The First-Timer’s Guide to Hot Air Balloon Festivals in the U.S

If you always imagined the only excitement at a hot air balloon festival meant rousting the kids at the crack of dawn and an aching neck from staring skyward for hours, think again. While early morning is often ideal ballooning weather, big balloon festivals offer everything from the traditional morning mass ascension to competitive balloon challenges to evening balloon “glows.” A balloon festival is the perfect destination event, with scheduled activities from before sunrise to well into the evening and so much to choose from you’ll have trouble doing it all!

Where and when to go

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While every festival is unique to its locale and weather conditions, most combine traditional ballooning events such as mass ascensions with music performances, balloon rides, and a sea of exhibit and vendor booths for everything from balloon trinkets, to original art, to education-oriented displays for kids of all ages.

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Since hot air balloons thrive in cool, arid conditions with variable breezes, it’s not a surprise that the four biggest U.S. festivals take place in the West.

The reason for this is that hot air balloons don’t “fly” as much as they rise, sink, float, and drift.   Once air inside the balloon is hotter and lighter than the surrounding air, the balloon rises.  Airborne, it floats on the currents like a boat on the surface of the water.   At different altitudes, those air currents may be faster, slower, and more or less turbulent. They can also change direction.  That’s where the skill of “flying” a balloon comes in – the pilot can influence the course and speed of the balloon by seeking out different currents at different heights above ground.

Of course, balloonists have mastered flying in humidity too, so events of all sizes take place throughout the U.S., mostly during summer and fall.   With the exception of the world’s largest event in Albuquerque, they generally take place over a two or three day weekend.

Most scheduled events are during the early morning and evening hours, so mid-day offers a respite and a chance to take advantage of local sightseeing or just have a picnic and enjoy the music and vendor exhibits.

What to see and do

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Early birds shouldn’t miss the Dawn Patrol. This specially trained group of balloons sets off in the pitch black just before the first light of day with the express job of identifying the prevailing winds and air density for the group liftoff at sunrise.  They then radio back the flying conditions, and some festivals broadcast their transmissions over the loudspeakers.   Since this event takes place before sunrise, you can usually beat the traffic and have less competition for parking and viewing.

Want to see the balloons so up close and personal you can feel the heat from the air blasters as they inflate?  Then you’ll love the Balloon Glow, an evening event where balloons are inflated and then tethered to the ground, creating swaying walkways of brilliant colors.  Balloon teams have collectible baseball style printed cards with a photo of the balloon on the front and all the vital statistics such as age, weight, number of handlers, and base of operations, on the back. The cards make a fantastic free commemorative from the event.   Since pilots love to talk about their flying ships, they are usually available to answer questions and autograph the cards.

Feeling adventurous?  Why not take a balloon ride?  While not inexpensive, it’s generally less so at a festival than just hiring a balloonist independently.   Some festivals offer tethered rides, where the balloon remains tied to earth, but lifts up to a height of about thirty-five feet.   It’s a less expensive way to get the feel of a ballooning experience.

Enjoy competitions of any kind?  Then be sure to attend the Key Grab (or similar event).   A key to a car, or an envelope with a monetary prize, for example, is placed atop a pole in the middle of a large field.   Competitors must judge the anticipated wind directions and speed, depart the event with the balloon in the back of their truck, and then inflate and launch from a distant location.  The objective is to maneuver to arrive at the field and actually grab the prize off the top of the pole.  A variation has the balloonists throwing a small sand bag onto a grid to win the treasure.  Awards can be valued upwards of $20,000, so this is serious competition and great fun for the observers.

Finally, do set that alarm clock to view at least one Mass Ascension.  The stalwart core of a balloon event, this most often takes place just after sunrise, when all participating balloons inflate and liftoff within minutes of each other. Filling the sky as far as you can see, the traditional teardrops and funny specialty balloons are all drifting en masse in a ribbon of color across the sky.   You’ll get your best photos, and oh yes, that aching neck from looking up for a couple hours!

Recommended festivals

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Here’s a list of eight of the largest U.S. events for the remainder of 2012, along with dates, details, and web site information.  In addition, there are numerous smaller events throughout the country and a link is provided for you to search for one in your area or wherever your next adventure takes you.

The Great Reno Balloon Race – Reno, NV – September 7-9, 2012
Combine a balloon event with a trip to Lake Tahoe at The Great Reno Balloon Race.  Billed as the world’s largest free balloon festival, it also offers the tethered balloon ride for kids. Competitions include Balloon Blackjack where pilots attempt to steer the balloons over giant playing cards and throw bean bags from the basket to try to hit “21″. Reno also pioneered the Dawn Patrol.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – Albuquerque, NM – October 6-14, 2012
The Granddaddy of Balloon Festivals, The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta lasts ten days, and attracts 500+ balloonists.   Morning and evening scheduled events leave daytime free to explore Albuquerque’s varied offerings, including Sandia Mountain National Park, nearby Santa Fe, or a day trip to Ojo Caliente natural mineral hot springs.

The Red Rock Balloon Rally – Gallup, NM – November 30-December 2, 2012
Since New Mexico offers such perfect ballooning weather, it’s no surprise the second biggest festival of year is in Gallup, square in the middle of stunning Red Rock country.  The Red Rock Balloon Rally, with around 200 balloons, is also the last big event of the year.

The Colorado Balloon Classic – Colorado Springs, CO  – September 1-3, 2012
Head out to the Rockies for the first of the season’s big balloon events at The Colorado Balloon Classic. It is also noteworthy for having no admission charges, nearly 100 balloons in attendance, and a focus on family oriented activities and entertainment. The Classic also has a fundraising component for St Baldricks, which focuses on curing childhood cancers.

The Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival – Foley, AL – June 15-17, 2012
Down south, spend the day on the fine quartz white sand Gulf of Mexico beaches, and the mornings and evenings at The Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival.  Or, shop the outlets, if the beach is too hot.

The Great Texas Balloon Race – Longview, TX  – July 27-29, 2012
Texas lays claim to several big balloon events, including The Great Texas Balloon Race, original home to competitive event ballooning such as the key grab (they can win a car) and the first balloon glow.

The Great Forest Park Balloon Race – St. Louis, Mo – September 14-16, 2012
2012 marks the 40th anniversary of St. Louis’ Great Forest Park Balloon Race.  All events are free (including parking) and held in Forest Park, the massive park in the center of the city and host of the 1904 World’s Fair.  The Balloon Glow kicks off the festivities on Friday night.

The REMAX Ballunar Liftoff – Clear Lake, TX  -  September 28-30, 2012
The REMAX Ballunar Liftoff
is the NASA inspired and supported event south of Houston, TX.  Activities and exhibits include all flying things from balloons to spacesuits, and tours of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  Nearby Kemah Boardwalk offers restaurants and carnival rides, including an irresistible wooden rollercoaster, the Boardwalk Bullet.

In addition to the events listed here, there are many smaller balloon festivals throughout the country, which can be found at the Hot Air Ballooning and Hot Air Balloon websites.

Read more about festivals around the world:

Photos by jcbehm, soozums, odonata98

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Older comments on The First-Timer’s Guide to Hot Air Balloon Festivals in the U.S

Loved this article! Anything about balloons has my interest and enjoyed the photos.