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Everything You Need to Know About Albuquerque’s Massive Hot Air Balloon Festival

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Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta events include the mass ascension of hundreds of balloons, a gas balloon race, balloon glows, competitions, and more.

Photo by Cynthia Liang/Shutterstock

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta events include the mass ascension of hundreds of balloons, a gas balloon race, balloon glows, competitions, and more.

The annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is among the world’s largest ballooning events. Here’s what to know to best experience the autumn spectacle.

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Every year during the beginning of October, the skies above New Mexico’s largest city fill with hundreds of hot air balloons as part of the multiday Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Nearly 1 million visitors from around the world come to Albuquerque each fall to witness the event, which officially began in 1972 with the launch of 13 hot air balloons from a shopping center parking lot. Since its first occurrence, the Balloon Fiesta has become the largest annual international festival in the United States—not to mention one of the most photographed events on Earth. 

If you’ve always wanted to stand alongside thousands of spectators as more than 500 hot air balloons float through the sky in the Land of Enchantment, here’s what you need to know before planning a trip to the world-famous festival.

When is the 2019 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?

The International Balloon Fiesta takes place annually in early October and usually lasts for nine consecutive days. (The festival is set during autumn because the season provides prime conditions for hot air ballooning; light winds, cool mornings, and sunny skies in Albuquerque are ideal for successful balloon liftoff and landing.) 

This year’s upcoming Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is scheduled from Saturday, October 5, through Sunday, October 13, 2019. During the festival, various hot air balloon events will take place during designated morning and evening sessions at the Balloon Fiesta Park in northern Albuquerque. (Gates open for morning sessions at approximately 4:30 a.m. and for evening sessions at around 3:00 p.m.) Some events are recurring and can be witnessed daily throughout the nine-day festival; other shows are slated for specific days only. (See the full 2019 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta schedule here.)

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What are the main hot air balloon events?

A number of events typically take place at each Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, such as early morning ascensions, hot air balloon flying contests, evening light shows, and a separate, ticketed Music Fiesta featuring live performances. (More on that here.) Most of the events are weather dependent and can be canceled—sometimes suddenly—depending on wind, storms, and other weather conflicts. If you’re making the trip this year, be sure to stay up to date with the 2019 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta event schedule. Here are several of the festival’s most well-known hot air balloon traditions that you won’t want to miss:

Dawn Patrol

Throughout the October festival, the Dawn Patrol show marks the start of each day. Before sunrise, the first balloon inflations begin at around 5:45 a.m., weather permitting. At approximately 6 a.m., a collection of large, colorful air balloons float up, up, and away into the sky so that pilots can check on weather conditions and visibility in the area to determine safety levels for the day’s activities. The event originated for security purposes, but it’s now an annual tradition that draws early morning crowds.

The New Mexico city has a phenomenon known as the “Albuquerque Box,” a combination of wind patterns and geography that results in great conditions for hot air balloon pilots.

Mass Ascension

Since the Balloon Fiesta’s earliest days, Mass Ascensions have been a recognizable (and beloved) feature of the Albuquerque event. The show begins at about 7:00 a.m., when every hot air balloon in the festival launches into the sky while “The Star Spangled Banner” sounds in the background. The launch directors (also known as “zebras” because of their black-and-white-striped outfits) coordinate the spectacular liftoff  in two shifts so the hundreds of balloons leave the field in a safe manner. Mass Ascensions only take place during early morning sessions, typically on Saturdays and Sundays during the festival.

Balloon Glows 

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During this event, pilots begin to inflate their hot air balloons—which remain tethered to the ground—as night starts to fall over the launch field. After dusk, the hot air balloon pilots ignite their propane burners so that the balloons light up and glow periodically. Sometimes they choreograph synchronized “all burns” during which all of the balloons light up at once. A traditional evening Balloon Glow (sometimes referred to as a “Twinkle Twightlight Glow” or “Night Magic Glow”) will generally be followed by fireworks and laser light shows. The presentations are well worth sticking around to witness.

Special Shape Rodeo

The Balloon Fiesta’s first Special Shape Rodeo took place during 1989. Today, the tradition is an annual event—and it’s the festival’s most popular one. The concept is somewhat self-explanatory: During the “rodeo,” a massive collection of special-shaped hot air balloons (think: astronaut, alligator, and armadillo-esque floating devices) decorate the airspace above Balloon Fiesta Park. In 2019, the exciting Special Shape Rodeos are slated to occur during morning sessons on two days of the festival. A Special Shape Glowdeo will take place during the evening sesson on those same days—again, the event name gives an apt description of what that display will entail.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is one of the few balloon events where viewers can walk among the balloons and talk to the pilots, thanks to its admirable safety record.

Can visitors take hot air balloon rides too?

It wouldn’t be a proper Balloon Fiesta if visitors couldn’t experience at least a portion of the event from the sky. For festivalgoers interested in embarking on their own balloon rides at the Albuquerque Ballon Fiesta, Rainbow Ryders offers the event’s only reservations for propane-powered flights in the sky. (No other commercial hot air balloon company is permitted to lift off with guests from the launch field during the festival.) To inquire about availability and pricing for a Rainbow Ryders hot air balloon tour, contact the company in advance through its website.

