This Colorado Hot Air Balloon Festival Is the Best Way to Watch the Sunrise

See another side of Colorado at Moffat County Balloon Festival.

Courtesy of Visit Moffat County
Courtesy of Visit Moffat County

Nestled amidst the grandeur of Colorado's breathtaking landscapes lies a hidden gem that beckons the adventurous soul—who’s also looking for fun off the beaten path. Craig, a charming town of just under 9,000 residents, stands apart from Colorado’s larger cities and tourist towns with its quiet splendor and surprising amount of regular, crowd-pulling events.

Welcome to the beating heart of Moffat County, where each year, the skies come alive with the vibrant colors of the Moffat County Balloon Festival. A spectacle of hot air balloons from Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming will gracefully ascend over the horizon as the sun rises, with balloons launching for the festival’s 13th year at 6:30 am on Friday, August 4, Saturday, August 5, and Sunday, August 6.

And, waiting on the ground for the balloons’ return is plenty of activity, from live entertainment—including a Journey tribute band—to the Colorado Cruisers Car Show to games for all ages. Saturday is a particularly action-packed day, with a Flying Colors 5k run/walk, tons of food and craft vendors to check out (11 and 24, respectively), a beer garden, draft horse wagon rides, a cardboard boat regatta, and live music from sunup to sundown. The night will end (weather permitting) with a balloon glow or candlelight ceremony, and everyone will be off to rest up for the final Sunday balloon launch.

Our recommendation is to soak up the opportunities for fun in northwestern Colorado by arriving Thursday night, experiencing each day’s balloon launch, and exploring all the activity, history, and beauty that the festival and Moffat County have to offer.

Courtesy of Visit Moffat County

Drive time:

4 hours from Denver
4 hours from Cheyenne, WY
5 hours Salt Lake City, UT

More things to do in Moffat County:

While the balloon festival will keep you plenty busy, you’ll probably have some downtime; Craig has a number of attractions for all interests and age levels in-between balloon launches and bedtime. Visit the Wyman Living History Museum or the Museum of Northwest Colorado, where history buffs can catch a glimpse of the region’s pioneer days. If you’re strolling about downtown, there are several parks to stop for a sunny picnic lunch, and bookworms should be sure to pop into Downtown Books to pick up a new read and get their caffeine fix.

About an hour west of Craig is the Sand Wash Basin on public Bureau Land Management (BLM land), where you can camp or just hang out and hope to spot a herd of Colorado wild horses. For those heading back home to Utah, checking out Dinosaur National Monument to see dinosaur fossils is a worthy pit stop. Or, for an even quieter activity, cast your fishing line into the tranquil waters of the Yampa River, known for its exceptional trout fishing.

Where to stay in Moffat County:

There’s an array of standard hotels in downtown Craig if you decide camping under the stars outside of the town’s limits isn’t for you. But Wild Skies Cabins provide a comfier camping alternative in log cabins just on the outskirts of town and are the perfect base camp for the outdoor adventurer. And, the Elk Run Inn offers a homey place to rest your head for a night or two, cook your own meals in the kitchenette found in every room, and feel well cared for by the hospitable staff.

You could stay somewhere bougier in Steamboat Springs—like the Steamboat Grand or Gravity Haus—if you’re not bothered by the 45 minute drive, but what you gain in luxury you likely lose in fun and authenticity that is the northwestern Colorado experience.

Where to eat in Moffat County:

Craig may be small, but her food and drink options are mighty. Start your day off right with coffee and breakfast at Prodigal Son’s Coffee House & Eatery, or just swing by the Mudd Shack for an on-the-go cup of really good espresso.

Take your pick for lunch or dinner at Warehouse Food Hall, from the fluffy specialty pizzas of Super Slice to Double Dubs’ wings, tater tots, and more (which earned a stop from Diners, Drive-ins and Dives host Guy Fieri). Located inside Yampa Valley Brewing Co.’s taproom, The Local is your place for big, juicy burgers piled high with melted cheese, crispy bacon, and all the fixin’s. But you also can’t go wrong at either Vallarta’s or Fiesta Jalisco when it comes to quality Mexican food.

Other local favorites include The Sizzling Pickle, which has pretty much everything you can think of whether you’re feeling corn dogs, quesadillas, or chicken wings, or J.W. Snack's Gulf Coast Bar & Grill, where you can settle into its cozy, small-town eatery atmosphere and enjoy comfort foods like barbecue spare ribs, fish and chips, and po’boys.

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Erica Buehler is a Denver-based freelance writer. Follow her @e_buehleron Instagram and @e_buehler_on Twitter for more updates on Denver food and other Mile High shenanigans.