Living in southern California, we’ve got lots of reasons to be proud.
We argue over the somewhat fuzzy boundaries of our neighborhoods and valleys, and we represent our stance in the “East Side versus West Side” debate with fervor.
We even get pretty granular with our geographies – debating which canyons we call home and which mountains we can see out of our windows.
We don’t think much about our counties – probably because the county line on one end can feel a world away from the other one, clear across the county. (See also: San Diego County versus North County versus East County.)
But there’s one thing and one time of year that has the power to bring an entire county together in one place and put us all on the same page: the county fair.
Whether you live at the coast, near the Mexico border, in the Inland Empire, or in the Central Valley, every year you’ve got the chance to meet your local farmers and ranchers, taste your local burgers, brews, and sugar bombs, and share an experience on common ground with your fellow man.
The county fair is an opportunity to learn something about where you live and about yourself. And if you’re really adventurous, it’s a good reason to venture across those county lines and check out your neighboring counties, their local contributions, and their citizens.
So, here’s your ticket to ride the thrills, chills, and spills of the five best county fairs that Southern California has to offer.
1. San Diego County Fair, Del Mar
San Diego County is leading the charge in updating carnival-style amusements and attractions for modern times and today’s youngest audiences – that is, those who are used to riding the “biggest” and “thrillingest” coasters and water slides this side of the Mississippi at extreme-style theme parks that dare you to line up and not pass out or throw up while in mid-air. While the rides at the Del Mar Fairgrounds “Fun Zone” are still generally kid-friendly, they appear to be almost entirely new – which means that folks who are nostalgic for rickety rides of yore might bemoan the absence of a Tilt-a-Whirl or Scrambler. But there are still classics for young and old alike, like the great view you’ll get on the Skyride and Big Wheel, the thrill you’ll get barreling down the Goliath Slide, and the classic wonder of riding the Grand Carousel (salvaged from the defunct MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park in Vegas, which closed in 2002). And fortunately, you can still ride the Wave Swinger, rescued from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
The San Diego County Fair always has stellar entertainment on its Grandstand Stage – from internationally renowned bands and musicians to stand-up comics as part of its Toyota Concert Series. But if you’re looking for a more “down home” type of experience at this county fair, why not check out the livestock show or a horse show, make friends with some goats, or root for your favorite fowl in the Wild West Turkey Stampede? And whether you decide to gobble up a turkey leg or a Pink’s hot dog from one of the food vendors, be sure to bring your sweet tooth – because the 2018 fair will transform each attendee into a kid in a candy store with its “How Sweet It Is” theme. Every year, the fair runs through July 4 – which gives you a great excuse to double down and spend Independence Day “where the turf meets the surf,” as the fairgrounds are just about 30 miles north of the San Diego Bay and its “Big Bay Boom” annual fireworks show. For the best experience, get to the fairgrounds as early as possible to avoid traffic and secure a parking spot that’s not too far-flung (and that you can find afterwards). While the fair’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean provides a nice ocean breeze, it can still get hot and sunny in the peak of the afternoon.
2. Orange County Fair, Costa Mesa
Orange County’s fair holds the distinction of having some of the most exciting programming that involves demolition derby – and in 2018, its Action Sports Arena will host everything from a full-sized truck derby and “Orange Crush Police vs. Fire” to the inevitably pink-colored “Damsels of Destruction” and the oddly compelling “Motorhome Madness” (yes, RVs tearing each other apart, kitchen appliances and all). This is also where you can experience probably the highest concentration of cover band concerts you’ll find at any SoCal county fair – all live onstage at The Hangar. It sure has come a long way from that first fair held in 1890 in what was then Santa Ana, where the main event was a horse race! The fair has occupied its current spot, the former Santa Ana Army Air Base, since 1949 (four years before the City of Costa Mesa incorporated).
The “OCFair,” as it’s known, is always the one to grab the most headlines about its crazy “fair food” – basically, anything you can think of to fry, its vendors will try it out and sell it. Avocados? Check. Pickles? Check. Peanut butter and jelly? Check and check. The big draw is that some of those culinary delights – generally, the craziest and least appetizing ones -- are available only at the OC Fair. So arrive on an empty stomach if you dare, but bring some antacid to pop before you line up for any of the carnival rides. And fortunately, if your stomach isn’t made of steel, there are plenty of other attractions that have helped make the OCFair consistently one of the top 10 county fairs in the U.S. (Attendance has topped a million every year since 2007.)
