As has been pointed out recently I’m way behind. My hope is to get all caught up before we hit Alaska this summer. So this one’s for you John 😉
October 3 – 9, 2018
“Albuquerque, he’s my turkey and he’s feathered and he’s fine…” Sing it with me. 🙂
I cannot say Albuquerque without that song running through my mind (maybe it just a kindergarten teacher thing), but Albuquerque was no turkey. In fact it was awesome! Now I can’t tell you anything about the town of Albuquerque. I’m sure there are plenty of neat things to see and do there, but we came for only one reason: the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest celebration of hot air ballooning in the world.
The Balloon Fiesta was on our bucket list when we hit the road and even though it involved a bit of advance planning it was well worth it. We had an amazing time and never tired of watching the balloons inflate in the early morning darkness or float over our rooftop.
I was like a kid in a candy store, nose pressed against the window watching the kaleidoscope of colors. This “not a morning person” was popping out of bed in the wee morning hours ready to go each day.
We went to Balloon Fiesta as part of an annual WBCCI Airstream Rally and it was definitely the way to do it. The Airstream group was totally organized and they have front row spots. All we had to do was show up and enjoy!
You can definitely come on your own. There are several lots where you can make a reservation to camp, but all of these were further away from the action and every day we saw the long line up of shuttle buses slowly snaking their way to the drop off point. We were glad to avoid all of that because getting down on the field in the wee hours of the morning is the best part.
The planes and helicopters start circling between 4 and 5 am so you won’t be asleep anyway. The first morning we arrived on the field at 5:50 am for the 6 am Dawn Patrol. We probably could have arrived about 30 minutes later, but seeing the first balloons inflate and take off in the pre-dawn light was pretty cool.
The Dawn Patrol tests the winds to see if the rest of the balloons should launch in what’s called the Mass Ascension. Six or seven balloons inflate in the dark around 6 am and will launch if the helicopters have determined conditions are ok. If these balloons find winds that float in the right direction, the other balloons launch starting around 7am in the Mass Ascension.
They don’t all ascend at the same time, but hundreds of balloons inflate and take off over about a 2 hour timeframe.
The launch field is the size of over 50 football fields. The first day we went in we didn’t realize just how big it was because we couldn’t see past all the balloons and ended up spending all our time in the first third of the field. It was ok though. It just meant there were new balloons to see the next day. 🙂
Some of the really big balloons, like Airabelle the Cow and the Wells Fargo Stagecoach, won’t take off unless the winds are absolutely perfect for large balloons, but they’re still really fun to see on the ground.
Even if the winds are not good, they still have a morning glow where the balloons stay on the ground and fire their burners in a colorful spectacle. This happened to us one morning and it was still cool to walk among them although it didn’t last as long. By 8am most of the balloons were deflating and all were down by 8:30am.
Tip: It is colder than you think in the mornings, so bring an extra layer or two. Sweatshirts and blankets seemed to be selling fast at the vendor booths. Stand near a balloon that’s firing its propane burner to enjoy the heat. Also wear comfortable shoes as the field is huge and you’re doing a lot of walking and standing.
I never tired of wandering among all the colorful balloons. It was fun seeing what would pop us next. The shape balloons were a definite favorite.
The reason Albuquerque is such a great spot for ballooning is the box effect. When the winds are right they allow the balloons to head in one direction, then ascend and find winds that head back in the opposite direction. Then they descend and start all over.
With the Mass Ascension over around 9am we had the rest of our day to rest and relax. There are some things on the field to explore, like chainsaw carving and a car show, but we didn’t find them worth it. If you have kids, there was an activities tent that looked cool.
On Saturday and Sunday evenings they hold another glow followed by the most amazing fireworks show I have ever seen (although it was cancelled one night due to weather). We sat in front of the Airstreams and watched. (That covered walkway is the entrance to the fields.)
We asked folks who were returning to Balloon Fiesta for advice, but didn’t get much so I’ve included some tips below. Some are specific to the Airstream group and some are more general. I hope you find them helpful if you decide to attend.
