U.S. Hot Air Balloon Festivals Are Reaching New Heights This Fall
From Reno to Rapid City, it's the perfect season to float up, up, and away.
Traversing the skies in a hot air balloon is enjoyable pretty much any time of year, but enthusiasts know that September is the real sweet spot. Summer heat gives way to cooler breezes—preferable when you’re standing next to literal fire. Skies are clear, evenings are crisp, and rain is rare. You may even see some leaves turning fresh hues of orange and yellow as you float above the world in your very own gondola.
So it follows that September holds the vast majority of hot air balloon festivals around the country, and no two are alike. Some double as county fairs with rides, copious foods on sticks, and the ever-present car show, while others break world records and memorialize local history. Behold the best balloon fests in the US—bring a blanket and remember to leave the drones at home (seriously, they’ll take them away).
Burlington, North Carolina
A production of the Alamance County Veterans Association, the first ALCOVETS Balloon Festival last year was such a hit, they decided to make it an annual affair. Proceeds benefit local discharged servicemen and women, with entry gaining you access to tethered balloon rides, horseback riding, a car show, and a bike show. You’ll find balloons in flight, leashed to the ground, and on display. Every night also features a musical lineup with local talents like Rockingham’s own Bucky Covington, who you may remember from the fifth season of American Idol.
Council Bluffs, Iowa
You know what pairs well with watching hot air balloons take flight? Some wine (just for the evening flights, of course). At Ditmars Orchard & Vineyard in Iowa, show up during the day and pick your own apples or raspberries, then stay for the hot air festivities, including live bands.
2023 marks the 41st anniversary of the Great Reno Balloon Race, which they say is the world’s largest free hot air ballooning event and where they once pulled off Balloon Blackjack in the sky (this is Reno, after all). This year, events for the three-day affair include 5 am Glow Shows featuring balloons tethered and lit from within, followed by the Dawn Patrol early flight as a handful of balloons qualified to fly in the dark take to the skies against a musical backdrop. There’s also a daily mass ascension of 100 balloons and kids can take a $5 tethered ride for charity (no dice for adults, sadly).
Take a tethered balloon ride up, or just sit back and watch, as this Southern fried fest also features evening balloon glows with balloons lit up like fireflies, alongside morning launches, helicopter rides, cornhole, live painting competitions, and music from local bands. If you’d like to volunteer, that’s a possibility, too—that way you’ll get first dibs on the food trucks offering everything from Thai food to barbecue, shrimp, and catfish, plus monster truck rides. This is Texas, after all.
Rapid City, South Dakota
In 1935, aeronautical history was made in South Dakota when, from a box canyon in the Black Hills Forest, the Army Air Corps and National Geographic Society launched record-breaking high-altitude manned balloon flights that reached the stratosphere. Today, hot air balloon pilots congregate at the bowl every year, now called the Stratobowl (previously it was Moonlight Valley), to celebrate this achievement. This isn’t quite an organized event, and the launch floor is private, but spectators can hike the Stratobowl Rim Trail to watch the balloons float high above the cliffs and rugged terrain.
From 1917 until its closing in 1993, Ravenna’s Oak Rubber Company built itself into one of the largest manufacturers of toy rubber balloons in the country (the employee party photos are a trip). Today, the Balloon-A-Fair remembers the operation’s impact with a true community shindig, combining float-filled children and adult parades, a community breakfast, plus a fair held on a nearby farm with craft tents, amusement rides, a Jeep show, helicopter rides, live bands, and fireworks. And, of course, hot air balloon launches and balloon glows, with a mechanical bull and axe throwing new this year.
Bay Harbor, Michigan
This is just the fourth year for Michigan’s Balloons Over Bay Harbor, but it might be one of the coolest visuals on this list. Balloons float up over Little Traverse Bay off Lake Michigan, their reflections shimmering in the still waters below. There are daytime flights, nighttime glows on the marina lawn, and pilot and crew meet-and-greets. Plus a 3K fun run, live music, and in previous years, balloon artists (fingers crossed it happens again).
