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If you’re looking for a unique activity over Memorial Day Weekend, you’ll find it in Coalinga.
A small town nestled in the hills, it might not seem like the first choice for adventure. But every May, this town is home to the Coalinga Horned Toad Derby, an event full of fun, food, and of course, horned toads.
Horned Toad History
Coalinga has been hosting the Horned Toad Derby for 81 years with no plans of stopping. How does a town begin racing horned toads, you ask? Long ago, some teenagers were bored at an annual Chamber of Commerce dinner meeting. Since it was 1933, taking selfies to stem their boredom wasn’t an option, so they did the next best thing: they rounded up a bunch of the local lizards to race — that’s right, a horned toad is actually a lizard; try to keep up — and a tradition was born.
In those early days, there wasn’t a rule about what sort of creatures could be raced. Folks raced frogs, mice, and more. According to Mrs. Abel, who operated the Hot Springs Hotel where the races took place in the 30s, “It took days to rid the hotel of frogs and other reptiles from the evening’s activities.”
By 1938, it was all about the horned toad. There was even an official California Horned Toad Racing Association. Celebrities, who always know a cool thing when they see it, jumped in on the action. In 1941, Bob Hope raced a horned toad. I have no idea if he beat Rudy Vallée or not, but toad racing was trending.
A Beloved Toad
These days, horned toads are still a fixture of Coalinga’s identity (and have even put Coalinga’s high school on the map as part of Mental Floss’s list of Unbelievable High School Mascots). According to Kate Delano of the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce, “We are very proud of our beloved toad. They are a protected species and you must have a permit to have a horned toad in your possession.”
And guess what, folks? The Coalinga Chamber of Commerce has a permit to have horned toads in their possession. How many cities can say that about their Chamber of Commerce? I’m guessing just one.
So every year, they go up to Howell Ranch to catch the toads for the derby. They mark the exact spot where they were captured, so after a really exciting weekend, the toads are returned to the same place. These toads are beloved, and the city wants to ensure they’re well taken care of and back in their natural habitat.
Cow Drop, Seed Spitting & Elvis
Personally, you had me at horned toads, but if that isn’t enough to get you out to Coalinga this weekend, there’s more. Not only can you watch the toad races, you can enjoy food, drinks, and even a cow drop contest.
(Perhaps you don’t know what a cow drop contest is, in which case I feel bad dumping this on you in the same article where I try to explain horned toad racing. A cow drop contest is where there are squares marked out with numbers on the ground — like a big bingo board of sorts — and a cow. You choose a number and if the cow drops, um, droppings on your number, YOU WIN! Not sure what you win exactly, though.)
Not to be outdone by the cows and toads, the First Presbyterian Church will hold a watermelon seed spitting contest on Monday. There will also be carnival rides, beer gardens, craft vendors, and food including Rosa Brothers Milk Company ice cream. Finally, be prepared to dance your socks off to live music ranging from Jeremy “Elvis” Pearce and the Memphis Band to Mariachi Uruapan.
Admission and parking to the derby is completely free, although the experience is guaranteed to be priceless.
I know it seems like Coalinga has taken something unusual (horned toad races) and doubled down with every small town activity in history, but they’ve done even more than that! I haven’t even begun to cover things like the parade, adult tricycle races, and the whiskerino contest. What can I say, I didn’t want to overwhelm you.
The point is, Fresno is an hour-and-a-half away from a guaranteed awesome weekend. If you decide to check out the 81st Horned Toad Derby, I bet you aren’t going to forget it!
Location: All events take place Friday-Monday, May 26-29, at Olson Park, 400 N. Garfield St., Coalinga, CA 93210.
Cost: Admission and parking is free.
Friday events are from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday at 7 a.m. is the Fireman’s Pancake Breakfast. At 10 a.m., the parade winds through town. At 11 a.m. the derby continues and ends at 11 p.m.
Sunday, events begin at 12 p.m. and end at 11 p.m.
Monday, the festivities are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. anyone bringing two non-perishable food items will receive two ride tickets while supplies last.)
More information: The Horned Toad Derby Facebook event page is here.
The Coalinga Chamber of Commerce website is here, or you can call (559) 935-2948 for more information.