After you’ve viewed hot air balloons floating through the sky and have enjoyed a ride for yourself, learn about hot air ballooning by visiting the Balloon Discovery Center. This special tent on the festival grounds hosts interactive (family-friendly) exhibits that illustrate the principles of hot air balloon flight, the history of the sport, as well as safety aspects of ballooning. You can also stop by exhibits at the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum Foundation, which has a viewing gallery and balconies that look onto the Balloon Fiesta Park launch field.

Where is the Balloon Fiesta Park located?

All main events on the festival’s official schedule take place in northern Albuquerque at Balloon Fiesta Park (4401 Alameda Blvd. NE). The 365-acre grounds are located about 11 miles north of downtown Albuquerque (via I-25 N), and 15 miles north of Albuquerque International Sunport following the same route.

Nearly 1 million visitors from around the world come to Albuquerque every year to witness the fall event.

What’s the best way to get there?

By car . . .

It usually takes less than 30 minutes to reach Balloon Fiesta Park from Albuquerque’s downtown area as well as from the international airport. However, expect traffic across the city during the hot air balloon festival, so it’s best to leave extra time for your trip. At visitor parking lots located in and around Balloon Fiesta Park, parking costs $15 per car or motorcycle for the length of a morning or evening session. Parking must be paid for (in cash) upon entry; first come, first served. You can also purchase parking passes in advance through the Balloon Fiesta Gift Shop in Albuquerque. 

By shuttle . . .

Throughout the International Balloon Fiesta, Park and Ride shuttles offer round-trip transportation between several Albuquerque locations and Balloon Fiesta Park. In 2019, there are four Park and Ride pick-up and drop-off locations in Albuquerque, including Cottonwood Mall (10000 Coors Bypass NW), Intel (1600 Rio Rancho Blvd. SE), Coronado Center (6600 Menaul Blvd NE), and Hoffmantown Church (8888 Harper Rd. NE). Park and Ride tickets include admission to the Balloon Fiesta event and can be purchased in advance online; they cost $15 for adults, $12 for seniors (over 62 years old), and $7 for children and are free for passengers under five years old. Same-day shuttle tickets increase in price.

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By bicycle . . .

Thanks to bicycle routes that run across much of Albuquerque—including a recently opened 50-mile trail for cyclists and hikers that skirts the pink-toned Sandia Mountains, the Rio Grande, and downtown—you can wheel your way to Balloon Fiesta Park and avoid car traffic almost entirely. At a special “Bike Valet” point near the festival grounds located just off Balloon Museum Drive, you can drop off your bike with local volunteers who will keep your gear safe while you enjoy the Balloon Fiesta. (Find more Bike Valet information here.)

If you don’t have your own two wheels, there are several rental shops and bike-share programs in Albuquerque. Travelers can pick up bicycles from more than 41 locations via Pace, Albuquerque’s new mobile app bike-share service, available on iOS and Android

How do I purchase tickets?

General admission tickets for individual morning and evening sessions at the 2019 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta are available to purchase online. (Purchasing a ticket to one session grants access to all of the activities during that allotted time frame.) General admission (by session) costs $10 per person for visitors 13 and older. Children 12 years and under enter for free.

The 2019 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta will take place from Saturday, October 5, through Sunday, October 13.
Where can I stay during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta?

Albuquerque landed a spot on AFAR’s list of Where to Go in 2019 thanks in part to a collection of hotels dating back to the 1930s getting a second life in the desert city. In the trendy Nob Hill neighborhood, the 80-year-old De Anza Lodge reopened in early 2019 after an $8.2 million renovation, which includes the restoration of Zuni Shalako murals. Near the historic Old Town district, the 22-room El Vado Motel is another great place to rest your head. (The recently remodeled spot was originally built in 1937 to cater to Route 66 travelers.) 

If you’d prefer to camp out closer to the hot air balloon happenings during your October visit to Albuquerque, here’s where you can stay overnight at the Balloon Fiesta grounds.

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Go glamping . . .

In 2018, new glamping tents were set up in Balloon Fiesta Park against the backdrop of New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains (and within walking distance of the festival’s hot air balloon launch field). All glampsites provide linens, heating, and lamps. They also include access to restroom and shower trailers, as well as an area with a fire pit, grills, games, and lounge chairs. Free parking and general admission to the festival comes included as part of a three-night stay. From $1,500 for three nights (accommodates two people)

Camp out in an RV . . .

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is also a very popular place to spend the night in an RV. Hundreds of spots are available to reserve each year around the Balloon Fiesta Park launch field, starting from $40 per night. (Parking is first come, first served.) In 2019, all RV sites are sold out for the festival and the wait list is currently closed. Reservations for 2020 go on sale October 22, 2019, at 9 a.m. (MST)—but they’ll likely go fast, so act quickly.

If you’re unable to make the festival this fall, mark your calendar for the 2020 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which will be held from October 3 through October 11.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to New Mexico

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