Growing up in the Midwest, and residing in the Northwest Corner of Iowa, has given me some insight into some of the best festivals in the area. It’s a bit of a custom in the heartland to hold celebrations and get-togethers – from every small town along the Missouri River and spanning across the state towards the Mississippi River has its special day – whether it’s watermelon days, sweet corn days, popcorn days, river days, and on and on. It adds to the special part of growing up a rural Midwesterner, but it adds a whole different meaning when you experience one of these festivals first hand and witness the smiles and laughter, the connectedness and the beauty of being part of a community, even if you are a tourist and visiting for the first time, there is just something down- home to a small-town celebration that leaves the impression of “See ya next year” Though there are many festivals in and around N.W. Iowa as a whole, I was able to whittle it down to ten.
The Top Ten
#10 Sweet Corn Days – Estherville, Iowa
Nothing says “festival” like sweet corn! And – if you’ve never been to Iowa during sweetcorn season, you need to put that item on your bucket list. Iowa has some of the world’s best sweet corn around July and August each year, and Estherville has tapped into that opportunity by shining a light on the sweet corn season and tabbing “Sweet Corn Days” – the dates fluctuate but are generally around the first weekend in August. The festival is a great time offering a wide variety of activities, including a fun run “Fun for the Cob”(1 mile, 5k, and 10k), a golf tournament, parade, and of course all the free sweet corn you can eat (Over 6,000 ears are given out). So – grab your sweet corn tooth and head over to Estherville, Iowa for Sweet corn days! Insider Tip: If you want to experience one of the coolest pieces of literary history in Iowa – go check out Library Square in downtown Estherville. Sitting on the public square is the Estherville Carnegie Library (which is still functional as a library!) The architecture and the land surrounding it are magnificent. After you visit the library head west down highway 9 and experience a swinging bridge crossing the West Fork of the Des Moines River – first built in the 1930s as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” program.
#9. Star Spangled Spectacular – Storm Lake, Iowa
Nothing spells out a fun festival like a spectacular 4th of July summer festival – of course, many communities across the Midwest (and N.W. Iowa particularly) celebrate the Fourth of July holiday with their own celebrations, so what makes Storm Lake so unique? Well, for starters they have one of the best 4th of July parades – and I have fond memories of finding a spot along the route as a kid and watching. The Star-Spangled Spectacular lines itself along with a beautiful backdrop setting with the lake in the foreground. The other remarkable thing about Storm Lake is that they preserved much of the Northshore lakefront with several walkable parks. These parks are linked together (Chautauqua Park, Sunset Park, and Circle Park). You can walk between these parks taking in different activities along the lakefront, including live music and the Sunset Bandshell! This is a terrific opportunity to take a stroll, get out your lawn chair and listen to some great tunes, and stick around for all the other 4th of July traditions like fireworks and food!
#8. Flagfest – Spencer, Iowa
What makes this festival particularly interesting in 2021 is that Spencer is celebrating its Flagfest and sesquicentennial 150th year! Flagfest is a delightful time and typically runs the 2nd weekend in June. One of the best main streets in America runs along Hwy 71 and calls itself “Grand Avenue” in Spencer, and Grand it is! Shops line up the street almost to its entirety, and running along its grand appearance are hundreds of American flags marking the way. Pro Tip: Plan on stopping into some of the shops – you will find the largest gaming store in Iowa, The winner of the Iowa Main Street Best New Business (Pressed), and one of the coolest brewpubs in NW Iowa – (The Iowa Project Brewing Company).
Flagfest itself has been running since 1984, but the fact that the community is celebrating 150 years makes it even more special. You can experience everything from street dances, classic cars lining up the length of Grand Avenue, street shopping, Tug of war competition, beard-growing contest, kiddie parades, and an even larger parade down Grand for the main event. This is becoming one of N.W. Iowa’s biggest festivals in June.
