The town of Eau Claire, WI is famed for the festival of the same name, but it would be a huge mistake to overlook the Blue Ox Music Festival! This laid-back event showcases some of the best traditional and experimental bluegrass that America and the world have to offer. Expect household names along with the freshest up-and-coming acts, all in a chill atmosphere that makes it difficult to leave. You’ll definitely want to see all three days of the action, so load up your RV and prepare to camp!
The concert itself takes place in the gorgeous Whispering Pine campground, which really lives up to its name, and with a lovely, serene lake nearby, it’s well worth taking a break from the action to soak in your surroundings. The campground has a genuine and friendly vibe, and it’s not uncommon for musicians to pop in for impromptu jam sessions. Blue Ox has three stages, including a main stage for well-known acts and a side stage for newcomers, but it’s the Backwoods Stage that makes Blue Ox really special. This area hosts late night sessions in a wooded wonderland festooned with fairy lights.
Music isn’t all that Blue Ox has to offer, though! The festival is super family-friendly, and activities for kids include face painting and competitive bubble-blowing (seriously). Physically minded festival-goers can look forward to morning yoga, and budding musicians can sign up for guitar and banjo lessons. Check it out; you won’t regret it!
Early bird Blue Ox Music Festival tickets generally go on sale in late fall, with prices increasing in mid-winter and again in early spring. Three-day tickets, costing around $200 on average, are available first, with two-day (about $180) and one-day (approximately $100) coming out a few weeks later. Various VIP packages cost from about $150 to a whopping $8,000, with perks ranging from shaded viewing areas to backstage camping and meet-and-greets.
Tickets include first-come, first-served camping, but you’ll need to splash out a bit more if you’d like to bring your RV. If you’re okay with boondocking, you can get a spot without hookups for around $90. Looking for a little extra luxury? You can get an electric site for about $250 if your vehicle is under 40 feet, or around $350 if you’ve got a larger rig. If you’ve got kids in tow, have sensory issues, or you’re just looking for a little peace and quiet, you can park your campervan at the Family Campground for $90.
Eau Claire is located around a three-and-a-half hour drive from Milwaukee, about three hours from Madison, and about ninety minutes away from Minneapolis. Traffic can be a bit of an issue just before and during the festival. Fortunately, the Eau Claire County Sheriff's office posts regular traffic updates on their website, so be sure to check that out before you leave. The interstate will get you almost all the way to Eau Claire from all nearby urban areas, but if you’re driving from Madison, it’s well worth taking the scenic route through the forest if you can.
Free parking is available less than a quarter mile away from the campground, but if you arrive before Thursday evening, you may be permitted to drop off your stuff at the campground before you park. A separate car camping pass is available and may fully accommodate some smaller rig set-ups for around $50. Vehicles must remain stationary once parked in the campground.
While there’s no public transport directly to the festival site, you can reach Eau Claire by bus from Madison, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. Blue Ox Music Festival runs a shuttle service from Eau Claire; you can purchase a $30 return ticket for the entire weekend, or fork out $15 for one day.
The first thing to keep in mind if you’re camping with your RV to Blue Ox is that you may have to level your site; those gorgeous views of the great outdoors have their downsides. Even if you’ve splashed out for an electric site, you’ll have to do without water hookups, but fortunately, all campsites have access to running water, and all, bar the unreserved tent camping area, have access to showers. RV sites at most campsites have a length limit of 30 feet; if your rig is longer than that, you’ll have to grab yourself an electric site.
The area around Eau Claire is famed for its forests, waterfalls, and lakes, and the hiking and fishing attract outdoorsy types year-round. This means that there are plenty of alternative camping options locally. You can choose anything from bare-bones sites surrounded by trees to full-service RV parks and cabin rentals.
Golf carts, bikes, and power scooters are all banned at Blue Ox, so the only real way to get around the festival is on foot. Fortunately, even with three stages, the site itself is pretty compact, and nothing is more than a quarter-mile distance away at any point. The festival considers the entire concert area to be ADA accessible, but wheelchair users should be warned that the ground can be rather bumpy.
When packing, keep in mind that June in Wisconsin sees all weathers. You’ll need to bring a waterproof jacket, shorts, sturdy shoes, a broad-brimmed hat, moisture-wicking socks, and sunglasses. You’ll also need to walk everywhere, and you may have to spend a while waiting in line at some point, so make sure the shoes you bring are comfortable as well as waterproof.
There’s no seating of any kind in the concert bowl itself, so a tarp or blanket is essential. You can also bring a lawn chair of any size. As contained fires are allowed in the campgrounds, a camp stove isn’t a necessity, but it never hurts to have one. Despite all the pine trees, shade can be scarce both in the campground and in the concert bowl, so a canopy of some kind is a good idea.
Bring plenty of sunscreen whatever the weather; it’s far better to be safe than have to scramble to find more. Whispering Pines Campground is right next to a lake that attracts all sorts of buzzing, biting critters, so a bottle of hefty bug spray can only be of benefit. Make sure whichever shoes you bring have a good grip, since the concert bowl can get muddy. You won't be able to bring a full water bottle in with you, but there are plenty of water stations dotted around the site. Though there is a first-aid tent, having your own never hurts.
Campfires and cooking fires are allowed in the campgrounds, as long as they’re kept within a metal grid or ring (all other open flames are banned). There is not a store on site, but there are plenty of reasonably priced grocery options in Eau Claire itself. Keep in mind that outside food and beverages are forbidden inside the concert bowl. You’ll need to keep all of your provisions, as well as any alcohol, at base camp.
Eau Claire has a great selection of restaurants to fit almost every taste and budget. The town is home to some yummy high-end Italian cuisine, down-to-earth Mexican and American soul food, and a handful of Asian offerings, as well as some of the best ice cream in the entire state.
Food trucks are definitely a big draw to Blue Ox, and festival-goers can expect everything from fried avocado to barbecue to veggie bowls and wonton tacos. Of course, Wisconsin cheese features pretty heavily on the menu, and the beer tent offers up some of the region’s best brews. It shouldn’t be too hard to find vegan and gluten-free options, and all stalls are open from morning until the end of the events each day.
Whispering Pines Campground is patrolled by private security, and you can expect to see a public police presence at the event. Blue Ox takes security rather seriously. Prepare for literally everything you have on you to be searched before you enter the festival grounds, including refillable water bottles (which should be empty), glasses cases, camera cases, and cigarette packets. This can result in long lines, so it’s best to enter as early as you can.
Prepare for absolutely everything, from sun and rain to sleet and hail! Even if you’ve looked up the forecast days in advance, it’s still easier to be prepared. Blue Ox is a relatively young festival, but events do typically proceed whatever the weather. Be careful not to slip in the concert bowl if it gets muddy, and apply sunscreen frequently during hot weather.
One first aid tent, staffed 24-hours a day with EMTs and paramedics, sits between the campground and the concert area. The EMTs operate on a harm-reduction policy and are very strict about confidentiality. Off-hours emergency medical care is available in Eau Claire, along with several general practitioner clinics and a few pharmacies.