In Albuquerque, it’s not pumpkin spice that heralds fall, but several hundred hot-air balloons that float across an azure blue sky.
Watching them soar peacefully above the Rio Grande Valley from my school bus stop was a comforting annual ritual in the way the change of leaves must be in the northeast. Balloon gazing was paired with frosty breath and a clarity of shape and color – indications of the cool and dry conditions that hot-air balloonists dream about.
It’s no coincidence that October marks the time for the incredibly popular Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which hosts nearly a million people and 600+ balloons over nine days on a launch area the size of 56 football fields. The event is touted as the largest ballooning event in the world, the most photographed event on Earth, and the largest annual international event held in the United States. Yes, you should consider going, because you won’t experience anything else in the world like it.
- Elisa Parhad visits the Fiesta with her family in the 90s
When I wasn’t wistfully watching from afar on school mornings, I was drizzling warm, buttery frosting onto cups of mini cinnamon buns gobbled down by festival crowds – my first paid gig. I’d arrive at 4:30 a.m., courtesy of my heroic mother, and be fully sugar-rushed by the end of my shift at 9:30.
I’ve long since moved on from my job at the Cinnabon Balloon Festival food stall, but I still attend the event every chance I can. Here are my tips for attendees.
It’s hard to believe that this popular global spectacle started as a 13-balloon rally in an Albuquerque parking lot. Now in its 51st year, the 2023 edition of Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta takes place October 7th–15th. Events fall into “Morning Sessions,” which commence as early as 5:45 am, and “Afternoon Sessions,” for balloon glows and other events, between 3 pm and 8 pm. The main events include Dawn Patrol, Morning Glows, Mass Ascensions, and Evening Glows.
Dawn Patrol – Occurs every morning
Watch a handful of Dawn Patrol pilots take off before sunrise, like rising lanterns in the sky, providing balloonists a sense of wind speed and direction for the day. On Mass Ascension days, this patrol puts on a choreographed show set to music.
Morning Glows – October 7, 8, 11, 14, and 15
A dozen balloons light up the morning still tethered to the ground to create a beautiful pre-ascension glow. They then launch with other balloons at sunrise.
Mass Ascensions – October 7, 8, 11, 14, and 15
The heart of the Fiesta is the Mass Ascensions. As the sun rises, visitors witness a visual extravaganza of hundreds of balloons that launch from the field at once. This occurs in two waves and can last up to two hours. If you are interested in taking a hot-air balloon ride during a Mass Ascension, you can book with Rainbow Riders.
Evening Balloon Glows – October 7, 8, 12, 13, and 14
Walk amongst the gorgeous glow of soft, colored light when hundreds of balloons are simultaneously lit and tethered at dusk for another dazzling spectacle. As some of the most popular events of the whole festival, balloon glows are must-see events. Different balloon glow nights have different themes, including the Glowdeo, Twilight Twinkle Glow, and Night Magic Glow. All balloon glows are followed by a fireworks show.
Special Shape Rodeo – October 12 and 13
Who knew hot-air balloons come as saguaro cactuses, Yoda, and pink elephants? Check out the bizarre, quirky, and surprising shapes of over 100 non-traditional balloons during one of my favorite events, the Special Shapes Rodeo. Other events include the Flight of Nations, live music, competitions, drone light shows, a chainsaw carving exhibition, and a remote-controlled balloon rally.
- Inside a colorful hot air balloon – Photo: Elisa Parhad
When to Get There
Early Morning Arrival Times
Night owls might not like this, but in order to properly experience a morning session, plan to be parked and on the Launch Field at 5:30 a.m. for Dawn Patrol, and 6:30 a.m. for Ascensions. Yup, that might mean you are leaving your house at 4:30 a.m. In fact, Balloon Fiesta officials suggest getting to the park at 4:30 a.m. and considering the traffic on weekends, this may be good advice to follow. For evening sessions, arrive by 4 p.m. when possible.
Weather Delays and Cancellations
Balloonists need stable weather to safely fly, and when that doesn’t happen, Fiesta events may get canceled. The best you can do is plan to attend at least two sessions—if one gets canceled, you have a backup plan.
Time Sessions with the Balloon Fiesta App
Before you go, download the Balloon Fiesta app and find the “Prepare for Weather Cancellations” tab to check conditions. A colored flag system communicates cancellations (red flag), delays (yellow flag), and events that are good to go (yup, green flag!) You can also find this information on the official Balloon Fiesta X account (formerly Twitter), as well as on the launch field, where an actual flag is used.
How to Get There
The Balloon Fiesta takes place at Balloon Fiesta Park, located in northwest Albuquerque. This Park is also the site for the Anderson Abruzzo Balloon Museum.
Parking lots are located on the east and south sides of the Park and priced per session at $20 per vehicle. Gates open at 4:30 a.m. for the morning session and 3:00 p.m. for the afternoon session. There are no in-and-out privileges. One trick to help find your car—notice the Looney Tunes Character assigned to your parking area. QR code maps are available throughout the park to help you get back to Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, or Daffy Duck.