St. Louis, Missouri
A St. Louis tradition since 1973—second oldest only to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta—the Great Forest Park Balloon Race is not messing around. Here, expert pilots fly by invitation only. Set in a public park in metropolitan St. Louis, 150,000 picnic basket-toting spectators congregate over two days to get up close and personal with a balloon glow and take in DJs, skydivers, and the actual race, a “Hare and Hound” style pursuit where the first balloon to drop a beanbag into a predetermined target wins. It’s probably mesmerizing even if you have no idea what’s going on.
Bird-in-Hand is in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, where on a typical day, horses and buggies share the road with automobiles and the lure of quilts and smell of baked goods dictate the direction of tourists. But for three days each year, it’s also home to one of the most unique hot air balloon festivals in the country. Here, you can not only see fireworks, watch magic shows, hear up-and-coming country stars, and witness the launch of dozens of colorful balloons—plus take a ride yourself for $300—but also learn a bit about Amish culture, with buggy rides and plenty of those baked goods for sale. Show up with room for shoo-fly pie.
Snowmass Village, Colorado
This free Rocky Mountain tradition near Aspen is back for its 47th year, featuring more than 30 balloons launching per day. And there's also a chance to be active: Spectators are encouraged to hike or bike Snowmass's trails for the best views. If you're more about sitting in a car, that's an option, too, as three lots are designated for parking and gazing. And if you want to get close enough to warm yourself in the hot air, the field is open to the public (complete with a food truck should you work up an appetite).
Queensbury, New York
Now in its 50th year, this free extravaganza brings upwards of 150,000 people to the Glen Falls region of New York. A kickoff gala on September 20 in honor of the anniversary is the only thing you’ll pay for—that’s $40 and comes with a moonglow. The next day features the opening ceremonies with welcoming remarks from dignitaries and event organizers, plus an inflation of the special 50th anniversary birthday cake-shaped balloon. Then, keep your eyes on the sky (for the most part). Throughout the weekend expect parades, live music, candlestick balloon torch firings, and balloon events that include even more special shapes (namely Tweety Bird).
September 29–October 1
Coming in hot—literally—and ushering in spooky season is this neon-hued Lehigh Valley fest, featuring fireworks and laser light balloon shows each night. For something more nature-forward, join in on one of the festival’s mass ascensions in your own balloon.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
As the oldest and largest of the bunch, in its 51st year, Albuquerque is the mother of balloon festivals. And we mean largest—they recently re-claimed the Guinness World Record for a single launch of 524 balloons in 2019. Spanning nine days of chainsaw carving exhibitions, skydiving, balloon glows, and mass ascensions, this year it also coincides with an annular solar eclipse and its “ring of fire,” with NASA on premises giving out eclipse glasses. Then get ready for the Special Shape Rodeo, where you’ll see everything from Yoda to a goldfish with a monocle soaring above the Rio Grande Valley. Near the launch site is the Balloon Museum, detailing the history of hot air balloon flight from 1783 with specific focus on ballooning in Albuquerque.
Nobody told us that if you become a hot air balloon pilot, you get your own hot air balloon pilot trading cards. At least, you do at the Lakeside of the Smokies Balloonfest, anyway, where kids collect them at pilot meet-and-greets and hopefully not trade them away in front of you. There’s also an antique tractor show, a wine garden with Tennessee wines (including a mimosa breakfast to watch the liftoff), live music, and food trucks. Oh, and balloon rides, tethered and untethered, with some pretty spectacular scenery.
No, we’re not listing the same festival twice—it just happens to be a popular name, okay? Going down at the end of October, Scottsdale’s spooktacular hot air balloon festival goes all in on the Halloween theme, with costume contests and hot air balloons that double as trick-or-treat stops handing out 4,000 pounds of candy. There are no full launches, just evening glows and tethered rides for purchase. Plus bounce houses, a haunted trail presented by the local high school, and plenty of food and drinks.