Apples. Pumpkin pie. Halloween. Fainting goats? Autumn has sights and smells that are distinct to the season — and plenty of events to mark each — but sometimes you want something a bit more unique than another apple festival or hayride.
If that describes you, you're in luck, because there's a cavalcade of fun, quirky festivals less than a few hours from Chattanooga. Some are one-of-a-kind experiences that can only be found in their small host town. Others keep unique facets of history alive. Still others swap fall's flavors with those of the South for a fresh take on traditional autumn fare.
We compiled a brief list of some of the most intriguing festivals this fall.
The following are our favorites.
Where: Madisonville, Tenn.
Date: Sept. 2-3
Admission: $5 per day, with $125 VIP option
Go If: Aerial travel tickles your fancy, but airplanes are just too modern.
If you've ever looked up at the sky and thought it wasn't colorful enough, this festival has you covered. The Muscadine Balloon Fiesta is in its fifth year of celebrating hot air balloons in all their aerial glory. Visitors can take tethered rides, or just marvel at the fairy-tale scene of a sky filled with the patchwork of the first craft to take man into the heavens. VIP guests are treated to a wine tasting and meet-and-greet with the balloon pilots, but you don't have to spring for the high-priced ticket to enjoy live music, food and artisanal crafts.
The staffed children's area means kids can also have some high-flying fun on the ground, including face painting and inflatables. Proceeds from the festival go to CASA Munroe, a local volunteer organization dedicated to advocacy for children suffering from neglect.
Where: Charleston, Tenn.
Date: Sept. 9
Admission: Free, plus $5 for cook-off tasting (optional — and limited)
Go If: You like black-eyed peas and pea puns. Un-pea-lievable!
As the "Cowpea Capital of the United States," Charleston knows quite a lot about the humble legume. Cowpeas, more commonly known as black-eyed peas, aren't really peas at all, but a type of bean — and a staple of classic Southern cuisine. The festival's highlight is a cowpea cook-off. Personally invited local and professional chefs will do their best to elevate the unassuming legume to center stage. Guests who pay the $5 fee for a souvenir tasting spoon will get a say in who is crowned cowpea champion.
Cowpeas aren't the only thing on the menu, though. This family-friendly event features local live bluegrass and country music, face painting, petting zoos and other activities for children, arts and crafts handmade locally, and storytelling about the centuries-old heritage of the region, from the Cherokee Nation to the Civil War to TVA. You'll be hap-pea you went.
Where: Bradford, Tenn.
Date: Sept. 20-23
Go If: You're a soup connoisseur or a fan of Southern culture.
If you're wondering what exactly doodle soup is, don't worry, you're not alone. Though the dish dates back to the 1800s, it is unique to the town of Bradford.
The soup is a fiery, potent concoction with a base of stock from roasted meat (typically chicken), vinegar, flour and cayenne pepper, and is typically served over crackers or rustic bread. Strong notes of pepper and vinegar are the highlights of the dish. It's hypothesized that the soup was served to soldiers during the Civil War when vinegar was cheap compared to salt, but others suggest the soup's name was derived from traveling merchants during the late 1800s called "doodle wagons."
Revived in 2000 after a several-year hiatus, the 37-year-old festival offers guests numerous opportunities to try the soup. The multi-day celebration also offers live music, wrestling, a parade, art show, carnival rides and more.
Where: Centerville, Tenn.
Date: Oct. 7-8\
Admission: $5 per day per person
Go If: Nothing can sate your insatiable appetite for bananas.
This tasty celebration pays homage to a true Southern dessert specialty, as well as Tennessee's volunteer spirit. Started in 2009, the nonprofit festival is dedicated to providing disaster-relief funds.
Highlighting the event is a cook-off for the "greatest banana pudding in the country" and a cash prize of several thousand dollars. Instant pudding, eat your heart out. Recent winners and runners-up have included flavors like pralines and cream, and Elvis' favorite, peanut butter. For a nominal fee, guests can sample local nonprofit organizations' variations along the Puddin' Path. The proceeds go to help the nonprofits benefit their community.
An expansive banana-themed kids' zone welcomes families, and family-friendly entertainment such as music, puppet shows and storytelling are on display courtesy of the Tennessee Arts Commission.
