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If you’re looking for a new type of travel experience, why not try a hot air balloon festival? As dozens of bright-colored balloons soar into a peaceful sky, you’ll be treated to stunning views, as well as plenty of family fun, with scheduled activities from sunrise to sunset.
To watch a mass ascension — or to ride in a hot air balloon yourself — you’ll need to wake up at the crack of dawn. Pilots require near-perfect conditions to fly hot air balloons, with light wind, no rain, and high visibility. As a result, the quiet skies of the early morning are universally preferred by hot air balloon pilots. You can also expect hot air balloon festivals to take place in an expansive, wide-open area — hot air balloons need a lot of space to inflate and flat terrain to take off and land.
If you’re afraid of heights, many festivals offer balloon rides tethered to the ground, so you can experience riding in a hot air balloon without the stress of flying across the sky. If you’re adventurous, booking a hot air balloon ride is a thrilling experience; balloons can soar up to 70,000 feet — an amazing way to see the world from a bird’s eye view. No matter your preference, there’s plenty of options to choose from. Here are nine of the best hot air balloon festivals across the U.S.
Balloon Fiesta (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
As the largest hot air balloon festival in the country, the annual Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico is one of the most sought-after balloon events in the U.S. The gathering draws pilots and spectators to Albuquerque from around the world to witness the nearly 600 hot air balloons taking flight over the course of nine days. This year, the 49th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta will take place from October 2-10, 2021 in Balloon Fiesta Park, with 350 acres dedicated to the event.
In addition to the early morning balloon ascensions, the festival includes a spectacular fireworks show, a car show, live music, photo contests, carnival concessions, and chainsaw carving. Despite its international acclaim, the Balloon Fiesta has humble roots, originally starting with 13 balloons that took flight in a mall parking lot in 1972. By the next year, pilots from 13 countries gathered in Albuquerque to partake in the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship, and the rest is history. Today, the massive gathering draws an attendance of over 800,000 people and is one of Albuquerque’s biggest claims to fame.
Teton Valley Balloon Rally (Driggs, Idaho)
Just over the pass from Jackson Hole, the Teton Valley Balloon Rally is the event of the summer in the northern Rockies. Held annually over the Fourth of July weekend in Driggs, Idaho, this balloon festival happens to be situated in one of the prettiest places in the country. Hosted at the Teton County Fairgrounds, the festival provides spectacular views of the expansive valley beneath the craggy Tetons covered in snow.
The four-day event has been held for over 40 years and includes an Independence Day parade, live fiddling contests, and balloon rides for the public. Since it coincides with a holiday, many spectators choose to make a long weekend out of the event by camping overnight at the balloon field. If you prefer not to rough it, the general public is also invited to drive in and watch the early morning launches.
National Balloon Classic (Indianola, Iowa)
The National Balloon Classic takes place in Indianola, Iowa, and it is one of the longest-running balloon festivals in the country. What began as a competition in 1970 turned into one of the largest balloon festivals in the nation, with over 100 hot air balloons taking flight. The nine-day event occurs at the National Balloon Classic Memorial Balloon Field and is a 30-minute drive from the capital of Des Moines.
In addition to pilot competitions, the festival includes skydiving demos, nightly “glow shows,” live music, and plenty of food concessions. This past summer, numerous vintage balloons were inflated in honor of the festival’s 50th anniversary.
Labor Day Lift-Off (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
The Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift-Off is a slightly smaller balloon festival with over 70 balloons taking flight over the course of two days. The festival is held each Labor Day at Memorial Park in Colorado Springs. There is also no charge for admission, making it an excellent way to spend a holiday weekend.
The festival includes live music, a death-defying skydiving airshow, an acrobatic aerial team, and a balloon glow show. For a small donation, festival attendees can also rent paddleboards to take out on Prospect Lake or take lessons from an instructor. If spectators wish to get off the ground and into the sky, they can also book one-hour balloon rides.
Great Reno Balloon Race (Reno, Nevada)
The Great Reno Balloon Race takes place in early September in Reno, Nevada. The four-day event is strategically scheduled between the Nevada State Fair and the Reno Air Races, as a way to draw visitors to multiple events. The result is a well-attended festival, with an average of 120,000 spectators attending annually. Located north of downtown Reno at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, the balloon race began in 1982 with a mere 20 balloons and has since become one of the largest free balloon events in the country.
In addition to the 100 balloons that take to the skies every morning, the festival features early morning glow shows, tethered rides, and even the rare Dawn Patrol flight, which features experienced pilots who are able to operate in the dark. After the 7:00 a.m. mass ascension of balloons, festival attendees will find everything they need at “Balloon Boulevard,” with endless concessions, crafts, and souvenirs available for purchase.
Havasu Balloon Festival and Fair (Lake Havasu City, Arizona)
Hosted in Lake Havasu City on the border between Arizona and southern California, the Havasu Balloon Festival and Fair is a unique experience for hot air balloon enthusiasts. Held annually in late January, the three-day festival features a 5K race, golf tournament, car show, air show, and carnival rides. In addition to the mass balloon ascensions, the nightly balloon glows, and tethered rides, the festival also hosts a paper balloon launch for children to create and launch their own balloons made out of tissue paper.
The event occurs within Lake Havasu State Park, which means RV and campsites are available for overnight stays. Since the lake is a large draw for spectators, festival attendees love to get out on the water. Many spectators bring their own kayaks or canoes to launch onto Lake Havasu as a way to get an expansive view of the festival’s early morning mass ascensions.
Plano Balloon Festival (Plano, Texas)
The Plano Balloon Festival takes place over the course of three days in mid-September in Oak Point Park and Nature Preserve in Plano, Texas. In addition to traditional festival offerings, such as tethered rides and early morning mass ascensions, the Plano Balloon Festival hosts multiple races, including a 10K, 5K, and 1K.
The festival is also one of the most family-friendly balloon events in the country, with a gigantic kids zone featuring an arts and crafts tent, face painting, obstacles course, rock-climbing wall, and a toddler zone with inflatable rides. With over 50 street and food vendors, a fireworks show, a skydiving show, and live music, the Plano Balloon Festival has been entertaining attendees for over 40 years.
Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival (Winchester, California)
Hot air balloon enthusiasts and wine lovers can unite at Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival in Winchester, California. The annual festival is usually scheduled in late May or early June at the Lake Skinner Recreation Area. As a festival within a festival, the event celebrates both hot air balloons and locally-produced wine, with wine tastings from award-winning vineyards from across Temecula Valley.
In addition to mass ascensions of up to 50 balloons, the festival also features an arts and crafts tent, free tethered balloon rides, food vendors, a children’s fair, and live music. When the festival first began in 1983, there were only six wineries in the small region — today, there are over 40 — many of which can be viewed when you book a flight that traverses over the rolling hills of the wine country.
Lottery Festival of Ballooning (Readington Township, New Jersey)
If you want to attend the New Jersey Lottery Festival of Ballooning, buy your tickets early. As one of the top-rated balloon festivals in the U.S., the event is known to sell out. Once called the Quick Chek Festival of Ballooning, the New Jersey festival often held in late July has since become the premier balloon event on the East Coast. For the $40 admission price, you’ll be able to spot 100 balloons, watch a spectacular fireworks show, indulge in tasty carnival concessions, and even take yoga or pilates classes. Over the course of the four-day event, the festival hosts nightly live music performed by well-known artists, such as the Barenaked Ladies and Styx, drawing 165,000 spectators annually.