Up, up and far! Hot air balloons are fascinating to watch as they inflate and soar into the clear blue sky. What’s even more fun is watching hundreds of people fly away at the same time. Although they are the stars, festivals across the country celebrate more than balloons. From food to music, hot air balloon festivals invite people to celebrate the customs and traditions of hot air ballooning. My family loves the Albuquerque International Fiesta, having attended it twice. As with most successful celebrations, it continues to change and grow.
Before heading to your next hot air balloon festival, or maybe your first, check out these 11 must-see celebrations.
1. International balloon festival
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Attracting around 900,000 visitors over a nine-day period each October, the International balloon festival is the largest and most popular balloon festival in the United States. Attracting more than 600 balloons and pilots from all over the world, the International Balloon Fiesta offers a special experience to all who participate. You will find balloons of all colors and shapes, animals, such as a wolf and a penguin, on a stagecoach, as well as Star wars characters, including Darth Vader. You will also find patriotic inspired balloons, such as decorated with flags and POW / MIA.
Each day begins with the dawn patrol, as a small team of balloonists take off around 6 a.m., checking the direction and speed of the wind, so others can follow soon after during the Ascension of mass. With the Sandia Mountains in the background, the balloons begin to rise one by one. Soon the Albuquerque skies were filling with balloons of all shapes and colors. The party is made easy by the Albuquerque Box, a wind model that allows balloons to rise slowly and navigate the field with ease, providing visitors with excellent photography opportunities.
Fiesta fans arrive early, with the doors opening around 5 a.m. Food vendors offer everything from Indian tacos and breakfast burritos to hot chocolate and coffee. Other vendors sell unique souvenirs, clothing, and gifts, including personalized holiday ornaments. The daily schedule includes a variety of activities, from flying competitions to individual-style balloon launches, such as special characters and international entrances. The ABQ event also offers entertainment, ranging from mariachi bands to rock and country bands. The evenings often include nighttime balloon glows, during which the pilots light their balloons, creating a nice spin of colors on the fiesta grounds. Five of the nine days include evening fireworks.
Pro tip: Dress in layers. New Mexico mornings can be chilly until sunrise. Wear comfortable shoes, as you will be walking a lot. The ball fields are suitable for wheelchairs.
2. Teton Valley Hot Air Balloon Rally
Taking place in early July, the 40-year-old Teton Valley Hot Air Balloon Rally attracts balloons from all over the country. Located in Driggs, about an hour northwest of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the rally features 15-20 balloons. With early morning climbs, it’s best to arrive before sunrise to watch the pilots and crew prepare each balloon for the flight. Have breakfast at the rally and watch each balloon launch for the daily flight. If the wind is too strong or weather conditions prevent flight, pilots will often provide static displays so visitors can experience the attractions. Visitors can watch the rally daily or they can camp at the fairgrounds. You can also purchase a hot air balloon ride during the rally.
3. Colorado Springs Labor Day Takeoff
Colorado Springs, Colorado
About 70 balloons fly up each morning on Labor Day weekend as the Colorado Springs Labor Day Takeoff fills the Colorado sky from Saturday to Monday. As the ascent takes place from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., visitors are encouraged to be at the park by 6.30 a.m. The festival allows people to roam the field between balloons while crews prepare them for flight, then inflate and take off. You’ll enjoy watching balloons of all shapes and colors soar above the mountains, with Pikes Peak in sight. Enjoy a balloon glow on Saturday and Sunday evenings. While attending the festival, consider taking your own hot air balloon flight.
4. Great Forest Park Hot Air Balloon Race
St. Louis, Missouri
An annual event that combines up to 70 experienced balloon pilots and a pink bunny balloon draws over 100,000 people to Forest Park in St. Louis. the Great Forest Park Hot Air Balloon Race is the second oldest hot air balloon event in the United States at 48 years old, behind only the International Balloon Fiesta. The event begins the day before, when on Friday night people gather to listen to shows and participate in concessions and food truck meals before watching a balloon glow from dusk until 9 p.m. Then, a fireworks display crowns the fun evenings. The race day begins around noon, with food and entertainment leading up to a skydiving performance, before the grand finale with the rabbit balloon launch, followed by the massive ascent of competing balloons. The pilots guide their balloons in pursuit of the rabbit until it lands. Then each pilot drops a bag of sand, trying to land as close as possible and win the league title. Starting with four balloons in 1973, the competition has grown into one of the busiest balloon events in the country.
