Late summer nights beside the bonfire, little ones tucked up tight inside the tent, friends swigging something warming from the bottle as shooting stars describe arcs overhead and music wafts from a nearby stage…this is the stuff that good festivals are – or ought to be – made of. North America has a bumper crop of fabulous family-friendly festivals of this ilk, where good music, good food and happy vibes are the key; here’s our pick of the cream of them.
Image by John Chandler, via Burning Man Galleries
A sweet three-day-weekend music festival in rural Chillicothe, pitch your tent and hang out, listening to bands that have, in the past, included Willie Nelson, The Flaming Lips and Jane’s Addiction. The Kids Camp offers daily activities for younger campers, with face paints, music workshops, water balloon juggling and the like. Don’t forget to drop into the inspiring Soulshine tent, for info on how to do your bit to help the world. Children under six are free; children 6-12 are half-price at the gate.
When: late May
Where: Chillicothe, Illinois
With ten days of music, Cajun food and Louisiana heritage, this is a big one: bring sunscreen and sunglasses, and book a hotel well in advance, since there’s no camping on site. Day tickets cost $50 in advance for adults; children’s tickets, (age 2 to 10), are an amazingly diminutive $5 at the gate (under 2s are free). There are also a range of VIP tickets available, if you’d like access to the whole ten days. 2013’s lineup included The Black Keys, Fleetwood Mac, Patti Smith, Willie Nelson, John Mayer and Billy Joel.
Where: New Orleans, Louisiana
80,000 people in 700 acres of Tennessee countryside, dancing to the lilting strains of such music luminaries as Paul McCartney, Bjork, Tom Petty and Jack Johnson. Toss in some yoga, cinema and food trucks, and you’ve got Bonnaroo, four glorious June days in Manchester, Tennessee. The $200—some ticket price includes camping and parking: children under 6 are free; over-6s require a full festival pass, just like their parents.
Where: Manchester, Tennessee
Three days of fantastic folk-and-other-things (the 2013 lineup included The Avett Brothers, Father John Misty, The Old Crow Medicine Show, Feist, Beck, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot), this historic festival has been happening here since 1959, and has, in its time, hosted the greats: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash…nowadays there’s a family stage and tent, with free activities, organic snacks and performances for the younger generation. Note that it’s a no-stay festival: there’s camping locally, or otherwise grab a hotel (book early) in Newport. Childrens’ tickets (for ages 3 to 12) for between one and three days can be bought online, when purchasing adult ones.
When: late July
Where: Fort Adams State Park, Newport, Rhode Island
It may not be the easiest of festivals to attend (with or without children), but it’s safe to say it’s the ultimate in North America: 50,000 people convening for a week in the Black Rock Desert on an otherwise uninhabited ‘Playa,’ amid incredible art installations and surreal desert conditions, creating a temporary city ‘dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance’, and topped off with the ritual burnings of some of the festival’s main wooden structures at the very end. There’s a lot of groundwork required for a trip here: read the Burning Man First-Timers’ guide and its Family Survival Guide, and give yourself plenty of time to prepare supplies, essentials (goggles and bandanas are crucial for little ones to weather dust storms) and costumes. Under-12s are admitted free.
When: End of August – Beginning of September
Where: Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Every year, a host of Wanderlust Festivals pop up across North America (and beyond): Vermont, Whistler, Oahu, California Squaw Valley…all adhering to the central festival slogan, “Find Your True North,” and all with a compelling combination of live music, yoga, hiking, meditation, lectures, and cinema…making it one al fresco festival where you won’t have to worry about mosh-pits. Most Wanderlusts have dedicated children’s activities and 10s-and-unders go free; camping is available onsite at some, though not at others.
When: Various dates; from Oahu in Feb/Mar to Mont Tremblant, Quebec in August
Where: Various locations
Children are actively welcomed at this happy Californian festival, whose past artists have included The Barr Brothers, Ben Harper, My Morning Jacket, Ani diFranco and The Black Crowes, and there are ‘playshops’ in place of workshops. There’s onsite camping, as well as a dedicated Family Camp where the atmosphere is even mellower; The Rockin’ Nannies can be hired in advance for a bit of parental alone-time (they host a nightly “slumber party” from 8pm to 4am), and parents of light sleepers will appreciate the ban on drum circles and amplified music between 11pm and 11am.
Where: Quincy, California
Probably California’s best-known festival, Coachella – held in Indio, not far from Palm Springs – runs for two separate weekends in April, attracting artists like Dinosaur Jr., Phoenix, The Stone Roses, Grizzly Bear, Moby, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. There’s onsite camping on the polo grounds, or regular shuttles from hotels in Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert and Indio, and alongside listening to music you can ride the iconic Coachella Ferris wheel. The only downside is that while under-5s are free, everyone over five pays full price, making it quite an expensive proposition for families. For more on fabulous things to do in the Palm Springs area, see our Palm Springs Destination Guide.
Where: Empire Polo Club, Indio, California
Days spent lazing in hammocks, exploring art installations, watching stilt walkers, or taking a dip in the Big Wildcat Lake; nights of music and parties deep in “Sherwood Forest,” with a past line-up that includes The String Cheese Incident, Pretty Lights, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. There’s onsite camping; under-2s come in for free, and 3-12s at a discounted price.
Where: Rothbury, Michigan
Gorgeous hilly scenery, fresh air, performers spanning every genre from folk to funk, and designated family camping, this four-day festival about 25 miles from Columbus, Ohio, is a friendly affair, seventeen years old and still going strong. Drum circles, a kids’ playground, great food and micro-brews and a past lineup including ex-Grateful Dead Furthur, Primus, Pretty Lights and the Yonder Mountain String Band complete the picture. Ages three and under are free; twelve and unders’ tickets are at a reduced price: pre-register, and they’ll receive VIP swag too.
Where: Legend Valley, Thorneville, Ohio
Who hasn’t heard of Lollapalooza? That bastion of the festival scene since 1991, when Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction brought together the diverse talents of musicians such as Nine Inch Nails and Ice T in one glorious alternative musical extravaganza. Today’s Lolla still cuts the mustard: 2013’s lineup included The Postal Service, Grizzly Bear, Mumford & Sons and Queens of the Stone Age, along with that self-same Nine Inch Nails, The Cure and New Order. Nowadays there’s also a farmers’ market, a wine lounge, and sister festivals in Chile, Argentina and Brazil. And the best bit? 10s and unders get in for free.
Where: Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois
Slated to be held twice in 2014 due to its popularity, convened in picturesque surroundings deep in Washington State (around three hours from Seattle), this is another big-name family friendly festival, with a line-up that has included the Arctic Monkeys, Andrew Bird, Cake, Vampire Weekend, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Mumford & Sons. Camping is included in your ticket price, or you can upgrade for various fancy camp options – but be quick: 2013’s tickets sold out in just 90 minutes. If you’re planning on hanging around for more than the festival’s three days, take in our Seattle Destination Guide, for the very best of Seattle.
When: May, and again (with a separate line-up) in July
Where: The Gorge Amphitheater, Washington State