Full of Hot Air

Lifting off amid hundreds of hot air balloons in the world’s largest mass ascensions is the ultimate lighter-than-air experience.

As the sun rises over the Rio Grande valley on this chilly high desert morning, I’m surrounded by so many brilliant colors and swirling patterns I feel like I’m standing inside a giant three-dimensional kaleidoscope.

And though it hardly seems possible, I know the full-on technicolor experience I’m having here at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is about to get even better. That’s because I’ve discovered a little-known way to be part of the show thousands of folks have rolled out of bed before dawn to see.

That show—one of the annual festival’s half-dozen mass ascensions where more than 700 hot air balloons take to the intensely blue New Mexico skies over the course of about 60 minutes—draws more than 800,000 visitors from around the world to the city’s 365-acre Balloon Fiesta Park each October. But what few of those folks seem to realize is that it’s possible to be more than just another spectator at these lighter-than-air parades.

You see, while watching these spectacles from the ground is undeniably cool, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen them from the unique perspective of a wicker basket floating 500 feet above the field. Having flown in a number of hot air balloons over the years, I can tell you the experience takes the many inherent joys of hot air ballooning to a whole ‘nother level.

The good news is that, like many of my favorite extraordinary experiences, catching a ride in one of these balloons is easier than you might imagine. All it takes is knowing who to call.

In this case, that means ringing up the folks at Rainbow Ryders, the Fiesta’s official balloon ride concessionaire. When you do you’ll discover another pleasant surprise, namely that you won’t pay much more for this completely over-the-top experience than you would for a typical hot air balloon flight in other equally scenic parts of the country.

After showing up at Rainbow Ryder’s circus-sized tent in the pre-dawn darkness, my friend Todd and I lined up with the morning’s other passengers in front of numbered signs that corresponded to one of the operation’s dozen-plus balloons to which we’d been assigned. As the sky took on a pale orange glow, our balloon’s crew chief walked us out to the field where we were free to help the crew roll out and inflate the brightly-colored 80-foot-tall envelope or just sit back and take in the colorful scene literally unfolding around us.

Before we knew it, that multicolored bag of hot air was towering above us and we were climbing into the 10-person wicker basket. Once everyone was settled and we got clearance from one of the event’s launch directors, pilot Brooke Owen hit the huge propane burners and we lifted off in the middle of hundreds of other balloons that made up the first of the morning’s two waves.

By the time we touched down an hour later in a vacant lot south of town, I was convinced that this is, hands-down, the world’s most amazing hot air ballooning experience. Which is why I’m here to tell you that, if you’re only going to take one hot air balloon ride in your lifetime, this is definitely the place to do it.

Xtrordinary Xtra
In addition to being the largest hot air ballooning get-together on the planet, organizers claim the Balloon Fiesta is also the world’s single most photographed event. One look around and it’s easy to understand why.

Xtrordinary Xtra
For something really different, check out the festival’s America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race. After lifting off from Balloon Fiesta Park, competitors fly their exotic helium- or hydrogen-filled balloons for up to three days, often touching down somewhere on the east coast of the United states.

The Facts
Name: The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Location: Balloon Fiesta Park, Albuquerque, NM
Balloon Fiesta Office: 888-422-7277
Rainbow Ryders: 800-725-2477

My Advice

  • While other companies may offer flights during the festival’s 10-day run, Rainbow Ryders is the only commercial operator allowed to take paying passengers aloft from the festival grounds, an important difference that puts you right in the middle of the action.
  • Don’t worry if you wake up to what looks like bad weather on the morning of your flight. Drag yourself out of bed and head over to the park anyway as there’s a good chance the skies will clear enough for your balloon to take off.
  • The Balloon Fiesta may be the most photographed event on earth, but you’ll still want to bring a camera to capture the unique perspective you’ll have from the basket of the balloon.
  • To get a more hands-on experience, you can volunteer as a member of a balloonist’s chase crew. Register online at the festival’s website or show up in person at the park’s Chase Crew Tower.
  • Dress warmly and in layers. Overnight lows can dip into the 30’s, but things usually warm up quickly when sun rises. Also remember that you’ll be climbing in and out of the balloon’s basket and walking over soft or uneven ground, which means ladies should leave the skirts and heels in the suitcase.
  • Because the festival grounds can be quite dark, packing a small flashlight is a good idea. And don’t forget the sunscreen as your skin is liable to burn much faster at Albuquerque’s mile-high elevation.