Angela Hall, a Strasburg mom of two, has taken her family to county fairs around Colorado for more than 20 years. This year, she’s bringing her children and her nieces and nephews, ranging in age from two to 21. She says there’s something for everyone. Her family always checks out the petting zoos and carnival games, and they make sure to watch the mutton bustin” events (where children ride or race sheep). The one thing that’s popular with everyone? “Carnival food is always a treat at every fair,” she says. “Funnel cakes and twisty potatoes are our favorites. And the donut hamburger was the hit last year.”
When county fairs began more than 200 years ago, they promoted “modern farming” with livestock judging, exhibits of new farming technology, and plowing contests. The basic idea hasn’t changed much. From good old-fashioned livestock shows and blue-ribbon baking to high-tech, dazzling horse performances and trendy goat yoga, county fairs in Colorado pack in the entertainment.
Families living in urban and suburban areas don’t often get up close with cows, sheep, goats, and other livestock that was once part of traditional rural life. County fairs offer city dwellers the chance to visit petting zoos, marvel at the livestock exhibitions, and watch rodeos. As some families no longer have gardens, children get the chance to marvel at the size and variety of fruits and vegetables on display. There are exhibit halls full of crafts and handiwork to admire, and many halls have kids” categories (my own children have won blue ribbons for origami and papier-mâché creations in the past). The Denver County Fair lists more than 40 categories in which kids can compete among others in their age group for ribbons. Categories range from traditional—pickled vegetables and woodworking—to the interesting—Peeps dioramas and homeopathic remedies and therapies.
I was 22 years old when I witnessed my first tractor pull and riding mower races, both at a county fair. You can experience your own at the Elbert County Fair here in Colorado in August. You can also support 4-H clubs by buying their produce, or checking out their snacks at places like the Boulder County Fair Dairy Bar. It’s a great way to fund projects that teach kids about farming, ranching, and agriculture, and to learn more about our own roots.
Most fairs also offer traditional carnival rides during the day and fireworks at night. Many offer concerts as well, with the Adams County Fair featuring Dan and Shay, and Papa Roach at the Douglas County Fair.
Last year, the Jeffco Fair & Festival worked with the community to create a uniquely Jefferson County experience for the families who visit. Now, kids can investigate the outdoor adventure zone to kayak, rock climb, and try out the on-site mountain biking course. There are also unique performances like “Gladius the Show,” which features equestrian acrobats doing aerial stunts and fire manipulation.
“Guests can learn about reptiles and the important role they play in nature at the number one reptile show in the country, Reptile Adventures,” says Dexter Farnsworth, Events Coordinator for the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. “And kids are going to love the Kidz Science Safari…a fully interactive children’s museum that features awesome science-based education exhibits.”
The Denver County Fair will expand, too, after being bought by the National Western Stock Show earlier this year. “It’s not your typical county fair,” says Karen Woods, director of marketing. Indeed, with wrestling shows like Lucha Libre and unicorn rides (now with bigger unicorns to accommodate adult riders), the Denver County Fair has events not often seen elsewhere. The fair will celebrate the culture of Denver, and will feature new sustainability and farm-to-table pavilions. Visitors can learn about locally grown and sourced foods, and can explore eco-friendly innovation happening in Denver. There’s also a kids pavilion, featuring a bouncy house and kids” stage with ongoing shows.
For parents, the Denver County Fair is also hosting its first beer and wine festival on July 22, featuring local favorites like Crooked Stave and Wynkoop Brewing. And guests can participate in goat yoga—yoga with adorable goats ambling around, occasionally sniffing faces and walking beneath Downward Dogs.
County fairs offer another bonus—they”re easier on the wallet than other forms of family entertainment. General admission to the Jeffco Fair & Festival is $5 for those age 13 and up and free for younger kids, while the Denver County Fair is $10 for adults and $3 for kids ages three to 11. Many other Colorado fairs charge $10 or less for general admission. There are additional charges for individual activities, special events, and food, but you can often save money by ordering tickets for special events ahead of time, or looking for discounts and coupons online.
Be sure to check what your admission price covers. For some fairs, it simply gets you inside. For others, it includes some rides or events. Hall recommends the Arapahoe County Fair because the price includes two rodeos as well as fairground admission, and the nightly fireworks shows. Also, see if the fair charges for parking, which can cost up to $12.
Bring plenty of cash, recommends Hall. Fairgrounds can be in remote areas, and there are some vendors who don’t accept credit cards. Families on tighter budgets can pack a cooler of sandwiches and water. Splurge on one special carnival food item, and supplement with your own snacks. If the fair does not allow you to bring your own food inside, take a break at the car around lunchtime, and then head back in when you finish.
Hall offers a few more tips for enjoying your day at the fair.
- Bring sunscreen and rain gear. Most fairs are in July and August when the weather is hot, and afternoon or evening rainstorms are always possible.
- Wear comfortable shoes and bring a stroller that can handle mud- and dirt-filled areas. Be prepared for a lot of walking.
- Prepare for allergies. Hall has seen many miserable adults and kids with animal allergies, so be sure to take any medications.
- Bring hand sanitizer and wet wipes. Most places run out during the day. Having your own will allow you to stop for a snack after visiting the animals.
There’s a reason families flock to activity-packed, budget-friendly county fairs. Just be prepared for a little dust and a lot of fun, and keep an eye out for those donut burgers.
Laura Falin is a Denver-based writer and mom.