Get High: 12 Spectacular Balloon Festivals From Coast to Coast
The oldest and most basic flight mechanism in human history, hot-air balloons first appeared as toys in China in the third century. Nearly 1,500 years later, in September 1783, brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier launched a hot-air balloon carrying three passengers: a rooster, a duck, and a sheep. The eight-minute flight proved that animals could survive the skies and land safely, and later that year a pair of French scientists followed. Today, festivals across the country honor, celebrate, and preserve the tradition of hot-air ballooning.
(Editor's note: This story has been revised since publication.)
For more than four decades, the skies over the New Mexico desert have exploded with color for nine days in October. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta runs Oct. 1-9. It's the world's largest balloon festival and the largest international event of any kind in the nation. More than 500 balloons will lift off from the launch field at Balloon Fiesta Park, which is the size of 54 football fields. From humble beginnings with just 13 balloons in 1972, Balloon Fiesta now claims to be the most photographed event on Earth.
The Red Rock Balloon Rally in Gallup, New Mexico, will mark its 35th year Dec. 2-4. With a mass ascension of more than 200 balloons, it's one of the largest festivals in North America. What separates it from the others, however, isn't the balloons -- it's the backdrop of massive canyons and sandstone bluffs. Those who have seen Red Rock Park from the basket of a balloon say the views are unmatched by any other rally.
Although the 2016 Great Reno Balloon Race has passed into history, it's worth planning now for 2017. After all, you'll be joining about 120,000 spectators who make the pilgrimage each year to the largest free ballooning event in the world. As many as 100 balloons will paint the sky Sept. 8-10, as the family-friendly and locally beloved event kicks off just north of Reno, Nevada. The 35-year history of GRBR includes notable events like the world's largest pajama party and the Friday Super Glow Show.
Sterling on the Lake in Flowery Branch, Georgia, is the site of the 2016 Harvest Balloon Festival Oct. 15-16. Visitors can get in for just $2, and the proceeds benefit two local charities, an animal shelter, and a nonprofit for children with disabilities. Tethered balloon rides are $15, and free-floating rides start at dawn. Visitors can also take a hayride, create sand art, carve a pumpkin, ride a zip line -- even place a bet on a hamster ball race.
BalloonDayz is a traveling balloon festival with two stops left this year: Springfield, Missouri, Oct. 14-16 and Joplin, Missouri, Oct. 21-23. Spectators can feel the thrill and tranquility of ballooning with tethered balloon rides, or even full-flight rides. More adventuresome attendees can opt for helicopter rides or powered parachute rides. There is also music and plenty of activities for kids.
Among the attractions at the Carolina Balloon Fest are an artisan village and marketplace, a craft beer and wine tasting garden, and entertainment including nearly 20 musical acts. The real attractions, of course, are the dozens of brilliantly colored and, in some cases, themed balloons that will take to the sky Oct. 21-23 in Statesville, North Carolina, and light up in a glowing display on Saturday evening.
Some of the largest and most colorful balloons in the West and Southwest will be in Yuma, Arizona, Nov. 11-13 for the Colorado River Crossing Balloon Festival. The celebration, which includes a balloon glow and a mass ascension, is one of the biggest annual events in Yuma. With the majestic Sonoran Desert and the Colorado River as a backdrop, the Desert Balloon Glow is one of the most dazzling in the country, as the tethered balloons turn their burners to full blast against a pitch-black sky.
The Great American Balloon Race in Junction City, Kentucky, stands out from most other balloon festivals because it lasts for only one evening. Event organizers are already counting down the days until June 2, 2017, when local radio and online broadcasts will keep fans on the ground up to date on potential landing zones. Both admission and parking are free.
In 2010, eight hot-air-balloon pilots joined the Fowlerville, Michigan, Christmas in the Ville parade, and the annual festival hasn't been the same since. A peculiar but extraordinary blend of traditional Christmas revelry and passionate ballooning, Christmas in the Ville takes place on the first Saturday in December. More than 30 balloons have to work hard to keep up with the bright, bold, and original holiday floats cruising down Grand River Avenue.
Arizona -- and the Southwest in general -- is home to enough major balloon festivals that smaller events have to work hard to get noticed. The Arizona Balloon Classic in Phoenix has definitely gotten noticed. About 20,000 visitors are expected to show up to the event on Jan. 20-22, which is open to the first 50 balloons. It's a big fundraiser for Arizona State University Student Scholarship Fund, as well as a massive food drive for local food banks. Military personnel and kids under 12 enter for free.
The Harmony Jubilee in Fitzgerald, Georgia, runs Nov. 11-12. The first day of the festival features wine and cheese tasting, balloon rides, and a balloon glow. Nov. 12 is a full day of festivities, including music, entertainment, a pet fashion show, a daylong Civil War encampment and an artisan market, where locals showcase and sell handmade goods of all kinds.
Thousands of spectators gather in Clovis, California, for one of the longest-running balloon events in the country, ClovisFest, which has been held for 42 years. In addition to balloon launches, spectators can enjoy classic rock, country, and bluegrass bands in an on-site beer garden throughout the festival, Oct. 29-30 this year.