5. New Jersey Lottery Festival Of Ballooning
Readington, New Jersey
With up to 100 balloons participating, the nearly 40-year-old New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning kicks off the third weekend in July at Solberg Airport in Readington. With daily entertainment featuring national rock and roll acts, visitors can also take advantage of food vendors and retail each day. Friday night events include a massive balloon ascent, followed by fireworks. Saturday and Sunday events include massive balloon ascents in the morning and evening. Saturday night events are crowned with a balloon glow.
6. The Great Balloon Race of Reno
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Great Reno Hot Air Balloon Race attracts over 125,000 people the second weekend in September. With around 100 balloons taking flight, the Friday-Sunday event is the largest free-entry balloon competition in the country. Starting with 20 balloons in 1982, the Reno Race now attracts balloons of all colors and shapes from around the world. The morning balloon glow takes place every day at 5 a.m., followed by a dawn patrol at 5:30 a.m. The mass ascent begins at 7 a.m., when around 100 balloons are expected to be launched. During the festival, take a walk around the hot air balloon grounds to enjoy a close up view as the balloons take flight. With vendors and concession stands open until 11 a.m., grab breakfast or brunch at the start of the race, then do some souvenir shopping along Balloon Boulevard.
Pro tip: With doors opening at 3:30 a.m. each day, you’ll want to dress in layers to be ready for chilly mornings.
7. Great Texas Balloon Race
With 60 balls in competition, the Great Texas Balloon Race is a little different from other balloon events. The competition takes place over three consecutive days, starting on the third Friday in June. Pilots are briefed on the target location each morning and then rush to their launch points. Race participants can follow the pilots to their launch points. You will have fun watching the crews prepare the balloons for flight, then take to the skies to try to win each competition. The event usually includes live music during the day.
8. Walla Walla The Balloon Rush
Walla Walla, Washington
About 30 balloons take off over a five-day period in mid-October to Walla Walla Balloon Stampede. The events start with Kids Day on Wednesday, the opening day. Nite Glows is scheduled for the third and final nights of the festival. In between, visitors can sample food at concession stands, shop from various vendors, and enjoy a variety of entertainment. Hot air balloons fly every morning, as well as a few evenings.
9. Adirondack Balloon Festival
Glen Falls and Queensbury, New York
The four days Adirondack Balloon Festival divides events between Glen Falls and Queensbury, opening and closing activities and balloon launches taking place in Glen Falls. The rest of the festival takes place in Queensbury. You will see up to 20 balloons launched during the Glen Falls game and up to 100 balloons, featuring special shapes, in Queensbury. The balloon festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023, features live music, food and vendors.
Pro tip: As fall takes over the Adirondacks, you’ll want to dress in layers for extra comfort.
10. Red Rock Balloon Rally
Gallup, New Mexico
Celebrating the holiday season, the Red Rock Balloon Rally mix of hot air balloons with Santa Claus on the first weekend of December. Around 200 balloons, including special shapes, kick off the three-day event with a climb on Friday morning. With a balloon glow, a Native American dance at Red Rock Park concludes the fun days. On Saturday, balloons take off during a massive ascent. Next, Gallup celebrates the season with a downtown Christmas parade, featuring Santa Claus. Sunday events include a mass ascension in the morning.
11. National Balloon Classic
With around 100 participating balloons, the nine days National balloon classic takes over Indianola at the end of July. With the balloons taking off each day at 6.30 p.m., the evenings also include live music. The opening night and the final night include fireworks. While in Indianola for the 40th edition of the Hot Air Balloon Classic, visit the National balloon museum to learn more about the history of hot air balloons as well as unique artifacts and exhibits.
Are you going for a ride to one of the balloon races? Hot air balloon: 11 things to know before your first time.
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