Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Winfield Convention & Tourism. All opinions and photos are mine.
Live music. Delicious food. Arts and crafts. Camping outdoors.
The Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, is an experience you must have, and my first visit was one for the memory book.
After stopping at the 51st Annual Walnut Valley Festival entrance, a volunteer approached the driver’s side window and asked, “You have any aliens with you?”
“Not today,” I replied.
“Ok, just checking. Enjoy the festival,” he said.
“This is going to be a fun adventure,” I thought.
The annual festival takes place the third weekend in September, drawing fans of Bluegrass, Americana, Celtic, Western swing, and Folk music.
I was impressed to discover that you’re bound to find live music anywhere you venture at the Winfield Fairgrounds. Over 200 hours of music is played on stages over four days from 9:00 a.m. – midnight featuring renowned performers.
Stages 1-4 vary in size from grandstand to small venue. Because musicians play various stages throughout the festival, you can see your favorite band more than once if you check the schedule.
Since we attended the festival on a one-day pass, I wanted to make the most of the experience by viewing each stage’s performance at least once.
Becky Buller Band got audience member tapping their toes and clapping to the rhythm. Nominated for 2021 IBMA Songwriter of the Year, I appreciated the lyrics to many of her uplifting songs. Considered one of the First Ladies of Bluegrass, she moved the crowd to a roaring applause after each song.
At Stage 2, we captured the experimental stylings of guitarist Shane Hennessy. The audience sat in awe as he used percussive guitar-playing techniques to deliver a lively performance.
Catching the last few songs of his set, I appreciated his approach to picking the guitar while using pedals to incorporate the sound of an entire band, from drums to lead guitar.
Jam band Pretend Friend delivered a rousing performance from another nearby stage mid-afternoon. They sang original songs, and lead singer Grant Boesen’s vocals reached the back of the audience.
Backed up by well-revered musicians playing mandolin, bass, and banjo, the band delivered a high-energy, memorable performance.
We returned to Stage 2 (my favorite of the main stages) just as Darin & Brooke Aldridge and their backup band began a soundcheck. The audience’s smiles began to appear within minutes of their first song.
Their talented musicianship was evident as they riffed off one another, taking turns to play solo performances.
A fan of Celtic music, I wanted to catch JigJam‘s session on Stage 1. Delivering what they call “foot-stomping, high-energy, and lots of badass” Bluegrass and American Folk music. The lead singer, Offaly Jamie McKoegh, entertained the crowd by telling stories between songs.
PRO TIP: Take advantage of the Champion Showcase Concert, NewSong Showcase, and other championship competitions categorized by instrument and picking style. View Walnut Valley News to view the winners.
At Walnut Valley Festival, the jam never ends.
Multiple campground stages exist, like Stage 5 in the Pecan Grove. Weekend campers set up their makeshift stages, giving musician friends a venue to play.
One of the pop-up venues, Stage 6, is one of the oldest camp stages at the festival and hosted Feisty Music Camp for Kids, giving youth a place to perform a concert. Learn more about all of the campers’ stages.
It’s a full-tilt camper’s party and a picker’s paradise at Pecan Grove, and it starts with Land Rush when campers claim their site long before the festival starts.
Veteran campsites use banners to identify their location, making it easy for friends to find them and join their jam circle. The more years a group has camped at the festival, it seemed the larger their banner and gathering site.
And the creative decorations are often thematic to match the campsite’s name. Would they win first place for the best-designed space? It’s up to the judges.
But these campers realize someone that newbies like us didn’t realize until seeing it first-hand. Walnut Valley Festival is its own community. It’s a welcoming place where great music, food, and conversations make it worthwhile.
I saw campers of all ages at the festival. Adults played cornhole, kids got their faces painted, and everyone generally loved the atmosphere.
FOOD TRUCK SCENE
Festival organizers know that you have to have excellent food concessions. Walnut Valley Festival’s food court includes over two dozen vendors. Fried food, vegan dishes, ethnic entrees, smoked meat dishes – no matter what you’re craving, you’ll find it.