#7. St. Patrick’s Day Celebration – Emmetsburg, Iowa
How about celebrating the luck of the Irish with a day in Emmetsburg, IA for the St. Patrick’s Day Celebration? Plenty to do during this festival that claims the town to be “Iowa’s Irish Capital” and that goes without saying. The town itself is named after Robert Emmet (famous Irish patriot) and next to his statue on the Palo Alto County courthouse lawn sits a memorial to a local “Paddy” and the beloved town’s blarney stone. Country Pilgrim visited the 2021 celebration and made the video below –
The St. Patrick’s Day Celebration in Emmetsburg offers a variety of family activities including – JR. MISS & MISS SHAMROCK PAGEANTS, LOCAL FISH FRY, ST. PAT’S BEAN BAG TOURNAMENT, O’ROUND THE LOCH SCHOLARSHIP RUN, SOCIAL GATHERING OF THE CLANS – with Live Irish Music, and of course the FAMOUS ST. PATRICK’S DAY PARADE. No worries if you’re not Irish – you can still have fun with the event and get enough green wear and Irish memorabilia at the Irish Gift Shop downtown. INSIDER TIP: When you finish up with the activities downtown – head north from downtown and you will run into Five-Mile Lake – this is a great lake for recreation, but if you go a little further you will spot a few cabins along the shoreline that you can rent. These were built by the local community college construction program, and offer a great way to stay and play in Emmetsburg, Iowa.
#6. The Cherokee PRCA Rodeo – Cherokee, Iowa
Welcome Rodeo Fans to over 55 years of rodeo bliss! If you love the thought of watching a fast-paced action event, you need to check out the Cherokee PRCA Rodeo. Not a festival per se, but it packs in a great time! Bring the family and be entertained by the rodeo clowns, bull riding, bucking bronco riding, barrel racing, and more – and sometimes they even get the kids involved with a petting zoo, pony rides, and even a kids rodeo with “Mutton Bustin’ and Boot racing! Don’t forget the parade – which wraps the entire rodeo weekend up. Insider Tip: Experience one of NW Iowa’s nicest city parks at Koser Spring Lake Park. It sits off Hwy 59 and adjacent to the Little Sioux River in Cherokee. It offers a nice 1.1-mile walking trail that circles the lake and park, plus offers 48 camping spaces with electrical, water, and sewer hookups, and nearby shower and restroom facilities.
#5 The Orange City Tulip Festival – Orange City, Iowa
May brings in the springing of the tulips and gives us hope with a bright new future, and there is no better spot to take in the spectacle than the Orange City Tulip Festival-Celebrating over 80 years of Dutch heritage, customs, and tulips – which is celebrated annually every third weekend in May. Come visit Orange City and it won’t take long to figure out the heritage with the Dutch windmill welcoming you and tulips lining the streets. The festival is lined with fun family activities including a carnival, antique tractor show, classic car cruise and car show, wooden shoe carving, horse-drawn trolley rides, a parade complete with traditional Dutch street scrubbing, and much more. Insider Tip: Head downtown and experience “Windmill Park” and walk around taking in a piece of Dutch history. It’s a cute park just steps away from downtown shops – including Town Square – a neat little shop that I used to sit and enjoy a cup of tea with some freshly baked items. If you want another treat, head on over to some of the different Dutch Bakeries and grab yourself a Dutch Letter! Once you bite into that little piece of heaven, you can thank me later!
#4 RiseFest – Sheldon, Iowa
History holds a dark spot in Sheldon, Iowa, in 1924 there was a major gathering of 25,000 Klu Klux Klan members to record the largest gathering on record for Sheldon. Founder and CEO of RiseFest, Rob Roozeboom, shared its the goal to have RiseFest blot that out of the history books by recording 25,001 at RiseFest by 2024 – marking the 100th anniversary and creating a new chapter in the books – to show that people came to worship God over gathering for hate. RiseFest – a Christian music festival is the largest of its kind in the area and ever- growing. It offers people a chance to gather and listen to contemporary Christian music in music festival form and take in everything else included on the grounds (that sit on the edge of Sheldon, Iowa off of Hwy 18). RiseFest typically falls on the second weekend of June and offers a wide variety of Christian music styles like Casting Crowns, Big Daddy Weave, Matthew West, and more – there is camping available and other lodgings nearby. Insider Tip: If you would like a small break from the music, check out a small, cute, park (Hills Park) that sits close to the corner of Highway 60 and 18. There is a walking trail in the park that provides enough space to exercise and get outdoors. As you walk through the park you will notice big mounds or hills – the legend is that a circus elephant died from the Ringling Circus and is buried in one of the mounds. Later, the story came out that it was a horse – the stuff that makes history!
