Eyes to the Skies at Albuquerque’s Balloon Spectacular

Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta provides RVers the best seat in the house

Before the earliest rays of light pierce the sky, they rise – enormous balls of color, illuminated from within by the hissing flame that helps lift them, and glowing like magnificent Christmas ornaments.

After all the years of helping organize the camping end of activities for Albuquerque’s International Balloon Fiesta, that is the image that forever sticks with Bill Anthony – a ballooning spectacular dubbed “dawn patrol” that opens the schedule of events each morning at the eyeball-rubbing hour of 5:45 a.m.

That may sound incredibly early to rise and watch the ascent of hot air balloons, but not only does the event draw appreciative spectators; it’s an important daily ritual. Dawn patrol pilots take off in predawn darkness and fly until it is light enough to see area landing sites; other balloonists watch them and get an idea of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes.

And you’re in the best position to take it all in when camping at the 365-acre Balloon Fiesta Park, where some 1,600 to 1,800 RVers and campers take up residence each year in a temporary boom town. The location not only lends a great ringside seat to all major balloon activities, it helps visitors avoid traffic snarls, creates a pleasant camaraderie, and even allows spectators to jump in occasionally and lend a hand with some of the 700 balloons that will take flight during the 10-day festival. Want to learn more about the sport? You can even volunteer to serve on a chase crew.

“Our schedule of events starts early in the morning and ends late at night, so for an RVer it’s perfect,” said Kathy Leydecker, a Balloon Fiesta spokesperson.

“You can set up house and stay right out there within walking distance of the launch field and not have to worry about anything. In fact, the balloons fly right over you.

“You are literally camped on-site for the largest gathering of balloons in the world,” she added. “Many of our RV guests arrive early every year and work in the office and help out.”

The Balloon Fiesta was launched, so to speak, in 1972 when a modest 13 balloons were sent up from a shopping mall parking lot. With its crystal blue October skies, Albuquerque proved an ideal venue – a unique combination of weather patterns and geographic landscape creates a phenomenon dubbed “The Albuquerque Box,” which allows balloonists to fly out and back, retracing flight patterns. Spectators can enjoy them both coming and going.

Today, the gathering has grown exponentially, featuring multiple events at a custom-designed 78-acre launch field, where guests walk openly among the balloons and visit with the pilots – an unusual level of access for such a large balloon gathering.

Billed as the largest annual international event held in the United States, 800,000 to 1 million people turn up each year to enjoy the silent beauty of hundreds of hot air balloons sailing through the crisp fall air. Drop into this mix some five different RV camping facilities – with four fee options – scattered about the grounds, offering a variety of amenities and range of prices, and you’ve got an RVers paradise.

“Why bring your RV?” said Bill Anthony, the Balloon Fiesta RV coordinator and an avid RVer himself. “It seems obvious, but the traffic is horrendous before events. Just being out here probably saves you an hour-and-a-half of driving time from other campgrounds around Albuquerque. In fact, we started offering camping because RVers were calling us and asking for it.”

Camping options include: Standard Camping (no hookups), Premium RV Camping (electric and low-pressure water hookup), VIP RV Camping immediately adjacent to Fiesta Park (no hookups but free entry to events), and Presidential Camping with sites on the east side of the launch field (electric and water hookup).

Those who are dry camping are invited to “top off” when they arrive; water vendors are also available throughout the event. Though there are no dump stations on-site, honey wagon vendors will service you for a fee. And if you care to get out and explore, you can buy a ticket for a van ride that will shuttle you straight into Old Town Albuquerque for a premium shopping experience.

But you’ll also find plenty to do on-site. Balloon Fiesta Park is a concourse located at the launch field that features 177 concession sites. There you can buy anything from regional Mexican food to balloon memorabilia, Anthony said. About 45 percent of the sites are food vendors, so bring an appetite and a lawn chair for sitting down to catch the aerial views.

The farthest camping sites are about a half-mile from the launch field; free shuttles run constantly to carry RVers closer to the action. You can even purchase your own balloon ride!

But here’s a tip from Anthony: RVers who volunteer to help out on a chase crew over a few days will sometimes be offered free rides from grateful pilots.

Even novices are welcomed to help out.

Once you visit the Balloon Fiesta, be prepared to be bitten by the ballooning bug. It’s not unusual to see visitors return year after year, Anthony said. “I met a fellow last year who’s been coming here for 19 years,” he recalled. “We’ll also see camping clubs and RV owner groups gather here every year. Sometimes, they’ll meet on-site or caravan in after attending a pre-rally, or drop in on their way to a rally.”

It’s not surprising to Anthony. “RVers as a rule are a very congenial group,” he said. “We’ll see them getting together for potlucks, picnics and their own impromptu events. In fact, those who’ve been here before are some of our best salespeople.”

In some ways, the RV campgrounds are part of the overall attraction of the event, agreed Leydecker. “RVers are a ready-made family, no matter where they are,” she said. “They have so much in common and take care of each other because they’re away from traditional roots. You have brand-new best friends every day, every week, every year – it’s wonderful.”

With a full slate of events on tap each day, you really do want to arrive early. If you stay off-site, that means you’ll be getting up at 3:30 to 4:30 a.m. to trek to the launch field. Camp on-site and you’ll be able to sleep in a bit and still catch the 5:45 a.m. dawn patrol ascent.

In addition to competitions that showcase flying skills, the balloonists choreograph spectacular mass ascensions: “Afterglow” evening flights, fireworks shows, a gas balloon race, and events designed especially for balloons with unusual shapes. All told, it’s a dream for photographers, who are said to catch the best photos early in the morning and sunset.

“What’s the attraction to standing around watching balloons float by?” said Leydecker. “I can’t explain it. It’s magic. I’m a certified balloon-addict,” she laughed. “I’ve been here from the beginning. There’s just something about seeing this 80-foot structure floating quietly across the sky. It’s a very interactive experience.

“When they’re setting up you can walk up and talk to the pilot, feel the heat of the burner, help hold the gondola down when they’ve warmed the air. When they land, people jump out of their cars and help them fold up the balloon. You’ll find that basically people here just want to tell you what their experience is in ballooning. It owns us. It’s part of our culture now. We are truly Balloon City, and once a year we open our doors to the world.”

Visit www.balloonfiesta .com, where you can download reservation forms and additional camping information.

 

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2 Comments

  • Kara, your work never ceases to amaze me, but this photo shoot takes the prize .simply unalbievbele. You need to do a huge collage of canvas wraps in a hallway or playroom or something, INCREDIBLE!!!

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