Escape to UTOPIAFEST

Dancing at Utopiafest

The crowd dancing in the mud at UTOPiAfest

UTOPiAfest, held in Utopia, TX (about an hour and a half north/west of San Antonio) prides itself on the intimate atmosphere it creates for artist and attendees alike. With a 2500 person cap, it’s easy to run into the same friends (new and old) all 3 days of the festival. UTOPiAfest is intentionally different than the larger festivals, where music quantity is sometimes favored over music quality, and musicians have to compete for the festival audience. Forget standing in long lines for drinks or bathrooms; the small size of this festival and the BYOB policy make it possible to avoid such annoyances. Additionally the event organizers do a wonderful job of facilitating a safe, comfortable environment with minimal security involved. UTOPiAfest is basically everything we love about music festivals, without all of the things we don’t.

This undercurrent is beloved by both attendees and the musicians who play the festival. Two main stages, and a non-overlapping schedule make sure that everyone who plays UTOPiAfest has the opportunity to perform for the entire crowd. Laura Patiño and Zander Kagle from electro-pop band Holiday Mountain say UTOPiAfest is their favorite festival to play. “The no-overlapping music is, like, the biggest deal ever, especially for a band playing… it’s a big deal. There’s a lot of respect for the artist.” The atmosphere at UTOPiAfest is such that it’s not uncommon to see a performer play their set, and then come join the crowd to enjoy the rest of the festival as a spectator. A big part of what makes this event so special is that sense of community that is built throughout the weekend.

The lineup at UTOPiAfest is usually an eclectic one, and showcases national as well as local Texas musicians. Musical acts range from Americana/folk to electronic/dance to rock/alternative. Past line-ups have included Keller Williams, Dan Deacon, Cold War Kids, Galactic, EOTO, Dr. Dog, and many more. Since this is a family-friendly event, the loud music ends around one or two in the morning and a Silent Disco continues until almost sunrise.

One of the best parts about the music at UTOPiAfest is the unexpected acts that steal the show. The organizers tend to book artists who are just plain talented, and most would agree that there are no bad shows at this festival. UTOPiAfest is extremely supportive of local, Texas musicians and makes sure their lineup showcases a vast array of Texas artists. As the evenings turn to nights in Utopia, the bands get more and more well known, wrapping up the main stages with a few headliners. Headliners like Aaron Behrens and The Midnight Stroll (Aaron from Ghostland Observatory’s new project), Cold War Kids, and Warpaint left people feeling inspired. One great thing about UTOPiAfest is that fans can walk into the fest only knowing a few of the bands by name, but leave with tons of new favorites. UTOPiAfest reminds you what’s important about music festivals in the first place – discovering genuinely good music and sharing it with your friends.

Holiday Mountain

Holiday Mountain plays to an energetic crowd.

Camping is free and encouraged at this event. There are several different areas to camp. One section allows you to leave your car in a parking lot about a mile down the road and ride a shuttle into a “camping only” area. If you prefer to camp next to your car, there is a designated “car-camping” area, which requires a $20 parking pass. This is where I camped, and honestly, I recommend spending the money on a car pass. It’s extremely handy to have all of your belongings close by, and a dry spot in case of rain. If you prefer to bring an RV, there is a large RV camping area available as well.

It rains almost ever year at UTOPiAfest. It must be a combination of the time of year it’s held, and its location in a valley between hills that makes it a perfect time and place to pour. Festivalgoers have come to expect this when attending the fest, and it doesn’t effect their good times at all. Anyone who has been before comes prepared with ponchos and rain boots, the stages all have large plastic bags on standby to cover equipment, and volunteers have huge bails of hay at the ready to stack on top of the mud. It’s usually only muddy one day of the festival, and then it dries up. The rain actually lowers temperatures so that the Texas heat is more bearable. It’s really quite lovely.

 

The Venue

UTOPiAfest is held at the Four Sisters Ranch, right outside the small town of Utopia, Texas. The area really lives up to its name, offering stunning views, lush green grass, and the best sunsets/sunrises around. At the fest you can hike, play frisbee golf, catch yoga classes, or just soak up the sun. There is a large tank on the property that is beautiful to look at (although festival-goers are not allowed to swim).