Most food truck items started at $5 and went up. I suggest bringing $20 per person to enjoy a full meal with a drink.
PRO TIP: Don’t assume all food truck vendors accept credit cards, although most do. ATMs are available.
BEER & WINE GARDEN
We were thrilled to see Ladybird Brewing Company (Winfield) and several regional craft breweries on tap in the Picker’s Pub. I enjoyed Ladybird’s Picking’ Pale Ale from shaded picnic table seating while watching a live show perform on Stage 1.
I loved the souvenir festival cup, although the price of the first beer was expensive at $15. (Each additional beer pour is $5.)
ARTS & CRAFT VENDORS
Another festival highlight is perusing the Paulette Rush Arts & Crafts Show, which hosts makers nationwide. Over 100 vendors sell clothing, wood crafts, instruments, candles, artwork, and jarred jams and jellies.
Colorful tapestries hang from booth walls. Tie-die shirts, dresses, and many hats hang from clothing racks. Shoppers leisurely wind their way in and out of booths.
If it’s a band’s merchandise you’re after, you’ll find it available in a designated area after each band’s show. Musicians often remind fans where to find them when they wrap a set.
FARMERS MARKET VENDORS
A handful of farmers’ market vendors sell fresh produce and gourmet foods from tables near the Pecan Grove campsite.
This mini grocery market of sorts is just the thing campers and festival-goers need to stay fueled during a weekend. Besides, you never know when you may want to share a whole fruit pie, right?
FIRST-TIME VISITOR TIPS
WHAT TO EXPECT
First, expect the unexpected. A sofa at a campsite? Check. Massage therapy sessions inside a barn? Check. Golf carts decorated with party lights? Check.
Second, the festival is well-managed and a safe place to hang out. Staff and volunteers do an excellent job of keeping attendees comfortable and happy to the best of their ability. Attendees take pride in the festival by keeping the fairgrounds clean.
Thirdly, you’ll be surprised to see people getting work done on laptops and phones. Our cell phone signal, typically strong elsewhere, wasn’t strong at the fairground – except at The Wi-Fi Café.
Lastly, bringing collapsible chairs is advisable as standing to watch shows isn’t appreciated (blocks the view!), and typical band sessions last 45 minutes.
We appreciated the Walnut Valley for First-Timer’s landing page that detailed what to expect and proper attendee etiquette. After some study, we’re glad we didn’t wear white T-shirts. (You’ll find out why if you do a little reading.)
WHAT TO PACK
For what it’s worth, we were glad we packed a refillable water bottle, bagged chairs, a change of shoes, and sunscreen.
Regulars know the drill. You see more people wearing hats than not, and umbrellas are not out of the question on a hot Kansas day.
Do you need a bicycle or golf cart to navigate the fairgrounds? Not necessarily, but you should be prepared to increase your step count if walking to and from campsites. Ask about Festi-Cab, a golf cart ride for a minimal fee.
You’ll want to buy the latest festival T-shirt to wear with pride to next year’s celebration. We noticed dozens of audience members wearing them.
A paper newsletter is distributed daily at no cost to attendees from the fairground office. Media staff compiled news, cartoons, and contest information into a two-page document.
DOWNLOAD THE APP
You should download the Walnut Valley Festival mobile app to stay up-to-date on happenings and receive the latest notifications. It’s a one-stop resource for most things you’ll find in the festival program in the palm of your hand.
For bonus ideas of things to do in town, check out my travel post, Winfield, Kansas: Day Trip Ideas for a Guaranteed Good Time. Many downtown businesses run promotions in celebration of the festival.
Didn’t get to join the jam? Save next year’s celebration date, September 18 through 22, 2024, for the 52nd Walnut Valley Festival on your calendar. Land rush will be here before you know it.
Someone told me at the festival, “Once you experience Walnut Valley Festival, it gets in your bones, and you’re hooked.”
He was right.
We had an epic experience, and I can’t wait to return. Will I camp? I have yet to decide, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you hear me utter the phrase, “I can’t, I’m going to Winfield.”
Click my Instagram reel for a video recap of the 51st Walnut Valley Festival.