Unfortunately, traffic has become a part of the Fiesta. Options to minimize traffic woes include planning your visit for a weekday, booking a Park and ride, or taking a bike. For everyone else, enjoy the adventure.
Bikers can take trails from the city to Balloon Fiesta Park and enjoy a free onsite bike valet. No bike, no problem! Rent an e-bike from Free to Roam eBiking with lights that ensure a fun, festive atmosphere. Another all-inclusive option is a guided group ride offered by Routes Bicycle Tours (16 miles, $145 pp), which includes breakfast, admission, and a beverage, leaving from the lovely Los Poblanos Inn.
Several locations across the city offer weekend Park & Rides with two waves of shuttles leaving for the am and pm sessions. Ticket prices include parking and general admission for one session. Pre-purchased tickets are Adults $25 (13-61), Seniors (62 & Older) $23, and Children (6-12) $10. Children 5 and younger are free. Prices go up for same-day purchases.
- Lighting up a balloon for an evening launch – Photo: Heather Balogh Rochfort
What to Bring
Fall’s morning temperatures in Albuquerque can dip below freezing, so be sure to don your warm hats, gloves, wool socks, and warm jackets. Sturdy shoes made for walking are also key. Once the sun comes up, temperatures rise, so you can start to peel off the layers.
The Fiesta allows a bag per person, as long as there are no illegal items, glass containers, or alcohol contained within (bags will be searched.) What should be inside?
- A camera (you’ll want to take lots of pictures)
- Water (you might be at the Fiesta for many, many hours)
- A warm drink in a thermos (coffee, mocha, hot chocolate anyone?)
- Sunscreen (you’ll be a mile-high, the sun is stronger here!)
I don’t remember ever sitting down on any visit to the Fiesta, but many swear by folding chairs or blankets to sit on.
Where to Stay
Much has changed since I started attending the Fiesta as a young girl in the 1980s. Today, a bevy of low-cost, high-adventure options exist, including camping, glamping, and RVing.
Camp 505 is new this year, offering up an enticing 3-night stay package that includes branded camping equipment (like tents and sleeping bags) that you can take home after your stay. Even better, you are just steps away from the Launch Field. Prices include premium parking (priceless!), tickets to the event, filtered water, and more.
If you own a VW bus, the Buses and Balloons campsite is on from October 12-15th for just $5 per day at Alameda Little League Field. Although there is no power, no running water, no wifi, and no showers, there are Porta-potties and a dedicated path leading the way to Balloon Fiesta Park.
RV and tent sites are also available during Balloon Fiesta at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center ($50-$60 per night for RVs and $15 per night for tents.) This location is further away and will require biking or driving to get to the park, but you will be able to enjoy the balloons in the sky from your site.
For a premium experience, the Balloon Fiesta offers a glamping tent village with excellent views of the action. Like Camp 505, everything is set up for you when you arrive, with access to games, fire pits, and lounge chairs. The idea of waking up right next to the Launch Field without having to battle traffic may well be worth the cost at $1,600 for 3 nights for 1-2 people. Glampers have access to a private restroom, shower trailers, and an area with grills, games, and lounge chairs.
RVs have always been a big part of Balloon Fiesta, including the balloonists who come from all over North America and beyond to be a part of the event. Due to its popularity, RV sites sell out quickly and waitlists are capped. Tickets typically go on sale in January. Find more information here.
- Hot air balloons fly over New Mexico – Photo: William Cushman
The Perfect Place to Indulge in New Mexican Foods
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta’s Main Street concession area is akin to a county fair or carnival, with 100 stalls selling souvenirs, hot-air balloon-related merchandise, arts and crafts, collectibles, and food. This element is a big part of the experience—especially the food. One must-have: A breakfast burrito! In New Mexico, early mornings automatically go with a big flour tortilla wrapped up with eggs, cheese, potatoes/hash browns, and green chile. This will be handed to you as a portable, aluminum foil brick so that you can eat while you take in the beauty of ballooning. For afternoon sessions, opt for a green chile cheeseburger—trust me on this one..
Become a Launch Crew Volunteer
For a truly unique Balloon Fiesta experience, join a launch crew. You’ll assist pilots and crew chiefs in inflating, supporting, and landing balloons. The registration period was between July 15 – September 2, 2023, but you can sign up at the Chase Crew Headquarters prior to each morning and afternoon session for a chance at the action.
Tickets to the Balloon Fiesta are $15, and free for children 12 years and younger. Get your tickets at the entrance gates or online at www.balloonfiesta.com.
Things to Do After the Balloon Festival
The extreme early mornings of the Balloon Fiesta might kill your appetite for sightseeing, but unless you also choose to do an afternoon session, you may be done with your day as early as 10 or 11 a.m. Other Albuquerque delights include a visit to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Petroglyph National Monument, wine tasting at Casa Rondeña Winery, or hiking in the Sandia Mountains. If you have the time, take a scenic drive to the artsy old mining town of Madrid, or head to Santa Fe.
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