And this year, that particularly includes the Centennial Farm, a year-round educational and agricultural experience that perfectly ties into the 2018 theme of “Free Your Inner Farmer.” If nothing else, swing on by to meet their internet-famous pigs.
3. Los Angeles County Fair, Pomona
Built on top of a beet and barley field smack-dab in the Pomona Valley's middle of nowhere, the original grounds for the LA County Fair were surrounded by orchards with the San Gabriel Mountains looming in the distance. But despite its remote location, the LA County Fair was big business, right from its start in 1922. These days, the Fair ranks as the country’s fourth-largest and runs for nearly three weeks. And that’s despite the fact that September is our hottest month of the year! If you’re sweltering from grandstand events and the midway, escape to one of the lovely 1930s-era exhibit buildings for a LEGO-themed “Brick City,” a flower show, a “Haunted 66” attraction in Expo Hall 8, a pop-up candy shop, and more.
The run of L.A.’s county fair is the perfect time to check out the Fairplex Garden Railroad at night, all lit up with twinkly lights as it has been in this location since 1935. This year, it’s reconfiguring its miniaturized world to go along with the fair’s 2018 theme – a Route 66 road trip. You’ll find the G-gauge railroad – one of the oldest and largest you’ll find anywhere – behind the beer garden. While you’re there, check out the 12,000-square-foot former Fine Arts Gallery, built in 1937 as part of the Works Progress Administration and once the office of fair fine arts director (and famed muralist) Millard Sheets. Now called the Millard Sheets Art Center, it will be launching a limited engagement exhibition to immerse visitors in various “Mother Road” interactive experiences. Every year, around 85,000 visitors come from across southern California to see the art center’s exhibition for the county fair – but considering the fact that this year’s installation will draw inspiration from such Instagram-worthy experiences as 29 Rooms and The 14th Factory, it may draw an even bigger crowd. Find out when the exhibit opens to the public August 31. The fair will be open every day including Labor Day (except other Mondays and all Tuesdays) through September 23.
4. Kern County Fair, Bakersfield
Also in September is the Kern County Fair, a dark horse among the SoCal county fairs but well worth the trip even from environs south of the Central Valley. Over the course of just a week and a half, this fair crams in top-notch concerts from incomparable heritage artists like The Beach Boys, War, and Air Supply, provides unique food offerings from local businesses instead of the ubiquitous greasy delights of SoCal’s “fry king” (a.k.a. Chicken Charlie), and this year is debuting its first-ever edible garden, KC’s Farm. You can also watch local wranglers show off their sheep and swine, and check out the other livestock that’s up for auction. Plus, the rides are classic (including Flying Bobs, the Ring of Fire, the Viper, and the Zipper), the parking is easy, and the traffic isn’t jammed. The fair usually runs around the end of September, and the 2018 dates are September 19 through 30.
The Kern County Fair has been in its current location only since 1952, though the fair itself dates back more than three decades prior to that. So, while you’re in town, check out the site of the first Kern County Agricultural Fair – 102 years ago, in 1916. You can find it where the Kern County Museum is currently located. One of the original fair exhibit halls can still be found there.
5. Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival, Indio
Among all of our county fairs, the one representing Riverside County is a real standout. The Riverside County Fair began in the early 20th century as a way to celebrate the end of the date harvest – though, over the years, it’s transformed into something more of an Arabian Nights-meets-Disneyland vibe. Sure, southern California wouldn't be what it is today without those date palm trees that were brought here from Algeria and planted in 1903. And we sure do love our camels here in SoCal – so much so that you can watch them race each other, free with your paid admission to the fair. If you’d like to experience a little of what it’s like to actually participate in a race at the fair, for a mere $10 you can get strapped onto the top of a "monster"-style fire truck called "The Extinguisher" while it takes a few laps around the arena and rolls over a few mounds of dirt a few times. (Just hold on for dear life.)
In the end, notwithstanding the nightly "Arabian Nights Musical Pageant" and "Queen Scheherazade" and her royal court, the Riverside County Fair and Date Festival is really just another excuse to walk the midway, spin around on some rides, and feel like a kid again. And out of all the SoCal county fairs, it probably offers the best weather: clear skies, sunny days, and cool winter nights in the Coachella Valley. The 2019 fair will run from February 15 through 24, making it the perfect way to round out a romantic Valentine’s Day getaway. Grab a date shake and two straws, and get ready to celebrate the Sahara like only southern Californians can.
Top Image: Sandi Hemmerlein