#3 Ice Cream Days – Le Mars, Iowa
Who can resist heading to Le Mars, Iowa “The Ice Cream Capital of the World“? and partake in one of the most beloved treats in history – Ice Cream! Le Mars is home to the world-renowned ice cream maker Wells Blue Bunny, and if there is anything that Blue Bunny does well – it’s ice cream! Ice Cream Days celebrates the frozen dairy delight over 4 days and during National Ice Cream Day and brings in more events to the downtown area – including a kid fishing derby, musical performances, outdoor movies, a parade, and of course loads and loads of ice cream! Insider Tip: You are in the Ice Cream Capital of the World! You will want to have the full Wells Blue Bunny experience – so head over to the Blue Bunny Ice Cream parlor, found at 115 Central Avenue NW in Le Mars. If you get a chance to try bunny tracks – I highly recommend it.
#2 Rivercade and Saturday in the Park
Sioux City – is the big urban area in N.W. Iowa and holds two main festivals (which I’m combining. Rivercade – which has been celebrating over 68 years. There has been a River-Cade Festival every year since 1964 and a main attraction as Sioux land’s premier festival. The history of the festival shines a light on the Missouri River and the re-opening of barge traffic traveling north to Sioux City and recognizing it as a large source for commerce, both industrial and agricultural in the area.
The celebration is marked with a famous parade in Sioux City, with a carnival, and other events celebrating mostly in the weeks after July 4th. It has long been a N.W. Iowa festival tradition and holds true to its core value “a festival for everyone – for the entire community.”
The second festival that is quickly gaining momentum in N.W. Iowa is Saturday in the Park – held in Sioux City’s Grand View Park’s bandshell- It generally is held before River-cade and the Saturday closest to the 4th of July. It has been held annually since 1991 and draws nearly 25,000 people from all over the Midwest for the weekend! What sets the festival apart was the partnership with the Hardrock Hotel and Casino and the level of high influential and popular music artist that come to perform for the weekend. Insider Tip: Stick around for the Firework display. Getting closer to the 4th of July makes fireworks more popular than ever, but the festivals firework display is one of the best in N.W. Iowa.
#1 Okoboji Winter Games – Arnolds Park, Iowa
Beyond Christmas and New Years – it seems that festivals start to run dry until the Spring, but Okoboji found a way to keep things celebrating through the last weekend in January – which is why I have it as my #1 ranking in the Top 10 Festivals in N.W. Iowa. It was rare to find a festival drawing large crowds in the winter months in the area, but the Okoboji Winter Games found a way! Okoboji is a tourist area that mainly attracts beach goers plus summer boating and fishing enthusiast – the area attracts thousands of vacationers each year due to the Iowa Great Lakes reigning the N.W. corner of the state. Okoboji or “The Iowa Great Lakes” area also draws a high volume of winter ice fishing fans from all around and so it makes sense that the “Winter Games” would gain such popularity. People are ready to get out of their homes where they’ve been cooped up all winter and get out and enjoy activities such as human foosball, broom ball, snowmobile races, ax throwing contests, kite flying out on frozen West Okoboji lake, and of course the infamous polar plunge! Check out the video below where Country Pilgrim visited the Winter Games – and make sure to watch it to the end and see the polar plunge in action!
The event first took place back in 1981 – and was smaller but memorable with snowman made of popcorn – but has grown through the years and now draws crowds in the thousands! It’s a great time! Insider Tip: Be sure to walk around the area – take in the frozen lake and walk out on the ice and experience the kites up and close! It provides great photo opportunities, and gives you and idea how BIG these kites are! Make sure you dress warm!
Come Check Out The Festivals in Northwest Iowa!
The hospitality in Iowa follows the Midwest theme of “Nice” come experience “Iowa Nice” by taking in some of the area festivals! Whether you are traveling through the Summer or the Winter, there is bound to be some type of fair, or celebration of the ages to take part in! The food is great, and the company is even better! Mark it down on your bucket list and stay and play in the N.W. Corner of the state – I’ll make you a promise, that it will be one of the best times you’ve had, and friendships for a lifetime!