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 44 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.
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, 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 40+ 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.
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 a reservation 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!
IF YOU GO
When: 9 days in early October each year (in 2017, the Balloon Fiesta will take place October 7-15)
Where: Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico
How much: General admission to the Balloon Fiesta is $10 per session (and there are generally two session per day, one in the morning, and one in the evening); parking is $15 per car.
Getting there: 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.
Where to 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 you 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. 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.
What is there to do? There are tons of food vendors at the event, some souvenir/memorabilia stands, as well as a section of fun activities for kids. In 2015, sponsor Canon also had a tent where you could go play around with some of their best cameras and high-end lenses to take photos of the event. And, of course when the balloons are on the field you can wander around and get up-close-and-personal with the balloons and their crews. This is really the unique part, since you can be surrounded by hundreds of balloons!
Can I ride in a balloon? My balloon ride came as a perk of having a media pass to the event, but there ARE balloon rides available for purchase at the event. The Rainbow Ryders are the only balloon flight operators with a permit to provide flights from the Balloon Fiesta Park launch field – meaning this is the ONLY way to be able to go up during the Mass Ascension. Tickets aren't cheap, though – $429 per person (and they tend to sell out).
Have you ever been to the Balloon Fiesta? If not, would you want to go?
Note: I applied for a press pass for this event, which is how Lisa and I got to go on balloon rides.