My first ever experience with a hot air balloon was in 2011. My sister and I were road tripping across the US, and booked a sunrise balloon flight over Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. Floating above the rust-colored rock formations and tall sandstone buttes, I couldn't image a better balloon experience.
But I hadn't been to Albuquerque in the fall for the International Balloon Fiesta yet.
Each October for the last 45+ years, balloonists from all corners of the globe have descended upon New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The first year only boasted 13 balloons but now more than 500 show up to Balloon Fiesta Park each autumn.
Going up in a single hot air balloon is pretty awesome. But ascending into the sky with hundreds of others? THAT is something I'll never forget.
Early morning at the Balloon Fiesta
My alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. I groggily grabbed my phone, momentarily forgetting why the hell I was waking up in the middle of the night. But then I spied my Balloon Fiesta media pass on the bedside table and remembered: we had to beat the traffic and get to Balloon Fiesta Park before sunrise.
Arguably the most impressive part of the 9-day event is the mass ascension that takes place nearly every morning just after sunrise. This is when the hundreds of participating balloons inflate and rise into the morning sky together.
In 2015 when I went, nearly 550 balloons participated, with hundreds of those ascending each morning.
But, in order to see the iconic ascension, you have to get to Balloon Fiesta Park EARLY. Like, before 5 a.m. early. My friend Lisa and I wanted to get there *extra* early to ensure we got decent parking and so that we could get to the media tent to put our name on the balloon ride list.
We got to the 360-acre Balloon Fiesta Park before 5, parked easily (they're very efficient after having done this for 45+ years), and made our way through the main “strip” of food vendors and souvenir stands toward the media tent.
Even before sunrise, the breakfast burritos and New Mexican coffee were already being purchased en masse.
And then it was time to wait.
The Balloon Fiesta has had such success in Albuquerque because the city is known for having mild weather in October, and also is known for the “Albuquerque Box” a unique weather phenomenon helped by the city's geography that makes for near-perfect ballooning conditions.
Of course, though, nothing is ever perfect when Mother Nature is involved.
As the sky turned from black to gray and we watched the morning news reports inside the media tent, the fear was that it would be too windy for the balloons to ascend. But, the closer we got to mass ascension time at 7 a.m., the more apparent it became that the opposite was true: there wasn't enough wind.
I was bummed; the mass ascension was what I was most looking forward to, regardless of whether or not we'd get to ride in a balloon. If there was no wind, it meant that the balloons couldn't launch.
Mass ascension at the Balloon Fiesta
It was touch-and-go for hours, but after a test balloon bearing the American flag rose into the air to strains of the national anthem and floated gracefully off to the west, the mass ascension was given a green light.
The next hour was a bit of a blur. Both Lisa and I got assigned to balloons for media flights, and I was ushered off to meet up with the crew and pilot of the Humpty Dumpty special shape balloon. Pilot Rich was keeping an eye on the wind and weather, and wanted to get up in the air as quickly as possible.
You wouldn't think that 105,000 cubic feet of hot air could be pumped into a balloon in under 15 minutes, but it absolutely was.
Before I knew it, we were lifting off in the first wave of Sunday's mass ascension with dozens (maybe even hundreds) of other balloons.
Our flight wasn't very long in fact, we barely made it to the overflow parking lots of Balloon Fiesta Park before Rich decided to put Humpty down. There was rain coming in, and the wind was also dying down again.
Rich put us down expertly on a road, and then I helped roll Humpty back up once the crew's chase team showed up.
The thing you don't think about when you think of an event like this is the fact that there's no *steering* a hot air balloon. You can go up and down using the air in your balloon, but you are completely at the mercy of the wind when it comes to which direction you fly.
Lisa ended up leaving late in the second (and last) wave of the mass ascension, and the wind had picked up by then. Her balloon flew for miles and ended up putting down on Indigenous tribal land outside of Albuquerque and had to wait to be escorted off by local authorities. Not ideal, but again not really something a balloon pilot can always control!
I thought I'd already had the best hot air balloon experience years earlier at Monument Valley. But I have to admit that being part of the International Balloon Fiesta was its own kind of special.
If you ever find yourself in New Mexico around this time of year, be sure to check it out!
Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta FAQs
The International Balloon Fiesta takes place over 9 days each October in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here's all the info you need to know about going:
When is the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta?
The Balloon Fiesta takes place over 9 days in early October each year. In 2021, the Balloon Fiesta will take place October 2-10.
Where does the Balloon Fiesta take place?
The event has a huge dedicated space at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (The space is necessary since hot air balloons are big, and there are hundreds of them here each year!)
How much does it cost to go to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta?
General admission to the Balloon Fiesta is $15 per session (and there are generally two session per day, one in the morning, and one in the evening).
General admission gets you access to Balloon Fiesta Park during any session you want, as well as access to food and other vendors. If you're looking for things like private seating and catered meals, you'll need to look into the special hospitality areas like the Chasers Club and Gondola Club.
How do you get to Balloon Fiesta Park?
There's a lot of parking at Balloon Fiesta Park, but there's also a Park and Ride available if you want to skip some of the traffic. Park and ride tickets are $22 per person.
What can you see at the Balloon Fiesta?
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is such a cool event, because you can get up close to so many hot air balloons. You can walk through the field amongst all the balloons, and talk to the pilots.
A few things to look forward to during the event include:
- Dawn Patrol Show A handful of balloons take part in this tradition in the mornings. It's a choreographed inflation and launch set to music.
- Morning Glow Balloons are partially inflated, making them “glow” in the pre-dawn light.
- Mass Ascension What everyone comes to see, when hundreds of hot air balloons inflate and lift off into the sky.
- Twilight Glow The same as the morning glow, but around sunset.
- Fireworks Taking place several evenings at 8 p.m.
There's also chainsaw carving shows, skydiving demonstrations, competition balloon flying, and more.
Can I ride in a balloon?
I was able to ride in a balloon due to applying for a media pass so I could write about the event on this site. But regular people can book balloon rides, too!
Rainbow Ryders offers balloon rides during the Balloon Fiesta. You can find more info about what they offer here.
Where should I stay?
This is a HUGE event each year, and hotels often sell out. You can easily reach Balloon Fiesta Park from anywhere in Albuquerque, though, so don't be too concerned with where you can find a room. Lisa and I stayed at a hotel near the airport the night before we planned to go see the mass ascension.
You can check out:
- Sandia Peak Inn Motel One of the highest-rated budget hotels in the city.
- Comfort Inn Albuquerque Airport Close to the airport, and not far from Balloon Fiesta Park.
- Best Western Plus Rio Grande Inn In case you want to be closer to the historic center (and Route 66!).
Or, you can check out the best hotels in Albuquerque here.
How early should I go?
We were advised to get there before 5 a.m. in order to get parking and be able to see the Dawn Patrol and Mass Ascension but now they advise arriving between 4 and 4:30 a.m. for the morning session. If you arrive too late, you'll be waiting in line at the parking lot as all the balloons are going up in the air.
For the evening sessions, as long as you're there before dark you'll be able to see the twilight glow I would recommend arriving before 6 p.m., though gates open for the evening sessions at 3 p.m.