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Saddle up boys and girls because the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium is one of the biggest cowboy festivals in the country and your fast track into Wild West life (or a trip back in time depending on how you look at it). With over a hundred toe-tapping country performers and countless cowboys strutting their stuff (hello, Texas), it’s one of the biggest events in Ruidoso and the greater Southwest. If you’re looking for a fun fall festival to look forward to, the event checks all the boxes: music and entertainment, boutiques and vendors, and diet-busting fair food galore.

An annual event at Ruidoso Downs, I learned the difference between mules and horses, got a taste of sharpshooting, perused the silversmith’s creations, watched a blacksmith demo, ate biscuits straight from a Dutch oven, and counted more boots with the fur than I’ve seen in my life. It’s an event everyone little Tommy to grandpa Joe will enjoy so put it on your New Mexico bucket list.

Here’s how to make the most of your time at the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium.

Dress the Part

There are plenty of shops in downtown Ruidoso to help you snag the Southwest look. If you need a cheat sheet, you’ll want boots, fringe, chunky turquoise jewelry, and a hat. For the guys, belt buckles, boots, and a hat will suffice. But be prepared to get down and dirty, you’ll leave dusty and with a lingering aphrodisiac of campfire if you’re participating in the chuck wagon cook-off.

Plan a Rugged Retreat

Literally the cowboy themed room at the Rustique boutique, the Rugged Retreat is the perfect setting for the weekend. Appointed with chic Western décor, it’s a good place to hang your spurs, but if staying in a revamped bungalow isn’t your scene, there are also plenty of cozy cabins along Rio Ruidoso. Or, you can go really rustic and camp in the picturesque Lincoln National Forest.

Go Big or Go Home

The festivities are held at Ruidoso Downs and Casino so bet it all on black or play the penny slots while you’re there. I took the opportunity to explore the racetrack, making myself a little behind the scenes tour. Everywhere from the boxes to the infield is open to the public.

Eat All the Things

There’s no shortage of mouthwatering fair food to indulge on, the hardest part is finding room for it all. Keep an eye out for deep fried apple and cherry pies, sarsaparilla and old-fashioned sodas, Indian tacos, fry bread, stuffed sopapillas, and giant turkey legs to binge on.

Save Room for a Chuck Wagon Plate

Featured on the Food Network’s All American Festivals, the chuck wagon cook-off is by far the highlight of the Cowboy Symposium. Over a dozen restored 1800s chuck wagons come from across the country to compete and show-off their culinary prowess. The chuck wagons are as functional as they are photogenic, and make no mistake they take cowboy cooking seriously.

Essentially an outdoor kitchen on wheels, each six-person team is tasked with preparing a full meal of meat, potatoes, bread, beans, and dessert. Competitors are judged on the tastiness of their plates and the authenticity of their rigs from attire to cookware. The hardcore wagons camp out overnight so they can get their fires going by 6 a.m. It takes about five hours for the meat and beans to tenderize so once you hear the dinner bell, the food is dished out cafeteria style. Each chuck wagon prepares food for 50, and it’s random which guests are assigned to which chef. The most interesting part is seeing how different the same set of ingredients can be used with competitors preparing everything from mashed potatoes and gravy to roasted potatoes, brisket and chicken fried steak.

Take Advantage of the Area

There’s plenty more to see and do while you’re in Ruidoso. Indulge in a wine and cheese tasting at Noisy Water Winery or sample the beer at The Hidden Tap. Hike, bike, or fish at Alto or Grindstone Lake. Fly down the zipline at Ski Apache. Or simply find zen in your surroundings.

If you can’t make it for Cowboy Symposium in October, you can still cowboy it up in Ruidoso anytime of the year:

  • Go for a trail ride at Grindstone Stable
  • Enjoy a chuck wagon dinner show at the Flying J Ranch
  • Shop the Southwest boutiques
  • Get back to nature at the thousands of acres of forest

Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay in Ruidoso

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