Center Labor Day Celebration, Charlotte, North Carolina

The U.S. National Whitewater Center’s Labor Day Celebration is a one-stop shop for outdoor adventure. On the schedule are a 5K and a 15K trail race, stand-up paddleboard yoga, and a Dry Tri with mountain biking, trail running, and kayaking or paddleboarding on the Catawba River. For $75, you can buy an All Access Activity Pass that gets you into the U.S. National Whitewater Center’s renowned river rapids as well as onto the park’s climbing walls, bouldering routes, and ropes courses.

U.S. National Whitewater Center
Labor Day Trail Race 5K, part of the festivities at U.S. National Whitewater Center (Photo: U.S. National Whitewater Center)

Evenings bring performances by Amanda Anne Platt, and one of my personal favorite indie Americana bands, The Lone Bellow. (The band’s earnest 2013 ballad “Bleeding Out” got me through high-school drama.)

Not many hikes on the Whitewater Center’s 1,300 acres are longer than a few miles, but Crowders Mountain State Park offers more. Head up to King’s Pinnacle, one of the two summits in the park’s 5,200 acres, via the four-mile Pinnacle Trail, which involves some rock scrambling.

triathlon U.S. National Whitewater Center
The Dry Tri (triathlon), a Labor Day staple at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (Photo: U.S. National Whitewater Center)

3. Southern Decadence, New Orleans, Louisiana

Southern Decadence, a raucous parade that rolls through the French Quarter, is one of New Orleans’ biggest pride events. Think Mardi Gras but with a little more drag and a lot more leather. I like to watch it all unfold on Frenchman Street, home to some of the city’s great music clubs and close to its LGBTQ+ bars.

Bourbon Club and Parade
Bourbon Pub and Parade at Southern Decadence, one of New Orleans’ biggest pride events. Each establishment has different hosts and events. (Photo: Courtesy Bourbon Pub)

New Orleans, however, is not just an overblown party destination. Walk even half a mile out of the French Quarter and you’ll see flowering vines engulfing buildings and oak-lined avenues leading to stellar parks, the biggest of which is City Park. Just 15 minutes from downtown is the Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge, the country’s largest urban National Wildlife refuge. Its marshland is excellent for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and, with over 340 species of birds, birdwatching. The Joe Madere Marsh Overlook has a picnic pavilion and a boat launch.

Bayou Sauvage
Louisiana wild iris, Bayou Sauvage, in spring. In the fall, swamp maples go golden and red. (Photo: Courtesy Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex)

4. Marshall County Blueberry Festival, Plymouth, Indiana

Half a million people turn out for the Marshall County Blueberry Festival to celebrate what happens to be my favorite trail snack. About two hours from both Chicago and Indianapolis, hundreds of craft and food booths fill the town’s Centennial Park with blueberry everything—ice cream, cheesecake, smoothies, sausage, and multiple varieties of blueberry beer. (The blueberry donuts are, reportedly, a fan favorite.) This is the most classic Labor Day celebration on our list, with a parade, a carnival, and recreational sports tournaments including pickleball and tractor pulling. It also has fun runs, a bike cruise, and a benefit lake swim.

woman and child running
Go go go! Runners turn it on in the Blueberry Stomp, the Marshall County Blueberry Festival, Plymouth, Indiana. (Photo: Courtesy Blueberry Stomp)

Plymouth is only an hour from Indiana Dunes National Park, on the banks of Lake Michigan. The park’s best-known hike is probably its 3 Dune Challenge: 552 feet of vertical gain over just 1.5 miles, all in the sand. If you’d rather be able to walk the next day, try the Mount Morse Loop. At nearly six miles, it’s longer, but far less steep, and includes a nice walk along the beach.

5. Mount Snow Brewers Festival, Dover, Vermont

Mount Snow Vermont in summer
Mount Snow in summer, when the ski runs turn into hiking and biking trails (Photo: Courtesy Vail Resorts)

If there is anything I learned working as a ski instructor in Vermont, it’s that the best days here involve going to the top of a mountain, coming back down, and then drinking beer as the sun sets. (Well, I prefer cider, but you get the idea.) The Mount Snow Brewers Festival serves a smattering of craft beers from the famous Vermont and New England craft-brewing scenes.

brewfest in VT
Brewers Fest at the base of Mount Snow, Vermont (Photo: Courtesy Vail Resorts)

Local bands will supply music, and local restaurants will serve beer-appropriate foods. The festival puts you at the base of Mount Snow, a ski area whose trails are busy hiking and mountain-biking paths in the summer. You can easily spend the afternoon before the festival hiking to the top of 3,600-foot Mount Snow, with its view of Snow Lake.

