UTOPiAFEST has just made our list of the best music festivals in Texas. Imagine this: a full moon and starlit sky which is lighting up the trees and rolling hills, a cool evening's gentle breeze, a stage with good bands playing some tunes that are perfect for dancing in the soft sand in front of the stage, psychedelic stage lighting, and a fun crowd having a good time and enjoying the music - and that was just the first night! UTOPiAFEST is 3 days of diverse music on two stages, free camping, BYOB, good food, and lots of fun singin', dancin', and partyin' into the wee hours! The definition of utopia is "an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect" and that pretty much describes UTOPiAFEST.
We attended the 4th annual UTOPiAFEST which was held in late September just 7 miles outside Utopia on the 1000 acre Four Sisters Ranch. Where is Utopia you ask, well it's sandwiched in by Vanderpool (oh, never heard of it) to the north, Leaky and Concan (who?) to the west, Tarplay to the east, and Sabinal to south - all that doesn't really help much, does it? Then try this, it's 70 miles or so north west of the Alamo, 25 miles west of the Cowboy Capital of Texas, close to Rio Frio, and in some of the prettiest Hill Country in Texas. Utopia is a small town (don't blink or you'll miss it) best known for "7 Days in Utopia" which is a feel good book and movie with Robert Duvall about a golfer finding himself - now we need a sequel with Taylor Swift called "3 days at UTOPiAFEST" about the good times at this fun Texas Music Festival.
Four Sisters Ranch has been in the family since 1918, and the festival got started when the fours sisters (all accomplished singers) and Travis (one of the sons and a music lover with connections to a lot of Austin based bands) wanted to share this beautiful hill country ranch with friends and they decided that you can't have a party without a band, so they invited some musicians for the weekend. That's blossomed into three days of music with twenty four bands and musicians and around 1500 music fans!
Part of the UTOPiAFEST experience starts when you try to get to the Ranch - the Festival's website directions are good (ie, go .3 miles, cross over three cattle guards, turn left at the Y) and you'll see little orange arrows pointing the way through some scenic back roads and country farmland. Once you get there you need to decide where to set up camp - and there are no directions or designated sites, it's camp where ever you like! And all of the camping areas are close to the music. In fact, you might not even have to leave your site to see and hear the music.
In a natural amphitheater surrounded by trees, towering Hill Country peaks, campers and tents, and food and merchandise vendors are two stages - the Arrowhead and Cypress stage - all in an open field about 300 yards long by 200 yards wide. One stage is set at one end of the field and one at the other end and between the two stages are two large tents to provide some protection from the elements. In front of each of the stages is a large sand pit encouraging you to take off your shoes, let your hair down, and dance and groove to the music.
The music started on Friday around 4 and continued well after 2 AM and on Saturday the bands started at 2 and played until around 2 AM. Each set was 45 minutes and when the music ended on one stage there was a mass migration to the other stage where it started a couple minutes after the set on the other stage ended.
Most of the fans like to get up close and personal with the bands, which means the sand pits is where most of the action - dancing, singing, and having the most fun - tends to be. Chairs and canopies are prohibited within 60 yards of the front of the stage, so we set up our chairs and a canopy to protect us from the sun and rain about halfway between each of the stages. When the music stopped on one stage, we just rotated our chairs and cooler 90 degrees! Perfect! And we were right in the path from one stage to the next which resulted in some interesting people watching.
The music kicked off on Thursday evening at the pre-party with:
Friday's schedule included:
We just barely made it up in time for Saturdays line-up:
Thursday was outstanding with a full moon, lively fans, and a cool breeze - perfect for an evening of music. Friday started off cool and overcast which made it great for hiking, sleeping in, biking, socializing, frisbee golf, or other fun stuff. But shortly after the music started, it began to drizzle and then steadily got heavier and turned into a solid vail of rain for the rest of the evening. I was tempted to go back to the motor home to put on my swimsuit.
But the rain didn't stop the music nor did it send the fans scurrying back to their campsites. Umbrellas and rain gear suddenly appeared, shirts and shoes came off, and the fun continued. Even the young kids hung in there! And everyone got wet and muddy but still had a great time.
The UTOPiAFEST volunteers did a fantastic job of keeping the music going, the musicians somewhat dry, and the hay bales spread to soak up some of the worst muddy spots. You'll notice a lack of pictures after the 5th band on Friday - my camera kept fogging up and finally stopped working.
Saturday morning was overcast, there were several deep and mushy mud pits; the roads were slippery; all of the tents still had rain drops on them; wet clothes and muddy shoes were hanging off of trees, tents, cars, and improvised clothes lines; and one of the stage sand pits had turned into a dirt pit. But that didn't seem to dampen any spirits - groggy eyed campers were emerging from their tents with a yawn and a smile and a "let's do it again" attitude; you could smell wet clothes, coffee, and breakfasts cooking on grills; and the fun, games, and music started all over again. Saturday was cool with a few drizzles for minutes, followed by clouds and sun - and the music was great.
After the music stopped on the stages on Friday and Saturday night and the evening was starting to wind down, if you were still awake and ready to party, you could turn in your ID for a pair of headphones and party 'til the sun came up! You could groove to the beats of Austin's own, Henry + The Invisibles the Onemanphunkband, and more as you wander all over Four Sisters Ranch without disturbing any the the party pooping slumbering campers!
