From The Wizard of Oz and woolly worms to whirligigs and hot sauce, North Carolina is full of festivals you can't find anywhere else since so many of our eclectic small towns have been celebrating heritages, collections and the downright unusual for years. So save the date: Here’s your chance to plan a trip and see some truly one-of-a-kind events that'll make your friends' and family's eyes widen in wonder.
1 Golf Cart Parade
1 Golf Cart ParadeJuly 4 each year, Bald Head IslandSee on map
Since cars aren’t allowed on the preserved Bald Head Island – only golf carts – it makes for a Fourth of July parade specific and special to the area. And every year, more than 100 of these vehicles are decorated to the nines for the Golf Cart Parade. From patriotic to papier-mâché with different themes thrown in, you’ll find some of the most intricately designed carts rolling past Old Baldy as everyone competes for first place. The parade is part of the island’s celebration that also includes a carnival and fireworks over the water.
2 Underwater Bicycle Race
2 Underwater Bicycle RaceJuly 4 each year, BeaufortSee on map
This annual race held every Independence Day draws courageous contestants who decorate their bikes (and themselves), don scuba gear and race to the finish line – ready for it? – underwater. You can push, pedal or drag your bike, but only your own human power is allowed. Spectators can view the action by charter boat or by snorkeling or scuba diving. Proceeds from the event go to the Children’s Mile of Hope, and there is a post-race party at the Discovery Diving shop afterward. If you participate, be sure to get a picture; racing a bike underwater is definitely a visual you’ll want to share with others.
3 Ayden Collard Festival
3 Ayden Collard FestivalSept. 10-12, 2020, AydenSee on map
Please note the 2020 festival has been canceled due to COVID-19.
More than 40 years ago, the local newspaper held a contest to determine an annual festival, and collards won out over cucumbers to become the centerpiece in this town outside Greenville. In addition to one of the largest parades in our state featuring more than 100 entries such as marching bands, classic cars and live animals, there is an art show and a collard-eating contest.
4 Autumn at Oz
4 Autumn at OzSept. 11-13 & Sept. 18-20, 2020, Beech MountainSee on map
Travel back in time to 1939 at the Land of Oz Theme Park high atop Beech Mountain to attend this popular festival – now featuring two full weekends of magic – that celebrates the all-time classic film The Wizard of Oz. Children and adults alike will be enchanted as they experience the re-creation of Dorothy’s trip from her farm home through the twister and down the yellow brick road to the Land of Oz. Bringing everything to life are the Emerald City fair, live shows, a petting zoo, vendors and more. Plus, make new friends with the stars from the film such as Dorothy and Toto – and you might even run into a munchkin or flying monkey.
5 14th Annual North Carolina Hot Sauce ContestSept. 12, 2020, OxfordSee on map
Please note the 2020 contest has been canceled due to COVID-19.
From rich and smoky to sweet and tangy to fruity and zesty, the North Carolina Hot Sauce Contest is filled with flavors that have kept thousands coming back for nearly 15 years. The one-day and one-of-a-kind event in Oxford – about an hour north of Raleigh – features more than 200 vendors selling sauces, food and goods throughout the streets of downtown, all with the promise of being uniquely North Carolina. Try sauces with flavor combinations you’ve never before tasted but will quickly fall in love with, sample those in the running for honors such as N.C.’s Hottest and Most Unique, and take home your favorites to share with friends later. Bold and brave types, think you can handle the heat? The Pepper Eating Contest is sponsored by Bailey Farms, one of the largest pepper producers in the East. Best of luck – winner gets $1,000 and bragging rights.
6 Mayberry Days
6 Mayberry DaysSept. 21-27, 2020, Mount AirySee on map
You can almost hear the famous whistle in the air every September in Mount Airy as the city classically celebrates The Andy Griffith Show and Andy’s hometown of Mayberry. The weeklong festival will fill your soul with nostalgia with events such as apple-peeling and pie-eating contests, live music featuring songs from the show, a parade that often includes special guests and, of course, The Andy Griffith Museum.
7 Benson Mule Days
7 Benson Mule DaysSept. 24-27, 2020, BensonSee on map
This popular event every September draws nearly 30,000 people from across the U.S. and around the world. Activities include an annual parade and rodeo, food, arts and the main highlight: the mule events, which feature pulling contests among some of the best teams in the East, halter classes and pleasure riding. You can even camp at Chamber Park throughout the event.
8 Denim Days
8 Denim DaysOct. 3-4, 2020, ErwinSee on map
The town of Erwin was once hailed as “The Denim Capital of the World” thanks to its booming denim cloth business from the Erwin Cotton Mill. Although that mill shut down nearly 20 years ago, townspeople and visitors alike still pay tribute during the first weekend in October every year at Denim Days. Turn an everyday action into a party when you put on your best pair of blue jeans and enjoy live music, carnival rides, crafts, food from local vendors and several contests, including “Baby Denim.”
9 Woolly Worm Festival
9 Woolly Worm FestivalOct. 17-18, 2020, Banner ElkSee on map
For generations, High Country residents and visitors have been studying the black and brown bands on these fuzzy caterpillars to determine what kind of winter to expect, with the 13 bands thought to represent the 13 weeks of winter. A race up 3-foot strings is held during this festival every October to determine which crazy crawler will be crowned the official woolly worm. There’s also a 10K “Woolly Worm Wace,” local crafts and food, and live entertainment.
10 North Carolina Poultry Jubilee
10 North Carolina Poultry JubileeNov. 6-7, 2020, Rose HillSee on map
Home of “The World’s Largest Frying Pan” and headquarters of longtime chicken producer House of Raeford Farms, Rose Hill is a logical choice for the annual N.C. Poultry Jubilee, held every November. Enjoy carnival rides, shag music, the N.C. Poultry Jubilee Pageant and a wing-eating competition. Plus, cross an item off your foodie bucket list you didn’t even know you had: Eat fried chicken out of that huge frying pan. It can fry 365 chickens at one time!
11 North Carolina Whirligig Festival
11 North Carolina Whirligig FestivalNov. 7-8, 2020, WilsonSee on map
Whirligigs are large sculptures created from recycled industrial parts, bringing together both art and science for a grand and aesthetically pleasing effect. And every November, downtown Wilson plays host to the Whirligig Festival, which honors the late local artist Vollis Simpson (his whirligigs are featured on display at the city’s park). This arts festival also includes concerts, a “whirli-kidz” zone complete with rides, and a host of local vendors selling crafts, food and more.
12 Acorn Drop
12 Acorn DropDec. 31, 2020, RaleighSee on map
Begin your new year with a completely new experience: Watch as a 1,250-pound acorn is lowered over Fayetteville Street in Raleigh to ring in new beginnings. The sculpture usually resides at the lawn of the city’s performing arts center most of the year but is moved over for Raleigh’s “First Night,” which also includes live music, comedic performances, a Ferris wheel and daytime activities for the kids, as well.