Fall is my favorite time of year in New Mexico. My enthusiasm is due in part to staying close to air conditioning or shadow surfing throughout July and August. Regardless, by September most New Mexicans are ready to get outside. The cottonwoods create golden borders along the rivers. The aspens carve golden swaths across the mountains (above 8000 feet). The smell of roasting chile permeates the air and the weather is flawless, though mornings and evenings can be chilly at higher elevations. Daytime temperatures are usually between mid-60s and mid-70s. Throughout the state there are harvest festivals and fiestas, but none of them compare to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. It is the crown jewel of autumn events.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
From a small gathering of 13 balloon enthusiasts in 1972, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has become the largest balloon event in the world. The extravaganza of color features hot air balloons and gas balloons, attracting hundreds of thousands of guests to Balloon Fiesta Park during the first week in October each year to experience a nine-day celebration of the world’s oldest aviation sport. It is the largest event in the state, essentially New Mexico’s version of Mardi Gras (with less public drinking and low tourist density everywhere than on the Fiesta field, because everyone disperses statewide once the balloons land).
Ultimate Photo Opportunity
Balloon Fiesta is one of the most photographed events in the world. It is colorful and vivid. The sky is a prominent feature in a stark landscape barren of trees. Whereas the balloons can be seen from several vantage points in Albuquerque, the Balloon Fiesta Park is full immersion. The field is full of balloons inflating and launching. It is hard to explain the sensation of being enveloped in the vibrant colors. It is visually overwhelming, with balloons filling the sky overhead as the sun rises over the Sandias. I don’t understand how anyone fails to see the merit in a sky full of colorful, floating baubles?
There are more than 100 special shapes in the fray, including a butterfly, the three bees, several pigs, an elephant, a fire hydrant, a spaceman and, always a favorite, Darth Vader (the chase crew is comprised of a host of Star Wars characters). Darth was recently joined by Yoda (both crews from Belgium). Several balloons are so large that they can only launch with flawless wind conditions, like The Creamland cow (a perennial favorite), the astronaut, the motorcycle, the Wells Fargo stagecoach, and Van Gogh’s head (back as of 2018). I always look forward to seeing new special shape balloons as well as welcoming the return of local favorites.
Though Balloon Fiesta is always a source of giddy wonder for me, other locals are less enthusiastic. Shortly after moving back to New Mexico I was in a meeting with the editor of a local publication and a representative from the City of Albuquerque discussing upcoming events. When the Balloon Fiesta was referenced, the general response was blasé and dismissive, along the lines of been there, done that, not impressed. My reaction. Whaaaaaat??? Perhaps I am more in touch with my inner child? Perhaps they need to attend with a child or someone who has never been?
It’s unfortunate that some people have grown immune to the allure of Balloon Fiesta. I enjoy waking up to the dawn patrol, with the balloons suddenly appearing out of the darkness as the pilots torch the propane. I don’t need to get out of my jammies, wait in line for coffee or deal with crowds, because they fly over my house several times during the week. It never gets old for me and I live in a neighborhood that is inherently involved.
Though Corrales is the ideal location to experience balloon fiesta at a civilized hour, it doesn’t diminish, or belittle, the ritual of trekking to the fiesta park before dawn, sleep deprived, trying to decide which breakfast burrito should accompany the obligatory coffee, to enjoy the sun cresting over the mountains as hundreds of balloons inflate, swallowing the crowd on the field in a sea of color. Usually Fiesta sojourns involve visitors, which means I get to vicariously experience seeing it for the first time through their eyes. The awe is tangible on the field, with thousands of necks craned, eyes on the sky, mouths hanging open and cameras clicking.
The event takes over Albuquerque, with an influx of thousands of people from all over the world. Every hotel room, vacation rental and hostel is booked from Albuquerque to Santa Fe (book early). The increase in motorists on the road complicates and lengthens the morning commute substantially, because there are a limited number of bridges between the east side of Albuquerque and the west. Furthermore, the balloons tend to waft across the river with chase crews in pursuit. Keep in mind that the pilots are at the mercy of the wind. As a result, it isn’t unusual for a balloon to land in the road, which brings all traffic to a halt while they deflate and pack it up. Alameda and Paseo del Norte often become gridlocked.
I usually attend on the first Saturday and spend the rest of the week chasing balloons around Corrales while avoiding Fiesta Park. My morning ritual involves trekking to a hilltop near my house to see where the balloons are heading so I can intercept. From this vantage point I can also see the traffic snaking to the base of the mountain on Tramway and standing still on the highway. The balloons invariably land before people stuck in traffic can get to the parking lot.
For people visiting from large urban areas, it is worth mentioning that a New Mexican’s concept of traffic congestion isn’t the same as a person from L.A. or Atlanta. For New Mexicans traffic flow that isn’t within 10 miles of the speed limit, or higher, is too congested. We are not accustomed to bumper to bumper driving, with a strong preference for open roads and high speed. Traffic conditions shouldn’t detract from the magnificence of a sky full of balloons, though the visual stimulation associated with that many balloons can be a serious distraction while driving.