There are three stages, the Cypress Stage, the Arrow Head Stage, and Tank Goodtimes. Cypress Stage is the largest stage, and most of the headliners play here. The Arrow Head Stage is not too much smaller, but has a little more of an intimate setting. These are both inside the festival grounds, and are not located far from each other. Bands alternate between the stages, one sets up/takes down while the other plays which really makes for efficient scheduling. No time is wasted having to watch a band set up or tear down, and (as mentioned before) each band gets to play to the majority of the fest.

Cilantro Boombox plays on the Cypress Stage.

Cilantro Boombox plays on the Cypress Stage.

Tank Goodtimes is the “after hours” stage, which is a good hike up a hill and outside of the main festival area. The stage sits by the tank I mentioned earlier, and it’s hilltop-positioning makes for some stunning sunrises. Since the after-hours is a silent disco, there is no loud music to echo from the hilltops and one can enjoy a more serene morning if they choose. For anyone who hasn’t experienced a silent disco before, it’s where two or three bands or DJ’s plug in their instruments a certain way that they can only be heard through headphones. These headphones are rented out (usually in exchange for an ID) and listeners can switch between stations at their leisure. It’s a pretty cool sight to finish your hike uphill and see a couple hundred people dancing to the sound of silence.

UTOPiAfest tried something new this year, and offered “hassle-free tent rentals”. Basically, there is a designated area where the festival sets up plug-and-play campsites complete with everything you need to enjoy the festival. You just show up and party! Jessica Hoover has been attending UTOPiAfest for three years, and was impressed by the hassle free rentals. “My family and I were lucky enough to purchase two [camping spots] before they sold out, and we were not disappointed. The spacious tents included two folding chairs, an ice chest, battery powered lantern and depending on the package you purchased, a queen size air mattress, two queen size air mattresses, two cots or four cots. Very comfortable! These hassle free tent rentals allow on-site stay and total convenience,” said Jessica.

 

A Family Friendly Festival

It’s definitely worth noting that UTOPiAfest is an exceptionally family friendly festival. It’s rare that a fest provides an extremely safe environment for kids of all ages, while still maintaining a legitimate music festival vibe. UTOPiAfest does this perfectly. During the day, there are children everywhere! Most families set up chairs and blankets a bit further from the stage and enjoy the set while their kids can run and play with each other in a grassy clearing nearby. There are definitely also parents with small children dancing in the crowd or right up front, training the next generation of music lovers. “I think what makes UTOPiAfest so family friendly is the music! It’s bands like Sid Fly, Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires, the Wheeler Brothers and Cilantro Boombox… the list goes on! All of these bands play music that promotes good times and makes people of all ages want to get up and dance!” said Jessica Hoover, who attends with her parents and husband. “UTOPiAfest takes the cake on most family friendly festival!”

There are many activities that either appeal to children or were planned specifically for children on each day of the festival. There were hikes, crafts, kids performances, and a couple incredibly talented kid bands that performed at UTOPiAfest. On Saturday there was a Kids Disco held specifically for the kiddos. They are also allowed to participate in the “grown up” workshops like yoga, jewelry making, and screen-printing.

Dirt Road Cookers cook  8 ft pizzas at UTOPiAfest!

Dirt Road Cookers cook 8 ft pizzas at UTOPiAfest!

Food and Drink

The vending area is called the “food forest”, and offers some delicious and unique fare. There are food trucks set up with everything from African-inspired dishes to tacos to (of course) BBQ. A highlight of the food forest was getting to see Dirt Road Cookers make humongous eight food pizzas on their outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven. They actually hold the record for the largest (commercially available) pizza in the world! Every few hours, they would invite the kids of the festival to help decorate this monster-pizza with four or five different areas of toppings. One pizza produced hundreds of slices that were sold to the public. Another favorite was the 24-hour coffee lounge provided by Chameleon Cold Brew. This pre-prepared cold brew was available to mix yourself at several locations around the festival. It was definitely a lifesaver when those festival tired spells hit.