6. Dancefestopia, La Cygne, Kansas

Dancefestopia fest in kansas
A rave, but so much more. Camping, fishing, hiking… (Photo: Courtesy Dancefestopia)

In most ways, Dancefestopia is your standard EDM festival. It has a whimsical, Wizard of Oz theme, big-name DJs, and dizzying lights and lasers. But it takes place at what is otherwise a lakeside outdoor-education camp, with all of the log cabins and activities thereof. An activity pass buys you access to the camp’s climbing wall as well as fishing and canoeing.

camping at dancefest in ks
Camping at Dancefestopia: Kansas is known for its lakes and osage, walnut, hickory, and oak trees. (Photo: Courtesy Dancefestopia)

For more of that tree-lined Kansas beauty, check out the further shores of La Cygne Lake and the Marais des Cygne Wildlife Area. You can pick up a fishing license at the Linn County Park Marina.

7. Austin Free Day of Yoga, Austin, Texas

free yoga day
Practitioners dot the grass outside the Moody Amphitheatrer during Free Yoga Day in the arts-, music-, and sports-rich town of Austin (Photo: Ryan Verstil)

In 2019, Outside magazine declared Austin one of the “World’s Dreamiest Spots for Outdoor Yoga.” On Labor Day, you can live that dream for free. A coalition of local studios and instructors will offer over 30 free classes, both indoors and out, across the city. There’s Qigong at the Austin Bouldering Project, Kundalini at the Waterloo Greenway, and at least one class billed as a party, the Sukha revival.

young man yoga Austin free yoga day
An intent participant at the Free Yoga Day over Labor Day in Austin, Texas (Photo: Abhishek Routray)

With the rest of your time, this Texan (I grew up in the greater Houston area) encourages you to indulge in a little Texas cliche. Order some Tex-Mex, or maybe a burger at Clark’s, then head to one of the area’s swimming holes.

8. The Best in the West Nugget Rib Cookoff, Sparks, Nevada

Let me save you some confusion. Contrary to what the name suggests, Nugget is not a type of a rib, but the name of the casino sponsoring this extravagant barbecue competition. The Best in the West Nugget Rib Cookoff is a big deal in the rib world, and 250,000 pounds of meat will be seasoned and sauced in pursuit of festival glory.

kayakers Truckee River Park
Kayakers line up to play in the rapids at the Truckee River Park, Reno, Nevada (Photo: Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times/Getty)

Build up an appetite before you go with a visit to the Truckee River Whitewater Park, where you can kayak over class two and three rapids in the middle of Sparks. Or leave the city and drive 45 minutes south to Lake Tahoe. You can get on a section of the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail at the Tahoe Meadows Trailhead, near Incline Village. Another popular trail is the wheelchair-accessible 1.3-mile Tahoe Meadows Interpretive Loop through the wildflower-laden Tahoe Meadows.

9. Caveman Music Festival, Weston, Colorado

Monument Lake
Monument Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Colorado (Photo: Courtesy Monument Lake Resort)

Camping at music festivals usually falls somewhere between the glamping of Coachella; the dusty, trippy party tents of Burning Man; and sleeping in your car. Caveman Music Festival, on the other hand, has real tent camping on its shores and fields. It all goes down at Colorado’s Monument Lake Resort, where you can fish for trout, kayak, canoe, and hike in between performances. The music here is Americana, headlined by JJ Grey & Mofro, Shane Smith & The Saints, and Dawes.

The resort is in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with a multitude of beautiful hikes. Seasoned hikers can ascend the eight-mile West Spanish Trail near La Veta, Colorado, for some of the best views in the region. Find out about more trails here.

Emily Carmichael is a writer, editor, and former ski instructor based in Brooklyn who has covered music festivals since her college days in New Orleans.

emily carmichael author at beach
The author warms up for Labor Day sun and fun. (Photo: Ellen Kajca)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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