Cram the Van: Big Top Chautauqua

There are definitely plenty of great music venues in the Fargo-Moorhead area, but sometimes you need an excuse for a little road trip.

Over the course of the year I will take you along for the ride as I explore music venues six hours or less from Fargo. For the first edition, I traveled to the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

The venue

Hidden at the bottom of a Wisconsin ski hill along picturesque Lake Superior rests a unique music venue. A striking blue and yellow circus tent, the venue seats 900 people inside on folding chairs, pews and bleachers. Seating sold out inside? No problem. Bring a blanket or a chair of your own to set up outside. Despite its name and appearance, the Big Top doesn’t host circuses nor will you find peanuts (although there is popcorn). Instead, you will find a wide variety of musical entertainment from mid June to late September.

Over the course of its 30 plus years of existence, this unique venue has hosted the talents of such big names as Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys, John Prine and more. This summer they filled their tent with fans of Shakey Graves, Jackson Browne and Blues Traveler to name a few.

The Big Top Chautauqua also hosts a nationally broadcast radio show (Big Top Radio), maintains its own orchestra (Blue Canvas Orchestra) and offers art classes for children. All of these activities fall under the Big Top’s nonprofit arts mission statement to “provide entertaining and educational cultural activities with an emphasis on performances that celebrate history and the environment.”

As you may have guessed, the Big Top Chautauqua is not in the middle of town, although there are plenty of Bayfield’s streets that would work nicely in the wintertime. If you don’t feel like driving the short distance yourself, there is a shuttle that makes multiple stops in town to safely ferry you to and from your event for free.

The town

You can easily spend a whole week in the Bayfield area. Not only is the town picturesque itself, with buildings and sailboat docks reminiscent of a coastal town in Maine, there are countless summer activities. An independent bookstore sits across from Kickapoo Coffee, which is a great place for good coffee and a light breakfast.

Multiple restaurants are sprinkled throughout the town, including the famous Maggie’s Restaurant, a quirky flamingo themed local haunt for great pizza and burgers. You might even be so lucky if you sit at the bar as to meet an old fisherman or his wife impatiently waiting for him to dock the boat for the day.

Take the ferry across to the island of La Pointe for shopping, a trip through the museum or great food. A cruise line is also available to take you around the smaller Apostle Islands twice daily. For those who love the outdoors, rental kayaks are available as well as guided tours through the enchanting sea caves around the island.

You can also always swim at one of multiple beaches in the area.

For accommodations, you won’t be found wanting either. Bayfield offers quaint inns, historical bed and breakfasts and even a docked sailboat named Maida (through Airbnb).

So what are you waiting for? Grab your friends and cram the van for an experience you won’t forget.

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