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Autumn festivals in the Southwest

Courtesy Albuquerque International Balloon Festival

Fall is just around the corner: Are you ready for rodeo, beer and hot-air balloons?

Autumn festivals are some of the most popular events around the country. But while much of the United States celebrates fall with apple cider, hayrides and pumpkin patches, the distinctive geography and climate of the Southwest bring a different kind of festivity.

Arizona, New Mexico and Texas aren’t known for colorful autumn leaves, but residents of those states still know how to throw a fall festival. From late September through early December, traveling groups can celebrate with locals at special events that highlight some of the best aspects of the Southwest, among them bull-riding, desert art and Albuquerque’s rare air.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Albuquerque, N.M.
For a week in early October, hot-air balloonists swarm to New Mexico to take part in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which has become one of the community’s best-known events.

“This will be the 41st Balloon Fiesta,” said Amanda Molina, a spokesperson for the festival. “It started back in 1972 with only 13 balloons. Now, we have over 500 balloons that register every year.”

One of the factors that has made the fiesta so successful is a climate phenomenon known as the “Albuquerque box.” The city is bordered by the Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande River, which create a special airflow that allows balloons to take off and land in the same location.

Festival organizers take advantage of the box to create two mass-ascension events during the celebration. Visitors arrive early to watch crews set up the hot-air balloons and then see 500 colorful craft ascend together into the sky and then later descend.

In addition to watching, travelers who go to the festival have a lot of opportunities to participate in the action.

“One cool thing about Balloon Fiesta is that a lot of guests have the opportunity to get involved on a hands-on level,” Molina said. “You can be on a chase crew, where you help set up the balloons, follow them from the ground, and then help land them and pack them up. It really gets you behind the scenes.”

Many groups also enjoy attending the balloon glows during the fiesta. During these events, balloon crews gather just before sundown to inflate their balloons and then set off their propane burners in a choreographed display of high flames and colorful silks.

Tri-State Fair and Rodeo

Amarillo, Texas
For 89 years, Amarillo has kicked off the autumn season with one of Texas’ favorite pastimes: rodeo. The Tri-State Fair and Rodeo takes place Sept. 14-22 and features a professional rodeo that has been named one of the country’s top events by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

“During the rodeo, we have saddle-bronc-riding, bull-riding, barrel-racing and all of the roping events,” said marketing director Angela Ragland. “We also have a mutton-bustin’ competition. That’s where kids between the ages of 4 and 7 have the opportunity to ride a sheep, with little chaps and a vest and helmet.”

The rodeo is the biggest single event at the fair, but it’s not the only thing to do. Some 125,000 people attend the fair each year to enjoy a petting zoo, a shark show and a Hollywood stunt show. Other quirky components include pig races and a “banana derby,” which features dogs racing with monkeys mounted on their backs.

Attendees can browse retail booths set up by vendors from around the state or enjoy some deliciously decadent fair food.

“Food on a stick is very popular in this part of the country,” Ragland said. “You have regular fair like corn dogs but also things like steak on a stick, which is really good. We also have a grilled chicken breast on a stick, which is a delicious, healthy alternative.”

The fair also includes a large parade that is broadcast on local television and an opening ceremony that visitors can attend.

Tempe Festival of the Arts
Tempe, Ariz.
A week after Thanksgiving, Tempe brings the autumn festival season to a close with the Tempe Festival of the Arts, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors during three days.

The event is considered one of the best arts events in the Southwest, primarily for the quality of art that is displayed. Tempe shuts down a number of downtown streets to make room for the 350 artists who set up booths to display their work.

Those artists are chosen by a jury from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants. During the festival, another jury judges art from 18 different categories, among them woodwork, photography, ceramics and even wearable art.

The art exhibition and sale is just one component of the celebration, though. The Festival Stage features a lineup of well-known regional musicians and entertainers who perform for the crowd; street performers and entertainment booths add to the mix.

Food- and drink-lovers will find plenty to get excited about as well. The art festival coincides with the Arizona Wine Festival, where attendees can sample wines from around the state.

Another component called Art of Beer features local microbrewery samples and sales. Cottage Edibles and Crafts is an area where vendors offer handmade creations such as soup mixes, jams, seasonings, soap and herbal products.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.