Utopia is in a dry county, so they aren’t allowed to sell alcohol. This means that the majority of the festival is BYOB. Many other festivals force you to poor out your drink upon entering the festival grounds, bullying you into buy their 10-dollar beers inside. This is not a problem at UTOPiAfest, and guests are encouraged to bring their own coolers wherever they go. Back stage there are full bars that serve free drinks to those lucky enough to have a ‘lounge pass’.  Artists, VIP’s, media, and volunteers are usually issued a lounge pass, which is nice because volunteers get rewarded for their hard work.

 

Getting There/Surrounding Areas

Getting to UTOPiAfest is a little tricky, and cell service can begin to get spotty on the way out. I would advise printing directions to the fest before leaving just in case your GPS loses signal. You will drive through a whole bunch of farmland, fields, tiny towns, and hill country to get to the 227-person town. Once in town, be sure to slow down to the recommended speed limit. The Four Sisters Ranch is about 10 minutes outside of downtown Utopia, and can be easy to miss. There will be two turns onto private-looking caliche roads leading up to the festival, but don’t worry – you aren’t lost. Festival organizers put out arrows every mile or so on these roads to help guide people in the right direction. Follow the arrows until you get to the festival gates, where you can get your tickets at will call, or exchange your ticket for a wristband.

There are many river spots not far from the festival that you can venture to if the weather is nice. One of the easiest to find is the Sabinal River access at Utopia Community Park. Here there are picnic tables, huge trees (and a rope swing!), and the Sabinal River that consistently has enough water to swim in. If it gets too hot during the day, many festivalgoers enjoy the park and river until it cools off a bit. If it’s super rainy, though, I would hold off going to the river, as it sometimes floods pretty bad.

There isn’t too, too much to do in the tiny town of Utopia, but if you’re hungry for some down home cooking stop by the Lost Maples café, which is located on the main street (basically the only commercial street) in Utopia. Lost Maples serves things like chicken fried steak, sandwiches, burgers, and even Mexican food! In the mornings, they have a wide variety of breakfast foods available.

If you don’t feel like camping at the fest, there are places you can rent cabins out. The UTOPiAfest website does a lovely job of laying out some of the closer options (10 – 30 minutes from the fest). They have them arranged by group size and price here.

There are also many parks with cabins and camping that you can visit before or after the festival. Nearby Garner State Park is a favorite Texas family vacation spot. Located on the Frio River, there is always water to swim in and good times to be had. About 7 miles from Garner State Park is the small river town of Concan (also on the Frio river). There are tons of locally owned campsites, cabins, retreats and RV parks in Concan, most of which have private river access and various amenities. You can choose to tube the river, or just relax under the massive trees surrounding it. Either way, there is no better way to wind down from a festival than a day on the river!

Beautiful rivers in Utopia, TX.

Beautiful rivers in Utopia, TX.

 

Don’t forget to bring:

  • Your rain gear: seriously, it rains almost every year at UTOPiAfest. It doesn’t make the festival any less fun, but it’s handy to have an umbrella, raincoat, and rain boots available if you need them. Sloshing around in the mud is so much more comfortable with your feet safe and dry.
  • Clothes for all kinds of weather: The weather is pretty fickle out in Utopia, one day it will be swimsuit weather hot, the next it will be sweater-cold. Pack both just in case!
  • Beer or other libations: Utopia is in a DRY COUNTY. This means that you cannot purchase alcohol anywhere around the festival. If you plan on drinking at all, get your supplies pre-festival to avoid missing the ‘last call’ gas station. It’s never fun to rely on mooching!
  • Flashlight: It’s dark out there, having a flashlight or a headlamp is incredibly important. Especially for inside those dark port-o-potties or when trying to navigate muddy trails!
  • Cash: There are no ATM’s on site, so you will need to grab all the cash you will need for the weekend before getting to the festival. Luckily, most of the food is reasonably priced, and since it’s BYOB the only other thing you might need cash for are the many crafts and clothing vendors on site.
  • Insect Repellant: While mosquitos really aren’t a huge problem out on the festival grounds, ants seem to be. To be safe, bring some and deterrent to put around your tent, and maybe some anti-irritation spray for if you get stung!
  • A good attitude: What makes UTOPiAfest so great is the friendly, open minded, positive attitude that almost all festivalgoers carry. If you have any drama or stress in your life, leave it at those festival gates and come prepared to have a killer time!

 By Karli Jaenike, FestPop Staff Writer

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