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America’s 15 Best Small-Town Fourth of July Celebrations

Small towns, big fireworks!

Boston has its Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular and Washington, D.C., its Capitol Fourth, but you don’t need to go so big for the Fourth. Homespun parades and stunning fireworks await in small towns across the United States, some with quirky traditions all their own (hula hoops, anyone?). Some have a direct link to the original Fourth—and there’s at least one that’s older than the nation itself. Read on to find out.

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PHOTO: Gail Holbrook
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WHERE: California

Mountain-cradled Truckee, in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, may be all about adventure sports today, but back in the day, it was a wild and wooly frontier town—a fact that comes through loud and clear in its longtime-running Fourth of July parade. Yes, that’s a real-deal horse-drawn Wells Fargo wagon trundling past the little downtown’s 19th-century buildings; you’ll also spy flag-draped horses, vintage cars, and soldiers (who carry skis rather than guns). Locals and visitors alike can run the pre-parade “Firecracker Mile” run, with the day ending at Donner Lake with festivities and fireworks.

INSIDER TIPAccess to the Donner Lake beach for fireworks is restricted to Truckee residents; there are several public piers on the lake, however, that non-Truckee-residents can frequent.

 

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PHOTO: Teresa MerelMan
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WHERE: Vermont

Since 1975, parade participants have abided by strict rules in the quirky Stowe suburb of Moscow: Floats must be made the morning of, and $10 max may be spent on decorations. Picture lots of lawn chairs, garden hoses, and whatever else can be scrounged up for props. The party then moves to Stowe Village, where there’s face painting, music, clowns, street performers, another parade, and, come dark, a spectacular fireworks show.

INSIDER TIPA town-wide sale called “Seven Miles of Sales” takes place July 1 to 4.

 

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PHOTO: FloridasHistoricCoast.com
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WHERE: Florida

St. Augustine may be officially termed a city, but its historic core—founded 1565—is pure small town. With that pedigree, what better place to celebrate? During the day, the All-Star Orchestra plays swing, big band, and patriotic songs at the Plaza de la Constitución, while at dusk, fireworks explode over the ancient Castillo de San Marcos, reflecting dazzling prisms of colored light into the bay. Afterward, don’t fight the crowds; stick around and enjoy local shops, restaurants, and bars, all with extended hours.

INSIDER TIPGreat firework viewing spots include the grounds outside the Castillo, the Bayfront, the Bridge of Lions, and Vilano Beach.

 

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PHOTO: Jess Kraft | Shutterstock
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Bend

WHERE: Oregon

“It’s for the dogs” is an understatement when it comes to the Fourth in this outdoorsy central Oregon town, as costumed dogs, cats, llamas, perhaps a lizard or two strut their stuff (and ride little carts) in the long-running Pet Parade. Keep an eye out for the flying dog, always a crowd favorite. Old-fashioned fun abounds throughout the day at Drake Park, including artisans, live music, gunny sack and three-legged races, and hula-hoop contests. Fireworks launch off Pilot Butte at 10 pm, synchronized to music on local radio stations; pick a spot in town where you can see the butte and you’ll be guaranteed a dazzling show.

INSIDER TIPLocals claim Bend High School and Pilot Butte Middle School are the best fireworks-watching spots.

 

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PHOTO: Goldenisles.com
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Brunswick

WHERE: Georgia

One of the five original ports of entry for the American colonies, this is one town that’s seen a lot of Fourths. You’ll be wrapped up in old-timey-ness at Mary Ross Waterfront Park, where festivities include sack races, tug of wars, horseshoe tossing, free South Georgia watermelon, and, at dusk, fireworks over the East River and Oglethorpe Bay.

INSIDER TIPBe sure to bring lawn chairs, blankets, and a picnic dinner for the fireworks festivities, which begin at 7 pm.

 

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Bristol

WHERE: Rhode Island

Bristolians are fiercely proud that their town’s Fourth of July festivities date back to 1785, making it the nation’s oldest continuous celebration. As such, it’s fair to say they don’t have to follow the rules. First off, they come out in full red-white-and-blue force all month long, kicking off on Flag Day (June 14); events include a concert series, firefighters muster, Miss and Little Miss Fourth of July Pageant, Fourth of July Ball, and the list goes on. And then, take note: Fireworks take place on Fourth of July Eve, exploding over Bristol Harbor. And then, the Big Day is heralded with patriotic exercises, followed by the traditional Military, Civic and Fireman’s Parade, exactly like the first time around. No wonder Bristol is called the Most Patriotic Town.

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PHOTO: Jon Bilous | Shutterstock
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Old Orchard Beach

WHERE: Maine

If you’re yearning for a dose of nostalgia on the Fourth, say hello to this charming New England seaside village. The festivities start with a sand sculpture contest on Fourth of July Eve (at least one kid required), followed the next day with a parade, decorated bike contest, art show and sale, doggie parade (bandanas and balloons provided—or bring your own costume), open-air concert, square and line dancing, and fireworks at dusk from the pier. Oh, and in case that’s not enough to keep you occupied, there are seven fabulous miles of beach as well.

INSIDER TIPIf you miss the Fourth fireworks, don’t despair. Old Orchard Beach puts on a fireworks show every Thursday through the summer.

