Mount Jumbo is brown, Target has stocked its school supplies and your Chaco tan has reached its summer peak. That must mean the Western Montana Fair is in full swing. Fair week can be a tangle of long, sweaty lines and expensive campaigns to win cheap stuffed animals — or it can be pretty fun and inexpensive, if you know how to do it right. Here’s your alternative guide to the fair, which collects our favorite lesser-known events, some new stuff we’re excited about and a few fair classics that will never go out of style.
MADE Fair Marketplace
In past years, the craft offerings at the fair have been a bit thin and often seem corny and dated. Not this summer. New this year is the MADE Fair Marketplace located in the commercial building, which showcases 70 vendors every day, along with artists in residence. In addition to the great new selection of local, modern arts and crafts, each day will include make-and-take crafts. Among other things, you can make lavender water, dye silk scarves and create repurposed leather keychains. We are so ready and excited for this arty update.
Every day, 11 AM to 9 PM.
Honestly, we spend a lot of the fair checking out the animals and being impressed by the 4H kids that care for them. But most everyone wanders through the main livestock building for a few minutes, which means it can be easy to miss the llama and alpaca tent located on the periphery. No offense to the chickens and pigs and rabbits and stuff, but baby llamas are just the best. And if you don’t want to check out the baby llamas, fine. Just know we think you might be a sociopath.
Thu., Aug. 9, 11 AM to 9 PM.
Big Sky Band nachos
There is absolutely nothing artisan about these nachos — the cheese comes from a big tub, the chili from a can, the jalapenos are absolutely not fresh. And guess what? They are just the most perfect plate of fair nachos you will ever eat in your life. This is our personal first food stop at the fair every year. We walk right past the line for the ever-popular vikings and order a plate of nachos with everything on it. From the first crisp chip with the perfect amount of cheese to the last soggy, floppy bite that you have to eat with a fork, this is fair heaven. Bonus: the proceeds go to a great cause.
Every day, 11 AM to 9 PM.
Music at the fair tends to bend toward country music and metal, which is fine with us, but can get a little tired and predictable. This year, we think the most fun show will be local blues outfit Mudslide Charley, which often rocks the Union Club and other venues in town. We are all for hearing them outside, with room to dance, and for free.
Thu., Aug. 9, at 5 and 9 PM.
The chili cook off
There are a few cooking competitions throughout the week, but we are totally here for the chili cook off. Not only is the chili diversity inspiring and delicious, but it happens at the very height of the fair on Saturday afternoon. If you want to feel the real churn of the crowd and heat of the afternoon while experiencing a fair staple, this is your event.
Sat., Aug. 11 at 3 PM.
The ZACC’s Girls’ Rock Camp
If you haven’t caught the kids’ rock camp performances in the past, this is a great time to do it. This show is the end result of The Zootown Art Community Center’s summer rock camps, where kids 8 to 16 can learn how to play instruments and write songs together. And seeing those kids up there is super impressive and inspiring for people of all ages. Bonus: This year’s rock camp concert is bookended by an event called The Magic of Keith Raymond, which sounds kind of cheesy, but awesome.
Friday, Aug. 10 at 2 PM.
The Ferris wheel
There are lots of rides at the fair, from the classic to the rickety to the barf-inducing. But we keep it classic with the Ferris wheel, which has to be the most pleasant way to see the whole fairgrounds — and a pretty big chunk of Missoula.
Every day, 11 AM to 9 PM.
The Western Montana Fair continues Thu., Aug. 9–Sat., Aug. 11 from 11 AM to 9 PM and Sun., Aug. 12 from 11 AM to 8 PM.
• Do anything but drive there. The biggest headache of the fair is parking, so just skip it. Bike to the fair and use the bike valet service offered by Missoula Bike Ambassadors and Missoula in Motion. It’s free, plus they give you $2 in fair bucks, so you enter the fair richer. And the bus is easy and free. If you have to drive, park close in a paid lot. Your money goes to one good cause or another and you will swear a lot less.
• Skip the bagged cotton candy. In recent years, the fair has lacked fresh-made cotton candy, which is the only kind of cotton candy that should be consumed by humans. Avoid the bags of stale cotton candy, which only disappoint, and get your fresh spun sugar fix at the new booth at the Clark Fork Market (it’s organic, too).
• Don’t put goldie in a little bowl. If you win a goldfish at the fair, well, first of all, congratulations! Secondly, don’t make the mistake of just putting it in a small fish bowl. It will quickly die from the dirty water or lack of oxygen. Swing by the pet store and get a tank with a filter. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of caring for your new pet, don’t try to win one in the first place.
• Be ready for the heat. The fairgrounds aren’t super shady, and this week is going to be very hot. Go prepared with sunglasses, hats, sunscreen, water and an appropriate August fair-going attitude. Getting there right when the fair opens at 11 a.m., or attending late in the evening, are two good ways to avoid the warmest part of the day (and the crowds).
• Don’t forget to people watch. People come from all over the state to attend the fair, so when you get your Big Sky Band nachos, find a shady, grassy spot and just watch the crowd go by. It’s more entertaining than most of the carnie games.