The incredible National Cherry Festival to experience in Michigan

Michigan is the world’s leading producer of Montmorency tart cherries, with US supply growing 70 percent. Located on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City, known as the Cherry Capital of the World, hosts the National Cherry Festival.

You’ll find sweet, fresh Michigan cherries in season from late June through August, while Montmorency tart cherries come in several forms: dried, canned, frozen or juiced. Tart cherries are great for baking into cakes and cookies. In dry form, we often use them as salad dressings with a little cherry vinaigrette. And, of course, the fresh, sweet cherries are perfect for snacking. Growing up, my mom used to bake cherry pies and it’s still hard to turn down a slice when she’s on the menu.

Cherry Connection Cherries, National Cherry Festival, Traverse City.
Cherry Connection Cherries at the National Cherry Festival
(Photo courtesy of the National Cherry Festival)

What is the National Cherry Festival?

The National Cherry Festival began as an informal “blessing of the blossoms” around 1910, when cherry growers held spring festivities in May to celebrate the beautiful cherry blossoms. On May 22, 1925 they celebrated the first “Feast of the Blessing of the Flowers”. It was a partnership between cherry growers and Traverse City businesses, where they promoted the growing cherry business. They also crowned the first Cherry Queen that year, a tradition that continues today.

The following year, 1926, a Traverse City bakery created a 3-foot-diameter cherry pie that contained more than 5,000 cherries. They presented it to the then president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge.

Three years later, the festival continued to grow, and in 1930, it became a 3-day event, with President Herbert Hoover holding the opening day festivities.

In 1931, the Michigan state legislature voted to make the celebration the National Cherry Festival. Seven United States Navy Great Lakes training ships celebrated in Traverse City. In 1964, the festival became a 5-day event and the week of July 6 became National Cherry Festival Week. Four years later, it became a week-long festival. Today thousands of people attend, from all over the world, to celebrate the cherry harvest.

In 1987, Traverse City baked a cake that set a world record. It weighed 28,350 pounds and was 17 feet 6 inches in diameter.

When is the National Cherry Festival?

Every year in early July, 500,000 visitors descend on Traverse City for the 8-day National Cherry Festival.

Blue Angels, National Cherry Festival, Traverse City, Michigan.
A crowd watches the Blue Angels perform at the 2018 National Cherry Festival
(Photo Credit: Gary R Ennis Photos/Shutterstock.com)

What does the festival offer visitors?

This family-friendly festival features more than 100 events, and 85 percent of them are free. Therefore, the event is affordable. Activities occur throughout the city.

Foodie fun includes a very cherry pancake breakfast to start your day. Then of course they have the cherry pie eating contests for adults and children. Finally, they have a Cherry Farm Market that offers the bounty of local cherry farmers.

Fresh Fruit Stand, National Cherry Festival, Traverse City, Michigan.
Gallagher’s Farm Market and Bakery booth at the National Cherry Festival
(Photo courtesy of the National Cherry Festival)

While you’re at the National Cherry Festival, take some time to browse the local roadside farm stands you’ll find in the area. When shopping at these stalls, be sure to bring cash, as many do not accept credit cards.

They offer other non-cherry food related activities like beer tents and “Blues, Brews, and BBQ”.

In addition to the gastronomic activities, the air show is one of the most popular events. In 1978, five United States Air Force Thunderbirds T-38 fighter jets entertained the crowd for the first time. In 2022 the Blue Angels of the United States Navy will perform.

You’ll also find parades, a family-friendly sand sculpture contest, fireworks, a classic car show, and a ticketed concert series featuring nationally renowned artists including Sheryl Crow and Boyz II Men.

Fireworks display in Traverse City, Michigan.
The National Cherry Festival, which takes place in early July, has 4th of July fireworks displays.
(Photo credit: Sean Patrick Doran / Shutterstock.com)

Tips for visiting the National Cherry Festival

American, Allegiant, Delta and United Airlines serve Cherry Capital Airport (TVC). The best way to get around is to rent a car when you fly.

During the summer, traffic in Traverse City can be challenging. During the National Cherry Festival, you’ll want to take the shuttle to various events. The shuttle runs every 15 minutes during the festival. The main pickup areas for the shuttle are on the west side, the Meijer parking lot next to the car wash, at Northwestern Michigan College’s Cherry Lot for the Midwest, and Woodland Creek on the east side. Take a look at the ferry route here.

While the festival does have some pet-friendly events, like Ultimate Air Dogs and the Kids Pet Show, generally only service animals are allowed.

The area offers many farm-to-table dining experiences. Both the Leelanau Peninsula and the Mission Point Peninsula offer excellent wine tasting opportunities. You will also find several wine routes in the area.

For other things to do while you’re in the area, check out these articles:

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