Lewie's Travel Web
Roads and Trails
Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Our visit was 6 to 9 October 1998. We arrived on Monday, 5 October, but had not planned on attending the Fiesta until the next morning. Good thing, as the events on Monday were cancelled due to high winds. We did locate the balloon field Monday evening to make our early Tuesday trip easier. From our motel on I-25, the path was north on I-25 to the tramway exit, and then left to the southbound service road for I-25. Once you exit I-25, there are lights, people, and barricades to make sure you get to the Fiesta.
Fiesta balloon events are conducted either once or twice a day, with early mornings having the flying events. Each event has a separate entrance fee, except that Tuesday of 1998 was a free day. The Albuquerque afternoon paper had an updated event schedule each day, a summary of the previous day's activity, and also some information about where discount tickets could be purchased. The morning events are usually over by 10 AM or earlier, and the evening events start in the late afternoon. The schedule for the next fiesta can be found on the official Balloon Fiesta web site.
When I say early, I mean early. 6 AM is about when most people will arrive. The "Dawn Patrol" will likely be in the air already. With over 100,000 people attending the most popular events, the parking lots are large, with long walks likely for those arriving after 6:30 AM. Several types of breakfast can be found at the many eating places that are part of the Fiesta. A couple of green chili burritos and cup of hot coffee was my preference on both cold mornings we were there. All types of food is available all day. After sunup, the temperature warms and coats are not then needed, but sun screen is. The only shade is in the shops. A backpack is good for the coats no longer needed, for spare film, and for smaller items bought in the shops. You can leave to put stuff in your vehicle, if you wish, without having to pay again to get back in, but you might miss something and the walk is always long if you are at the far end of the field. Many people carry folding seats to use during the contests and for the evening Glow events. There are tables with attached benches usually occupied by people eating, or just resting. The field area is huge, about one mile by 1/2 mile is my guess.
The Dawn Patrol consists of two to four balloons that ascend in the dark, usually about 5:30 AM. They provide a beautiful sight as they slowly move over the balloon field as the other balloons are starting to be assembled. Getting pictures in the low light is difficult. Fully manual camera operation is required, along with a steady rest. The balloons are bright only when their burners are on, a time of 2 to 5 seconds repeated perhaps once a minute.
As the balloons are assembled Fiesta attendees move all over the field to get close-up views. Many times the on-lookers spread the ground cloths that help keep the balloons clean.
Later in the process, the balloons are filled with air from big, loud fans that start to give shape to the balloons. After filling with air, the burners are used in short bursts to heat and expand the air, causing the balloon envelope to lift off the ground. The burners have an output of one-half to over one million BTU's. This is 10 times the size of my home heater.
At first, a few balloons lift off the ground. Then more and more and more until the sky to the south is covered. You then learn that you have only witnessed half the balloons being assembled and flown from the fiesta field. To the north you discover that another 400 balloons have lifted off from outside the grounds and are arriving to compete in one of several contests held during the fiesta.
One contest is to drop or throw a weighted ribbon to a target on the ground. Something to notice. No two balloons are alike. Many of the standard shaped balloons may have similar looking patterns for a casual observer, but closer inspection shows the arrangement of colored panels different. Some balloons are small, with room for only one person in the basket. Some balloons that are used for commercial rides may carry 12 or more passengers.
Other contests include grabbing, by hand, helium filled balloons attached to the ground, and a key attached to the top of a pole. The helium filled balloons contain money. The key fits a new pickup. Touch the ground inside the contest area, and you are disqualified and embarrassed. A time of about 7 seconds is usually required for a balloon to start to lift after the burner is activated. Balloon control requires a lot of skill.
Albuquerque is popular with balloonists for several reasons. One is a phenomenon known as "the box." Often, in the early morning, the air movement near the ground is toward the south, but at a high elevation, it is to the north. Balloons can leave the field and first go south, and then return above the field area by raising to a high elevation. After passing the field, dropping to a low elevation brings the balloon back to the field on a south heading. This may be repeated several times during a morning. Weather conditions such as a cold front can cause the box to disappear for several days, and can cause cancellation of the flying events. It is my understanding that balloons can fly safely in high winds, but they can't land safely. People are killed and injured by attempts to land when the wind is too fast. They also cannot go upwind, and they will come down when out of fuel.
