For die-hard tailgaters, the football game is only a side show. The main event is the parking lot action before. Of course, for any football fan, the “best” tailgate is arguably the one taking place at the school you attended.

But there are some schools that take tailgating to the next level, well worth a road trip. Here are 4 winning college football tailgating locales around the country.

1. University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”)

Tailgating in “The Grove” is a combination of the best party you’ve ever been to and a family reunion, says one alum, who’s tailgated in the same grassy spot next to the same tree for 26 football seasons with 3 generations of family and friends.

The Grove encompasses 10 acres in the center of the Ole Miss campus, where fans start early and stay late: the action continues even after the game. The excitement is heightened as the band, cheerleaders, and Rebelettes lead fans in the Ole Miss cheer, “Hotty Toddy.” Acres of red and blue tents and beautiful tables hold food and drink to rival the finest wedding reception.

2. University of Washington

Set up an awning for your tailgate? Been there. Placed some chairs around the back of your truck? Done that. But you haven’t truly “tailgated” until you’ve joined the flotilla that hangs out before games at the University of Washington, located directly on Lake Washington. “Sailgating” before a Husky game is not to be missed.

Although Seattle has a rep for rain, its falls are typically sunny, crisp, and gorgeous. And the UW stadium is one of the most scenic venues in college football, with views of the lake and 2 mountain ranges: the Cascades and the Olympics. The Dawgs welcome 4-footed friends to many of their tailgate parties, including, of course, Dubs, the live Husky that is UW’s official mascot.

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3. Notre Dame

It’s estimated that more than 150,000 people tailgate at Notre Dame, even though only 80,000 can attend the game. Notre Dame is arguably one of the most storied football programs in the nation, which is why the games attract alumni from all over the country, returning to pay their respects to Touchdown Jesus.

Forget hot dogs and nachos here. You’re more apt to be greeted by Southern favorites, like beef brisket and smoked pork. Anywhere from 5 to 6 tents are strung together at many spots, with generators running big-screen TVs. And the best part? People often say the Fighting Irish are just as friendly to opposing fans as to those wearing the blue and gold.

4. University of Southern California

You’ll hear a USC tailgate before you see it, as fans start to play their famous (some might say infamous) fight song even before the band arrives. The parking lot full of tents is ringed with motor homes, many hosting fraternity and sorority parties. Come early for the action as it’s an all-day affair — yes, the party starts at 6 a.m.

Conversations cease as Trojan fans stop to hold up the “Fight On” signal when the band parades through. New this year is the “Trojan Family Game Day Experience,” which is free and open to the public in Alumni Park. The kid-focused event features games, big-screen TVs showing college games, and a selection of food and drinks (but don’t worry, they have the adult kind too!).

While you’re packing up to get on the road, don’t forget your tailgate essentials. That includes your safety basics (a designated driver, good car insurance), and of course, your best game face.

Travel hacks | Destinations

about Cathie

Cathie Ericson writes about personal finance, real estate, health, lifestyle, and business topics. When she's not writing she loves to read, hike, and run. Find her @CathieEricson.