Up, up, and away! Hot air balloons are fascinating to watch as they inflate and ascend into the clear, blue sky. What’s even more fun is to watch hundreds take to the sky at one time. While they’re the stars, festivals across the country celebrate more than just the balloons. From food to music, hot air balloon festivals engage people to celebrate the customs and traditions of ballooning. My family loves the Albuquerque International Fiesta, having attended twice. As with most successful celebrations, it continues to change and grow.
Before heading out to your next balloon festival, or maybe your first, check out these 11 must-see celebrations.
1. International Balloon Fiesta
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Drawing about 900,000 visitors over a nine-day period each October, the International Balloon Fiesta is the largest, and most popular, balloon festival in the United States. Attracting more than 600 balloons and pilots from around the world, the International Balloon Fiesta offers a special experience for anyone attending. You’ll find balloons of all colors and shapes, from animals, such as a wolf and penguin, to a stagecoach, as well as Star Wars characters, including Darth Vader. You’ll also find patriotic-inspired balloons, such as flag-decorated and POW/MIA.
Each day begins with the dawn patrol, as a small team of balloonists takes off around 6 a.m., checking the wind direction and speed, in order for others to follow soon after during the Mass Ascension. With the Sandia Mountains in the background, balloons start rising off the ground one by one. Soon, the Albuquerque sky is filled with balloons of all shapes and colors. The fiesta is aided by the Albuquerque Box, a wind pattern that allows balloons to rise slowly and to navigate over the field easily, giving visitors excellent photography opportunities.
Fiesta fans arrive early, with gates opening at about 5 a.m. Food vendors offer everything from Indian tacos and breakfast burritos to hot chocolate and coffee. Other vendors sell souvenirs, clothing, and unique 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 entries. The ABQ event also features entertainment, ranging from mariachi bands to rock and country bands. Evenings often include night balloon glows, during which pilots ignite their balloons, creating a beautiful rotation of colors on the fiesta grounds. Five of the nine days include evening fireworks.
Pro Tip: Dress in layers. The New Mexico mornings can be cold until the sun rises. Wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll do a lot of walking. The balloon grounds are wheelchair friendly.
2. Teton Valley Balloon Rally
Taking place in early July, the 40-year-old Teton Valley Balloon Rally attracts balloons from around the country. Located in Driggs, about an hour northwest of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the rally features 15 to 20 balloons. With early morning ascensions, it’s best to arrive before sunrise to watch the pilots and crew prepare each balloon for flight. Grab breakfast at the rally, and watch as each balloon launches for the daily flight. If the wind is too strong or weather conditions prevent flying, pilots will often offer static displays so visitors can check out the attractions. Visitors can attend the rally daily or they can camp at the fairgrounds. You can also purchase a balloon ride during the rally.
3. Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift Off
Colorado Springs, Colorado
About 70 balloons take to the sky each morning Labor Day weekend as the Colorado Springs Labor Day Lift Off fills the Colorado skies Saturday through Monday. With the ascension taking place from 7 to 9 a.m., visitors are encouraged to be at the park by 6:30. The festival allows people to roam the grounds between the balloons as crews prepare them for flight, and then inflate and launch. You’ll enjoy watching balloons of all shapes and colors rise above the mountains, with Pike’s Peak prominently viewed. Enjoy an evening balloon glow Saturday and Sunday night. While attending the festival, consider taking your own balloon ride.