"Special Shapes" is the name for all the balloons that are shaped different from the norm. A few of these will be present every day, but most will only be flown during one of the days designated for Special Shapes Mass Ascension.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman was voted the favorite for 1998. It was impressive.
In addition to the early morning activities, several evenings have a "Glow" presentation. When the Special Shapes are present, they call the glow event a Rodeo. Near sundown, the balloons are assembled just like they were going to fly, but they are tied down to a vehicle so they don't leave the ground. The burners are used from time to time to keep the balloons upright, with most burns being with less air to the burner than needed for maximum efficiency. This results in a bright, white flame that lights up the balloon like a giant light bulb.
As the sky darkens, the balloons appear brighter and brighter, but only for the few seconds that the burners are active. The PA announcer tries to get all the balloons lit at once, but he is only partly successful. Spectacular fireworks follow some of the glow events.
All the balloon activities was complete at 9:30 AM on our first day, Tuesday, 6 October. Thursday was the first Special Shapes day that we planned to attend both the morning Mass Ascension, and the evening Glow show. We planned to stay until Friday. We thus had every mid-day, and all day Thursday for other activities.
Sandia Crest is just outside Albuquerque. There are two ways to reach the top. One is by road, and the other is by aerial tram. Since my wife would not consider riding the tram under any circumstance, we took the road on Wednesday morning. The drive is a good paved road through a National Forest. The road ends at a parking area next to a Forest Service Rec. Area (a small fee is charged) that consists of a gift shop, rest rooms, and a paved observation area that looks down on Albuquerque and the balloon field from several miles away. There is also a trail along a ridge that leads from the peak that provides other views of the area, and of several scenic rock formations and of trees that have been shaped by nature to have what I call character. The far end of the trail is at the tram station, a distance of about two miles one way. There is a restaurant at the top station of the tram, but no road there. Most of the area between Sandia Peak and the balloon field is almost flat desert country. We could see a couple of balloons that had grounded, but still upright, waiting for their chase vehicles to reach them. We were too late to see any activity at the balloon field. Sandia Crest is really too far from the field to really observe the balloons, even with 8 power binoculars. We stopped at a Forest Service picnic area for a picnic lunch after leaving the crest. The fee for the Crest Rec. Area is good all day at all the forest rec. areas.
There are gift shops galore at the Fiesta grounds. There is also an "Old Town" area of Albuquerque that has gift shops galore year round. Both have many, many Balloon Fiesta souvenirs. Betty found a lot to like at both.
If you plan to go, make room or camping reservations early since the whole area will be fullup. Motel rates are higher during Fiesta, so don't be surprised.
In my opinion, there is little for younger children at the fiesta. If I lived in the area, I would certainly take my children to one of the glow events, but I would not plan to attend several events with them.
There are so many balloons that it is not possible to take pictures of them all. Kodak Royal Gold film was only film I saw being sold at the fiesta, and it is too expensive for my non-professional photography. I shot about 10 rolls at the Fiesta, and another four at Sandia Crest and Old Town.
On Friday, the day we left, we did not go the fiesta grounds, but looked for an area to the south where we could see the balloons after they left the field. Driving through the area at 6:30 AM about a mile south of the field, we saw a place that had promise on the edge of a large field. A hint that this might be a suitable viewing spot was that a few cars were already there, with people standing around. We joined those already there and waited. We then were joined by several balloon carrying vehicles that parked in a small open area behind us. Ground cloths and balloons were then deployed and preparations made for lift off from this area. We did see most if not all the Special Shapes balloons that lifted off from the fiesta grounds, but our view was partly blocked by an industrial complex between us and the grounds. As we left this area about 8 AM, the balloons near us were lifting. A few minutes later, the sky to the north of us was covered with hundreds of balloons that had lifted from north of the grounds and were approching for the day's contests. We had to stop for a few more pictures of the beautiful scene, but the pictures provide only an indication of the experience we enjoyed. The Balloon Fiesta provides an overwhelming, beautiful event that everyone should experience at least once.