 

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Colonial Williamsburg

WHERE: Virginia

Imagine having breakfast with Thomas Jefferson himself, right before he reads the Declaration of Independence. That would be one heck of a way to celebrate the Fourth, right? But this experience, along with other Colonial-era happenings, exists at Colonial Williamsburg—the capital of Virginia when the colony said “yes” to independence. Stroll the historic cobbled streets, partaking in the Fife and Drum Corps salute to the original 13 states (with plenty of musket and cannon firing), colonial games at Market House, and, of course, the much-anticipated fireworks display on Palace Green.

INSIDER TIPThe new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown celebrates the Fourth with a special lineup of activities, military drills, artillery demonstrations, and more.

 

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PHOTO: Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau
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Flagstaff

WHERE: Arizona

This high-altitude town in northern Arizona doesn’t devote just one day to the Fourth. Oh no—they celebrate the nation’s birthday over five action-packed days, with watermelon-eating contests, BBQs, an art show featuring artists from nearby Hopi villages, a classic car show, outdoor movies, and red-white-and-blue everything. On the day itself, watch the Fourth of July Parade then throw down a blanket beneath the Ponderosa pines for a special Independence Day concert at Fort Tuthill Park. After, head to Lights on the Lawn at the Continental Country Club, where an afternoon of food, music, and fun culminates in the region’s most spectacular fireworks show.

INSIDER TIPBring a bag to the parade for all the swag and candy you’ll score.

 

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PHOTO: (c) Sepavo | Dreamstime.com
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Gatlinburg

WHERE: Tennessee

When they say this mountain town hosts the nation’s first Fourth of July parade, they don’t mean historically. No, they mean they host the first one, as in 12:01 am, just after midnight, on July 4, with 80,000 to 100,000 spectating. There’s always a special salute to our service people, notably female war veterans. During the day, partake in the River Raft Regatta, with unmanned rafts bopping down the Little Pigeon River—prizes include the most creative décor. The Army Band kicks off the evening festivities, culminating in downtown fireworks.

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PHOTO: Purplexs | Shutterstock
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Virginia City

WHERE: Nevada

In this Wild West town about 40 minutes outside of Reno, you wouldn’t think of celebrating the Fourth without a good old-fashioned cowboy shootout. There’s also a festive parade with lots of Victorian costumes (and a bedraggled prospector or two), live saloon music, and BBQ and ice cream galore. The V&T Railroad operates throughout the day, with 35-minute trips to Gold Hill. Museums are open, as are antique shops. The fun day ends with eye-level fireworks—that’s right, eye level. They’re shot from of the canyon below, sending a dazzling display right before your very eyes.

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PHOTO: Kent Kanouse / Flickr, [(CC BY-NC 2.0)]
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Cody

WHERE: Wyoming

Five days of parades and fairs hail the Fourth in this small town, but the biggest news here is the four-day Cody Stampede Rodeo. It all started three years after Buffalo Bill Cody died—in 1919—when local leaders dedicated themselves to preserving Buffalo Bill’s Western ways. And that they did, with what continues to be one of the best rodeos around. There’s also food and craft stalls, live music, even a cute kiddie parade, and, of course, a firework spectacle.

INSIDER TIP If you miss the Cody Stampede Rodeo, rest assured the Cody Nite Rodeo has 90 summer performances between June and August.

 

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PHOTO: Charles Snodgrass
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Bryson City

WHERE: North Carolina

Bryson City may be small, but this Smokies town likes to go big on the Fourth, with what they call Freedom Fest. It always takes place on the Fourth—unless it’s a Sunday (you don’t shoot off fireworks on a Sunday in the South). The family-friendly event has arts and crafts vendors, lots of food (shave ice, funnel cakes, pork rinds—and frozen cheesecake on a stick, dipped in chocolate), a “Strutt Your Mutt” contest, a watermelon-eating contest, live music kicking off at 4 p.m., and, finally, the fireworks show.

INSIDER TIPIn the heat of the afternoon, join locals in hopping aboard a kayak or paddleboard on the Tuckasegee River, which floats through town.

 

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PHOTO: Luke.Travel | Shutterstock
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Put-in-Bay

WHERE: Ohio

Sitting on an isle on Lake Erie, this cliff-graced town holds a special significance in American history—it’s where Commodore Perry won victory over British forces during the War of 1812. No wonder it goes all out on the nation’s birthday, with fireworks, an al-fresco concert, and plenty of muskets and carronades firing on the grounds of Perry’s International Peace Memorial.

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PHOTO: Ari Siegler / Shutterstock
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Glen Cove

WHERE: New York

Anyone who knows Long Island knows the name Grucci—you know, the family that since 1850 has displayed their pyrotechnic artistry in such illustrious venues as the Olympics, U.S. Presidential Inaugurations, and World’s Fairs. Well, add Glen Cove to the list, because the family puts on a free annual display here over the water. Spend the day watching the local children’s bike parade, swimming in the sound, and kicking back. Come dusk, pull up a beach chair at Morgan Memorial Park, sit back, and enjoy the show.

INSIDER TIPGlen Cove was a Gilded Age getaway for wealthy industrialists, business owners, and bankers. Take a peek at how they lived at Glen Cove Mansion, a 1910 Georgian estate since converted into a hotel and conference center; they’re offering a Fourth of July extravaganza featuring poolside lounging and an evening of dancing.