Where: Franklin, Tenn.
Date: Oct. 13
Admission: $89 in advance, $100 at the door (if it doesn't sell out)
Go If: You're feeling philanthropic and in need of a good drink.
Drink for a cause! This celebration of fine wine raises money for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee, enabling the nonprofit to continue providing mentorship for local children in need. Each ticket offers the opportunity to sample award-winning wines from around the globe, including vintner-revered places like Argentina, Italy and France. In addition, guests can sign up for dinners featuring wines paired with an expertly crafted meal. The diners will be joined by representatives from the featured vineyards, who will be open to questions.
Guests up for a challenge can also sign up to compete in the annual King and Queen of the Vines contest, in which the man and woman who raise the most money to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters prior to the event will be crowned Kind and Queen. A silent auction featuring items such as art pieces, signed memorabilia, vacation getaways and gift cards for fine dining offers everyone the chance to win something.
Where: Lewisburg, Tenn.
Date: Oct. 13-14
Go if: You can't stop giggling at goats toppling over in surprise.
Perhaps you're familiar with the viral videos of goats suddenly toppling over when startled. National Geographic even posted some. If you aren't — and especially if you are — then Lewisburg is the city for you. The Goats, Music and More festival was started in honor of the famous fainting goats, said to have first been documented in Marshall County and which later populated many of the county's farms. The Myotonic goats are one of only two native goat species to North America, and have the interesting (and adorable!) trait of falling over with very temporary paralysis when surprised, frightened or excited.
In its 15 years, the festival has ballooned into one of the most peculiar and noteworthy gatherings in the Southeast. Among the features of the festival are nationally acclaimed country and bluegrass artists, such as when the platinum-selling Charlie Daniels Band attended; two distinct goat shows akin to the Westminster Dog Show that draw champion Myotonic and Boer goats from around the country; plus local food, a kids area, a 5k race, a triathlon and, naturally, a petting zoos full of goats.
Where: Kennesaw, Ga.
Date: Oct. 27-28
Go If: Halloween and hot air balloons sound like a match made in heaven.
If the Muscadine Balloon Fiesta wasn't enough, or if a costumed balloon ride is more your fancy, then the Owl-O-Ween Balloon Festival is definitely for you. Held on the cusp of Halloween, this spooky festival will get you in the spirit of the season. Nothing will prepare you for the sight of dozens of glowing hot air balloons hanging against the night sky, ethereally floating amidst laser light shows coming from the stages of live music.
Children and adults alike are encouraged to dress up in their best Halloween costume for the annual dance and catwalk, and performance artists such as fire eaters and magicians will entertain and astound guests of all ages throughout the two-day event. Kids can trick or treat from balloon to balloon, and tethered balloon rides are, of course, on the agenda. After a day of soaring through the skies, older guests can unwind at one of the more adult-themed attractions, such as the on-site craft beer garden, cocktail lounge or sports bar.
Where: Dawsonville, Ga.
Date: Oct. 27-29
Admission: $30 in advance, $40 day of the show
Go if: You're a gearhead, vintage NASCAR fan or love hearing a good story.
What could be more Southern than moonshine and NASCAR? This festival commemorates both, parts of Dawsonville's rich history.
Like many parts of the South, the area saw a lot of moonshiners during the era of Prohibition. Not ones to go down without a fight, they souped up their cars and fought the law with horsepower. When law enforcement proved unable to keep up, they decided to race each other — making Dawsonville the birthplace of stock car racing and, now, home of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame museum.
The festival culminates in a vintage car show, complete with restored cars that would have been used for bootlegging in the 1920s and later as race cars in the precursor to NASCAR. Visit the cruise-in and swap meet at the museum, which has one of the largest selections of vintage automobiles in the world. Guests will even be able to hear the true stories of local racing legends like Roy Hall and Raymond Parks from the men and women who knew them.
Live music, arts and crafts vendors and local food round out the festival, and the funds from the event go toward Kare For Kids, a nonprofit local to Dawsonville that helps pay for necessities for children such as winter coats, eyeglasses, medicine and clothing.
For a full lineup of quintessential fall festivals and community events around the region, grab a copy of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Sept. 3 and be sure to check out the Life section, or visit timesfreepress.com.