This Is Not a Drill: UFO and Giant Armadillo Spotted Over Reno

Visit the quirky festival in a desert far, far away.

An imposing shadow lurks over the roofs of residential houses in Reno, Nevada, in the shape of a sort of round body with appendages, a tail, and—is that a cowboy hat? Looking up reveals it’s a gigantic blue armadillo, dressed as a sheriff, in the form of a hot air balloon—and he’s not alone. There’s also a UFO, an elephant, and a big Tweety bird head amongst the hundred or so colorful balloons filling the sky.

This spectacle is the typical scene at the annual Great Reno Balloon Race, a three-day event each September (9–11 this year) in Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. As the gateway city of Burning Man, Reno is the perfect off-beat stage for such a peculiar gathering. It’s not just your typical lightbulb-shaped hot air balloons; there’s also a hot air fish, hot air sheep, hot air tiger, giant inflated sloth on an inflated tree branch, Smokey the Bear, a clock with a funny-looking face, and a giant inflated Darth Vader head that just looks a bit weird without his body.

giant dog and boot air balloon
Uladzik Kryhin/Shutterstock

Keeping Reno Weird

“‘Keep Reno Weird’ is a pretty common thing to hear, and it’s something you can feel and take pride in when you’ve been here a while,” says Ben McDonald, longtime area resident and Director of Communications of the Reno Tahoe tourism bureau. “Community events and the outdoors bring strangers together to experience and celebrate our differences.”

As the world’s largest free hot air balloon event, the Great Reno Balloon Race now attracts 120,000 visitors each year from all walks of life. It began in 1981 with just twenty balloons as a sort of “filler event” in between the State Fair and the Reno Air Races, but evolved over the decades to be a festival on its own. As its popularity grew, more and more balloon pilots got wind of it—some piloting quirky aircrafts, like Michael Celentano and his “Sheriff Airmadillo.”

“It attracts visitors and pilots from all over the world,” says Charles Harris, president & CEO of Reno Tahoe. “One of the best parts about this event is the love and local support. It’s truly a community tradition where visitors are invited to snuggle up with the sunrise and then become part of the event, assisting pilots on the ground to get the balloons in flight.”

inside hot air balloon
Neil Lockhart/Shutterstock

The early bird catches the Super Glow Show

One of the highlights of the event is called Dawn Patrol, when attendees get to see the hot air balloons rise from the ground as they inflate—as long as they’re awake for it. The balloons take flight at 7 am, when morning conditions are typically favorable, so Dawn Patrol is literally at dawn, around 5 am. To better assist those who may be half asleep at this time, there’s the pre-sunrise Super Glow Show each morning, in which a few of the hot air balloons hover above the park and serve as a beacon in the dim, daybreak sky with a flashing light show set to music.

Sitting out with a blanket or chair is one way to experience it all, but for a fee ($110), you can buy VIP tickets to the Cloud 9 VIP Club—a heated tent in the middle of the grounds serving a catered breakfast, coffee, and even bloody marys and mimosas. While the balloon festival prides itself in costing nothing to the general public, proceeds from Cloud 9 tickets and VIP parking passes help keep the event free to the community.

“We are more than just a ballooning event. We work with a multitude of charities in the community,” says Pete Copeland, Executive Director of the Great Reno Balloon Race. “For example, we have a 30-year relationship with Washoe County School and The Children’s Cabinet. We like to give back to the community.”

tiger hot air balloon
The Great Reno Balloon Race

Then watch the balloons try to hit a target

At 7 in the morning each day, The Great Reno Balloon Race begins as each balloon team hops in their respective baskets when they’re primed to launch, and drops their sandbags to rise up into the sky. However, it’s not a race about speed; it’s about navigational accuracy to fly to different targets on the ground, where a giant X literally marks each spot.

“Because balloons have no steering wheel, the pilots navigate to the target by finding different direction winds at different altitudes,” says Allen Anderson, Chief Competition Officer of the race. “The competitors are given a bean bag [a “marker”] with a tail on it as a scoring device. This marker is dropped or thrown at the target. The closest bag wins that task.”

With increasing urban development these days, it’s harder to physically mark the ground with an X, so GPS tasks have been introduced. Balloon pilots navigate to particular coordinates and then simply push a button to drop a virtual marker. However, it’s easier said than done. Balloons are always at the whim of winds, and sometimes they inadvertently hover over residential houses so close that teams can see what people are watching on television. Imagine seeing that out your kitchen window.

people dressed as storm troopers
The Great Reno Balloon Race

See some other trippy sights

As the winds disperse the balloons across the region until they descend rather anticlimactically, so does the public interest to gaze up at the sky. In fact, the Cloud 9 VIP tent is over by 9:30 am. The balloon event itself lingers until 11 am with tethered balloon rides for children, and concessions of food, drink, and souvenirs at “Balloon Boulevard.” But that doesn’t mean the fun or weirdness are over. Outside Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, there’s much more to do in this quirky “Biggest Little City in the World.”

“It’s nose rings and dreads, slacks and bow ties, and Harleys and tattoos all at the same table,” says McDonald, describing his hometown vibe.

For a little more action than watching hot air balloons, head to Sierra Adventures for a ride up the Truckee River, to float in an inner tube right back into downtown Reno. For the daring, there’s the Guinness World Records’tallest artificial climbing wall on the side of the Whitney Peak Hotel, rising 16 stories above Reno’s iconic “Biggest Little City” archway. If dressing up is more preferred than climbing up, there’s the Junkee Clothing Exchange, an almost obligatory stop on the way to Burning Man, where many Burners stop in to get their eclectic outfits for the Playa.

Being the closest city to Burning Man, a lot of creative, tangible remnants of Black Rock City are on permanent display in Reno, including the imposing Desert Guard by Lu Ming, one stop on the outdoor Playa Art Trail. For more outdoor art, there’s the self-guided Mural Expo of street art, found downtown and midtown. The freedom of artistic expression can also be found indoors at the Nevada Museum of Art, which also has some Burning Man works, plus there’s the Reno Tahoe International Art Show at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center—coincidentally the same weekend as the Great Reno Balloon Race.

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Erik Trinidad is a Brooklyn-based travel writer in perpetual search for offbeat adventures—and the beers and meals that come afterwards. Follow him on Instagram and via his travel/science web series, Plausibly Ridiculous.