4. Great Forest Park Balloon Race
St. Louis, Missouri
An annual event that pairs up to 70 experienced balloon pilots and a pink bunny balloon attracts more than 100,000 people to Forest Park in St. Louis. The Great Forest Park Balloon Race is the second oldest balloon event in the United States at 48 years old, behind only the International Balloon Fiesta. The event begins the night before, when, on Friday evening, people gather to listen to live entertainment and partake in concessions and food truck fare before watching a balloon glow from dusk until 9 p.m. Then, a fireworks show caps the evening’s fun. Race day starts about noon, with food and entertainment leading up to a skydiving performance, before the grand finale with the launch of the bunny balloon, followed by the mass ascension of the competing balloons. Pilots guide their balloons in pursuit of the rabbit until it lands. Then, each pilot drops a sandbag, trying to land closest and claim the championship title. Starting with four balloons in 1973, the competition has grown to become one of the best-attended 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 launches the third weekend of July at Solberg Airport in Readington. With daily entertainment featuring national rock-and-roll acts, visitors can also enjoy food and retail vendors each day. Friday evening’s events include a mass ascension of balloons, followed by a fireworks show. Saturday and Sunday’s events include morning and evening mass ascensions of balloons. Saturday evening’s events are capped with a balloon glow.
6. Great Reno Balloon Race
Celebrating its 40th year, the Great Reno Balloon Race attracts more than 125,000 people the second weekend of September. With about 100 balloons taking flight, the Friday through Sunday event is the nation’s largest free-admission balloon competition. 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 each day at 5 a.m., followed by dawn patrol at 5:30. Mass ascension kicks off at 7 a.m., when about 100 balloons are expected to launch. During the festival, enjoy walking around the balloon grounds to enjoy up-close views as the balloons take flight. With vendors and concession stands open until 11 a.m., grab breakfast or brunch as the race gets underway, and then do a little souvenir shopping along Balloon Boulevard.
Pro Tip: With gates opening each day at 3:30 a.m., you’ll want to dress in layers to be prepared for the chilly mornings.
7. Great Texas Balloon Race
With 60 balloons competing, the annual Great Texas Balloon Race is a bit different than other balloon events. Competition takes place over three consecutive days, beginning the third Friday in June. Pilots are advised of the target location each morning and then scramble to their launch points. Race attendees can follow the pilots to their launch spots. You’ll have fun watching the crews prep the balloons for flight and then as they lift off in an attempt to win each competition. The event usually includes live music during the day.
8. Walla Walla Balloon Stampede
Walla Walla, Washington
About 30 balloons take to the air over a five-day period in mid-October at the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede. Events kick off with Kids’ Day on Wednesday, the opening day. Nite Glows are planned on the third and final nights of the festival. In between, visitors can enjoy food from concession stands, shop with various vendors, and enjoy a variety of entertainment. Balloons fly each morning, along with a few evenings.
9. Adirondack Balloon Festival
Glen Falls And Queensbury, New York
The four-day Adirondack Balloon Festival splits events between Glen Falls and Queensbury, with the opening and closing activities and balloon launches taking place in Glen Falls. The rest of the festival takes place in Queensbury. You’ll see up to 20 balloons launch during the Glen Falls portion, and up to 100 balloons, featuring special shapes, in Queensbury. The balloon festival, celebrating its 50th year in 2023, includes live music, food, and vendors.
Pro Tip: As fall takes over the Adirondacks, you’ll want to dress in layers for comfort.
10. Red Rock Balloon Rally
Gallup, New Mexico
Celebrating the holiday season, the Red Rock Balloon Rally mixes hot air balloons with Santa Claus over the first weekend in December. About 200 balloons, including special shapes, kick off the three-day event with a Friday morning ascension. Along with a balloon glow, a Native American dance at Red Rock Park concludes the day’s fun. On Saturday, balloons lift off during a mass ascension. Then, Gallup celebrates the season with a downtown Christmas parade, featuring Santa Claus. Sunday’s events include a morning mass ascension.
11. National Balloon Classic
With about 100 balloons participating, the nine-day National Balloon Classic takes over Indianola at the end of July. With balloons lifting off each day at 6:30 p.m., the evening’s events also include live music. The opening night and final night include fireworks. While in Indianola for the 40th annual balloon classic, visit the National Balloon Museum to learn about the history of hot air balloons as well as unique artifacts and exhibits.
Going to take a ride at one of the balloon races? Hot Air Ballooning: 11 Things To Know Before Your First Time.