America's Skies Will Be Filled with Hot Air Balloons This Month
September is prime time for hot air balloon festivals all across the country.
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 in your gondola.
So it follows that September holds the vast majority of hot air balloon festivals around the country. No two are alike: some double as county fairs with rides and copious foods on sticks, others memorialize local history. Behold the best balloon fests in the US: bring a blanket and leave the drones at home (seriously, they’ll take them away).
At the longest-running hot air balloon festival in New England, balloons rise above the spectacular mountains and gorges of the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire in five flights of up to 20 hot air balloons each. In the down time visitors can pick up a souvenir from over 50 craft artisans, check out entertainment like the Burlington-based From Africa to Vermont and one-man variety show Steve Corning, see a skydiving demonstration or maybe some disc-catching pups, or just hang out in the beer and wine garden. Can’t go wrong with any of those.
This is the 40th 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 a.m. Glow Shows, where balloons are tethered and lit from within, followed by a Dawn Patrol early flight choreographed to music, with the handful of balloons qualified to fly in the dark. There’s a daily mass ascension of 100 balloons and kids can take a $5 tethered ride for charity (no dice for adults, sadly).
Rapid City, South Dakota
In 1935 aeronautical history was made in South Dakota when in 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. Every year hot air balloon pilots congregate at the bowl, now called the Stratobowl (previously it was Moonlight Valley), to celebrate this achievement. Spectators can watch the ten balloons float up from the rim of the bowl, or take a flight of their own for $325 per adult, lifting you above cliffs and rugged terrain. You’ll probably even see Mount Rushmore.
Snowmass Village, Colorado
This free Rocky Mountain tradition is back for its 46th year near Aspen, featuring more than 30 balloons launching per day. And here's a chance to be active: spectators are encouraged to hike or bike Snowmass's trails for the best views of the launches. If you're more about sitting in a car, that's an option too: three lots are designated for parking and gazing. And if you want to get close enough to warm yourself on the hot air, the field is open to the public, and that comes with a food truck (but sadly, no bounce house this year).
Don’t know what an “Airmadillo” is? Find out at the Paris Balloon & Music Festival. Float on up yourself for $250, or just watch: the festival also features evening balloon glows and morning launches (balloon volunteers still needed) tethered balloon rides, and live music from local bands. And this is Texas, so there’ll also be a burger cookoff. If you’ve got killer recipe show it off: you can enter with up to four in a team.
Bay Harbor, Michigan
This is just the second year of Michigan’s Balloons over Bay Harbor (the first was in 2019), but it might be one of the coolest visuals on this list. Balloons float up over Little Traverse Bay off Lake Michigan, reflecting in the still waters. There are daytime flights, nighttime glows on the marina lawn, and pilot and crew meet-and-greets. Plus a 3K fun run, and the adorably-named Bay Harbor Bow Wow, a dog show fundraiser where furry contestants win prizes for things like best dressed, best owner/dog lookalike, best trick, and best lake jump.
Admission: Free, $20 for the Bow Wow
St. Louis, Missouri
A St. Louis tradition since 1973 – second oldest only to Albuquerque’s hot air balloon festival – the Great Forest Park Balloon Race is not messing around: expert pilots fly by invitation only. Set right in a park in metropolitan St. Louis, 150,000 spectators congregate over two days with picnic baskets (though you can buy food there as well, or treat yourself to a VIP bar experience) to get up close and personal with a balloon glow and watch DJs, skydivers, and the actual race – a “Hare” and “Hound” style pursuit where the winner is the first to drop a beanbag into a predetermined target. It’s probably mesmerizing even if you have no idea what’s going on.
Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, is in the heart of Amish Country, where on a typical day horses and buggies travel alongside automobiles, and the lure of quilts and baked goods dictate where the tourists end up. And three days a 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 like Tyler Short and Garret Shultz, and of course 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 yes, baked goods. Show up with room for shoo-fly pie.
Park City, Utah
The schedule for Autumn Aloft is a simple one: spectators can catch two morning launches of up to 24 balloons, plus an evening Candlestick Walk, where in downtown Park City balloon torches are fired up against the dark of night. But when you’re in a stunning mountain town, you don’t need much else. Admission is free for all of it, and if you’d like to get extra up close and personal with the hot air, they’re looking for volunteers.
From 1917 until it closed in 1993, the Oak Rubber Company in Ravenna, Ohio, 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 impactful industry 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 and fireworks. And, of course, two hot air balloon launches. This year’s theme is “A Flight Into the Future.” So maybe show up with an astronaut’s helmet or something.
Queensbury, New York
Now in its 48th year, this free extravaganza brings upwards of 150,000 people to the Glen Falls region of New York, this year with a reinvented format, spreading out over five launch sites. A kickoff block party includes live music and candlestick balloon torch firings, balloon events include special shapes (like Tweety Bird), and this year in addition to a regular drive-through moonglow, where you can roll past 40 balloons tethered and fired up, they’ve added a second, with a live band and possibly a fireworks display. Fingers crossed.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
The mother of balloon festivals, Albuquerque is the oldest and the largest of the bunch. And we mean largest—they recently re-claimed the Guinness World Record, for a single launch of 524 balloons, in 2019. Spanning nine days with events like a chainsaw carving exhibition, skydiving, balloon glows and mass ascensions, the most popular event is 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, and where those in the know can find an outdoor platform for premium views of the balloon launches, above the crowds.
Pretty much every hot air balloon festival has a balloon glow event—where the balloons are tethered to the ground and lit up from within, resembling magical floating fireflies. But at the Balloon Glow Tour, it’s the main event. This fall it travels through cities like St. Louis (9/3-9/6), Atlanta (9/10-9/12) and Raleigh (9/24 to 9/26) through the end of the year (check the website to see if it comes to a city near you). Besides the balloon glow there are tethered hot air balloon rides, a bounce house, plus upgrades for things like Champagne toasts. Make it a date night: Like candlelight, balloon glow light is pretty romantic, and flattering. Or so we hear.