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From Albuquerque to Alaska, Mexico to NYC, Canada to Colorado and everywhere in between, these 10 events belong on every traveler’s North America bucket list.
I’ve been around the world a time or two but lately I’ve been increasingly drawn to explore my own country and my own backyard. And there’s no shortage of things to do and see on this continent!
My North America bucket list has been in the works for awhile, refined, cut, expanded, and defined again until I came up with the perfect round-up of the most exciting events on the continent. I’ve crossed off only two so far and am dying to get to the other eight – once you finish reading this, I know you’ll feel the same way.
Ready to go? From natural phenomena to world-famous festivals to adrenaline-pumping races and more, this North America bucket list will take you to the top 10 events on the continent!
10. Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta features more than 500 hot air balloons and takes place in early October every year.
Every morning starts with dawn balloon launches before the day continues with shows and events like skydivers, balloon flying competitions, fireworks, chainsaw carving, and more. Entrance costs $10 per person for a morning or evening half-day session but you can also upgrade to private club seating with catering, hot air balloon rides, or even a three-night glamping package on the grounds.
Dan and I rode the famous sunrise hot air balloons in Cappadocia, Turkey, and it was a magical experience – the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is up next on our North America bucket list!
9. The Kentucky Derby
I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, only a few hours from where the Kentucky Derby takes place in Louisville every year. Unfortunately, I still haven’t crossed it off my North America bucket list, but I hope to soon.
The Kentucky Derby is called ‘the most exciting two minutes in sports’ because after all the festivities, the one and a quarter mile horse race happens in only two minutes! Some staples of the Kentucky Derby experience include wearing giant hats, drinking mint julep cocktails, and betting on which horse is going to come away with the win.
The Kentucky Derby takes place on the first Saturday in May (and has since the 1875) and general admission tickets start at $65 per person.
8. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
New York City
What’s more iconic than Christmas in New York City?
The season’s festivities are kicked off every year with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the fourth Thursday of November – better known as Thanksgiving Day. Besides eating too much turkey and pie on Thanksgiving, New Yorkers are also treated to a 2.5 mile parade featuring floats, giant balloons, marching bands, famous singers, and, at the very end, Santa Clause in his sleigh.
Admission is free (just find a place to stand along the route), but with spectators topping 3.5 million every year, make sure to go early to secure a spot!
7. Sundance Film Festival
Park City, Utah
You don’t have to be into niche indie films to enjoy Sundance Film Festival.
As one of the world’s most famous annual film festivals (and the largest in the US), it showcases the best of the best every year, many of which go on to become smash hits like Napoleon Dynamite, 500 Days of Summer, and the Blair Witch Project.
This multi-city, multi0theater events takes place at the end of January every year and tickets to individual screenings start at $25 per person, while packages can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars per person.
Besides screenings, there are plenty of other events like Q&A’s with filmmakers, awards shows, afterparties, and more. Of course, it’s winter in Utah, so skiing, snow boarding, and other outdoors activities on the slopes are an unofficial, but essential, part of the Sundance experience as well.
6. Just for Laughs Comedy Festival
If film festivals aren’t really your thing, a comedy festival may be more up your alley. Just for Laughs is the largest comedy festival in the world, founded and hosted by our northernly neighbors in Montreal, Canada.
Variety calls it the ‘Coachella of Comedy’ and it lives up to the nickname with more than 1,600 artist, performers, and comedians putting on more than 750 shows. Festival-goers can also explore Montreal in July and take advantage fo the warm weather, good food, and historical sites in the Canadian city.
Many events are free, but the big names and big venues do require tickets. Two-show festival passes start at $100 and increase from there.
5. Aurora Borealis
The Aurora Borealis, also called the Northern Lights, is an otherworldly astronomical phenomena.
It takes place mostly in the far north and far south because it’s caused by solar winds interacting with the magnetic north and south poles. The purple and green lights dancing across the sky can be seen in many places in North America like Alaska and Northern Canada, but the small town of Yellowknife is one of the most popular.
Yellowknife boasts long, clear, winter nights and encourages visitors to come from mid-October to mid-April for the best chance at seeing the Aurora Borealis. I saw a faint Aurora Borealis as a kid when it came as far south as Ohio one night, and seeing them in Yellowknife has been at the top of my North America bucket list ever since!
4. Winter X Games
The X Games come in both the summer and winter variety, but I personally feel more drawn to the winter version.
They take place every year in Aspen, Colorado (for now, the city seems to change every few years) and feature four days of competition between the top outdoor athletes in the world.
The Winter X Games are like the Winter Olympics without the price tag (festival events, concerts, and competitions are all free and open to the public) but with lots of the same athletes and events like superpipe snowboarding and downhill skiing. More niche events include snowmobile racing, ice climbing, and more.
The juxtaposition of the extreme sports taking place in such an idyllic mountain town makes the Winter X Games one of the most unique and most fun bucket list events in North America, and I hope to attend one year soon.
3. Day of the Dead
Now lets get into one of the events on my bucket list that I have been able to cross off. I celebrated Day of the Dead with my family in Oaxaca, Mexico, and it was even more magical and memorable than I expected.
Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos in Spanish, is a UNESCO-designated cultural event tied to many of the indigenous communities in Mexico, but particularly those in Oaxaca. From October 31st to November 2nd the veil between heaven and earth is at its thinnest and the spirits of deceased family and friends can come back to earth.
Their lives are celebrated with ofrendas (alters), parades, dancing, flowers, food, and all-night candlelight vigils in the graveyards, often featuring lots of beer, rowdy markets, and live concerts. This is a joyful celebration, and one that I encourage everyone to take part in at least once in their lives.
2. Monarch Butterfly Migration
After celebrating Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, travel to the state of Michoacan for another bucket list event in Mexico.
The Monarch Migration is like the Aurora Borealis in that there is a span of a few months when you can see it. Hundreds of thousands of butterflies fly down from Canada and the US to spend the winter in the warmer forests of Michoacan and visitors can hike through these colorful wonderlands between November and March every year.
Dan and I went in 2020 and walking among thousands of swirling butterflies was unbelievable.
Unfortunately, Monarch butterflies are endangered and their population is dwindling, so these could be some of the last years you can experience the magic of the migration. Learn how to go sooner rather than later in our monarch migration guide, and what you can do to help the species survive for future generations.
1. Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
This long and difficult 938-mile race follows the course that Balto and his sled team took to bring life-saving medicine to Nome during an epidemic in the winter of 1925 (a statue stands in Central Park to commemorate him as well).
Now the Iditarod is billed as ‘the last great race on earth’ and I’m inclined to agree. Mushers face blizzards and wind-chill that can drop to -100 degrees F on the course which can take up to 15 days to complete.
Spectators can watch the race at the start and finish lines as well as from towns and checkpoints along the way. It takes place in early March and attendance is free.
Ready to go?
Explore unique Airbnbs in Albuquerque, Alaska, NYC, and beyond to begin planning a trip these 10 bucket-list-worthy events in North America. Then, discover more bucket list destinations around the world, like:
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