Alternate Forms of Transportation
I have tested all forms of transport to the Fiesta park from Corrales. Thus far the fastest mode of transportation was a bike. There are lots of places to park fairly close on the Bosque, with bike paths directly to the entrance. Bike valet is available. The second fastest mode of transportation was the shuttle, though the return trip may involve standing in a long line. The shuttle fee includes the entry fee.
When it comes to driving, I have experienced the drastic difference 15 minutes can make. The traffic is smooth sailing if you can get to the entrance before 4 am. It is a mess by 4:30 am. A note to visitors: the balloons do NOT launch every morning. Weather and wind matter when it comes to hot air ballooning. Events are invariably cancelled at the last minute every year due to uncooperative weather. If the balloons get off the ground more than 75% of the time, it is a good year.
Ballooning is a Way of Life
Balloon Fiesta may be the crown jewel of the local ballooning events, but it isn’t the only annual event. Gallup, Cloudcroft, White Sands, and Taos have annual balloon rallies throughout the year. Due to the relatively small number of pilots, the smaller rallies often feel like family reunions.
There are 2000-3000 active balloon pilots in the United States. A disproportionate number live in the Southwest, with a heavy concentration in New Mexico. Our weather is ideal. The temperature disparity between night and day allows for cool, crisp, beautiful mornings, which allows the balloons to get aloft easier and stay aloft longer. Additionally, Albuquerque has a unique wind pattern known as the Albuquerque Box.
The Albuquerque Box
The “box” is a set of very predictable wind patterns. At low elevations the winds tend to come from the south and at higher elevations they tend to come from the north. Balloon pilots use the winds to navigate in a vertical box, allowing the to take off and land in almost the same spot. When the Box winds are not prevailing, they usually head to the west side of the river, because they are not allowed to land on Sandia pueblo land.
Chasing Balloons in Corrales
For people with an aversion to crowds, there are other options. When the ABQ box winds are not prevailing, the balloons tend to land at the north end of Corrales and in Rio Rancho. Balloon related delays and distractions are commonplace, but the vast majority of the village is enthusiastically balloon friendly. The horses may not agree with that statement. The horses and dogs get freaked out by balloons overhead.
In terms of Fiesta photos, many of my favorite overview sites are on the river or on the west side. The mesa provides a great view of the fairground. A few possibilities: Meadowlark (off of Corrales Road) into Rio Rancho. At the top of the hill there is a glorious view of Albuquerque and the Fiesta fairgrounds. Most of the roads running up the mesa from Loma Larga in Corrales provide outstanding position and lighting, particularly if you have a good zoom lens. Several are noted on the map below. I will add to the map before balloon fiesta, because the river changes slightly from year to year.
There is a dirt road along the acequia at the north end of Corrales, past the tree farm, that goes to a small parking lot next to the river. There is a trail that goes up the hill and a sandbar that provide good position for lots of balloons over the river, occasionally with some of the cottonwoods turning orange. Picturesque.
If you happen to visit Corrales during the Fiesta, Hannah & Nate’s is great for breakfast and lunch, Indigo Crow has a great cottonwood shaded patio, Corrales Brewery and Bistro also has nice, large patio, Wagner Farms will be roasting chile and their cafe does a great breakfast burrito. Trails along the Bosque, particularly at the south end near Alameda are awash in sunflowers. It’s autumn. It’s awesome! 🙂
What to Do When the Balloons Land?
For people visiting New Mexico during balloon fiesta, there is ample time for day trips and sight-seeing after the balloons land. Festivities are held early in the morning and in the evening after the sun sets. The trek to the field for mass ascension begins in the dark, long before the sun rises. There are ample vendors onsite to provide a caffeine infusion and breakfast burritos to bleary eyed spectators.
If you are one of the unfortunate individuals who doesn’t think Balloon Fiesta is a big deal or particularly impressive, look at the face of a visitor or a child watching and you will see what you are missing in their eyes. Then…just look up and enjoy the pretty colors. Life is short. Otherwise, just avoid Alameda and Paseo del Norte during the Fiesta.
Fun Ways to Experience Fiesta
Volunteer to be on a Chase Crew or to be a Navigator
Balloon Ride from the Fiesta Park
Balloon Rides during Fiesta with World Balloon
Stand-Up Paddleboarding during Balloon Fiesta (up close Splash and Dash)
Canoeing and Kayaking during Balloon Fiesta
Things to Do After the Balloons Land
Tips for visitors
Salinas Pueblo Missions
Coronado Historic Site
Nature in the City
Bosque del Apache
Albuquerque Chile Fix
Highway 4 through the Jemez
The Turquoise Trail
El Rancho de las Golondrinas
The Valles Caldera