UTOPiAFEST is as much about the festival fans as it is about the camping and music. UTOPiAFEST draws an interesting mix of young and middle aged, kids of all ages, as well as some former hippies like myself. People watching is fantastic. This festival was very reminiscent of my hippie days and some of the music festivals we attended in the late 60's in California with outstanding music from the likes of Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Bob Dillon, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seger, Mommas & the Papas, Kingston Trio, and more. Plus, just like the old days, at UTOPiAFEST there was plenty of bare feet, flowers in the hair, long flowing hippie skirts, peace and "make love not war" signs, ponytails and long hair, tie-dye shirts, festival kids, funny smelling cigarettes, lots of wine and beer, hula hoops, free form dancing, and some interesting and unique headgear!
Before, during, and after the music everybody was having fun at UTOPiAFEST. Anybody that will hang in there until 3 AM for the music when it's pouring rain has got to be a true diehard UTOPiAFEST music fan and it's a testament to the quality of the bands that the majority of the fans stayed to the bitter end. The stage was always packed, lots of dancing, and lots of smiles and laughs.
UTOPiAFEST is very kid friendly and there were lots of them and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves. Some played frisbee, others playing the drums at the music bus or tried the hula hoops, some played in the sand while everyone danced around them, or they danced with the parents, played football, or sat and listed to the music.
Camping & Things To Do at UTOPiAFEST
There are a scattering of nearby options for lodging, but to really experience and enjoy UTOPiAFEST you need to camp. You can pitch a tent or park your rig in an open field, along the perimeter of the the stage area, under the trees, at the base of a rolling hill, or just about anywhere that suits your fancy on the 1000 acres. Under the trees or at the base of the hills are $300,000 motor homes, one to four person tents, 5th wheels, hammocks, a variety of trailers, air mattress, and more to house the campers for the weekend.
Water and electricity are not available and there are no designated sites but the camping is FREE and you'll find a spot that's ideal for you within a couple minutes walk to the stages. To keep the camping area free of cars, a couple different shuttles were waiting for you when you arrived - load up your gear and they'll take you through the camping area until you say "whoa, that's a perfect spot for us!"
Near the stage are hot showers and outhouses, both of which were kept pretty busy. You should be able to pick a site where you can see the stages and wherever you set up, you should be able to hear the music.
The campground is always alive and full of activity from shortly after 10 AM to a few hours before the sun rises - there is everything from games, to cookin', to pickin' and singin', to just chillin' and enjoying the scenery and camaraderie. There is a Family Camping area which theoretically should be quieter and more tame - but who wants that and there were only a couple of tents and RVs parked in that area!
Before the music starts you can get some exercise and hike to the top of the hills to experience some magnificent views, mountain bike the dirt trails, or take a scenic drive through some stunning Texas Hill Country. Or you can play the nine hole frisbee golf course that traverses up and done one of the peaks in back of the vendors. Or go horse back riding at one of the nearby dude ranches, play some golf where they filmed "7 Days at Utopia" or one of the other nearby courses, float the Frio river (or bounce along the rocks if the water's low thanks to the drought), shop for antiques in nearby Bourne, explore San Antonio, sample some wine at a local vineyard, or visit lost Maples State Park - in other words, you shouldn't get bored waiting for the music to start!
In addition, on Friday and Saturday, UTOPiAFEST has several ongoing activities, some of which include:
UTOPiAFEST Fine Dining & Shopping
As you meander though the campground you'll smell breakfast sausage, hamburgers, and BBQ. But if you don't want to cook, there are several vendors just waiting for you near the stages. In the Food Forest (all the food vendors are clustered under the trees) and we had to choose from: Bison tamales and tacos from Bison Provision Company; excellent hand tossed fresh wood oven baked pizza from Fired Up Kitchen; BBQ sandwiches and sausage wraps (wow, superb!) from Double Trouble BBQ; Vietnamese sandwiches, fried rice, and Vermicelli bowls from Bahn Bahn; veggie wrap or pesto pasta from Dr. Rawsome; and more including chocolate, mineral shots, coffee, and ice cream. You shouldn't go hungry. Our favorite was the pizza from Fired Up Kitchen. The festival is BYOB and no alcohol is available for sale and make sure you load up before you get to Utopia because it is a small and dry city.
If you wanted a tie dye tee-shirt or long flowing tie dye skirt there were a couple of different vendors with a wide selection. You can also get a new frisbee, cowboy hat, rings and jewelry, art, and lots more.
After a hard day of dancing, or drinking, or sleeping on an air mattress that went flat you could also get a massage (only $1 a minute) to work out the work stress, loosen up the muscles for more dancing, or just a relaxing few minutes in the massage chair. Black Swan Yoga was there each morning offering Yoga classes for anyone who could make it up that early and needed to loosen up.
We had a great time at UTOPiAFEST and here are some of what we consider as highlights:
One of the unique touches at UTOPiAFEST was when we looked up and saw a small airplane circle the stages a couple times and then on the third and fourth pass things started flying out the plane's windows and floating down right in the middle of where everyone was listening to the music. Hands went up and people started running to grab whatever was floating down - turns out it was panties with a ticket to next years festival!
Our thanks to Jamie, Travis, and Aaron who planned and organized such a fun event and made sure it was perfect; Onion Creek Productions who are the producers of UTIPiAFEST; and the hundreds of volunteers from the ticket takers to the sound guys to the stage hands to the clean-up crew for helping make it fun for the rest of us. See you there next year!