First, our biggest tip is to register the first day you can. If you go on your own the reservations open up for the following year as soon as the Fiesta is over. For the Airstream rally find out when registration will be up (sometime in February I think—check their website balloonfiestarally.wbcci.net) and make sure your entry form is postmarked that day. Ours was postmarked the next day and we were waitlisted. Luckily in mid-August we found out we were in.
The Fiesta goes for 9 days starting on the first Saturday in October and we were there for the first weekend. We stayed for a few nights at the Route 66 Casino to rest up beforehand. They have nice RV spots with full hookups. This put us a short drive from the meeting point.
Be sure to fill and dump tanks before arriving, as there are no hookups on the Fiesta grounds, although you can pay the high fees for water and/or a pumpout. Oh, and perhaps train your party in water conservation. One kid left the faucet on after washing up and the family ended up with an empty fresh water tank and a full grey tank only hours into the event.
The Airstream group meets up at Camping World on Friday between 7 and 11am. Getting there sooner will get you a spot closer to the field, but you probably won’t get a spot in the very front unless you are part of the volunteer group organizing the rally. In reality it doesn’t really matter. You can take your chairs down and sit in front the the Airstreams to watch the fireworks and to see some of the closer balloons in the morning. But even from the back you have great views and you are a quick walk onto the Fiesta Grounds through a gate with no lines. And sometimes the balloons travel right above the Airstreams.
The rally organizers send groups of 6 – 10 trailers following a lead car over to the Fiesta Grounds where helpful folks direct you to park. You are parked on rough asphalt that is not very level so bring blocks. One trailer was 6” off side to side and had to borrow blocks from a friend. Another had their front hitch nearly 3’ off the ground. Also bring a rug because the asphalt has globs of tar and you don’t want to track that into your trailer!
You are parked extremely close together. Putting out the awnings required coordination with neighbors and watching out for open windows. We taught our neighbors how to caravan mode their awning (put it out a shorter distance) so you might want to look that up beforehand. They make you unhitch and park your tow vehicle behind your trailer (something about having quick access to the propane tanks in case of a fire). You can leave, but it might require asking your neighbor to move their car.
You cannot use any outdoor fire pits (including propane ones) but you can use your BBQ as long as it’s 2’ above the ground. Same thing with your generators so bring a table or put them on the tailgate of your truck. Oh, and they’re supposed to be the quiet type not contractor ones to avoid nasty looks from your neighbors.
Download the Balloon Fiesta app for updates on weather dependent launches and glows. Supposedly if the winds are above 8 mph the balloons won’t launch, but one morning there was almost no wind at ground level and they still didn’t launch because the upper winds were not favorable. I’d say don’t think you can watch something the next day because the weather may not be favorable. We had one morning of launches, one glow and one evening of fireworks cancelled. Enjoy everything you can.
Supposedly the best breakfast burritos are at Chavez and there are about 6 booths selling donuts (including a Krispy Kreme stand) if that’s your thing. 🙂 I brought in an insulated cup of tea and some snacks and they didn’t have a problem with it. Many people bring in coolers and chairs and blankets and whole wagons full of their stuff.
Most of the action happens early in the morning and in the evening so you can rest and relax during the day. On the weekdays there are flying competitions. We watched one where balloons try to drop a marker closest to a target. It was fun to watch, especially when one balloon bumped up into the basket of another nearly swallowing them up!
Visit the Balloon Museum on Sunday between 9am – 1pm for free entry (as long as you enter before 1pm it’s free). Lots of interesting history of ballooning around the world, although the displays require a lot of reading.
The one piece of advice we did get was not to leave early because often the last morning is the best. Some folks left Sunday or Monday, but we stayed all the way to Tuesday morning and were rewarded with balloons flying right over our trailer.
It was hard to drag ourselves away from this colorful sky, but eventually we had to hook up and go.
Goodbye Albuquerque. You certainly were fine!