I couldn’t think of a better way to have spent Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend than to road trip to New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta! Once the idea was dreamt up, my friend Skylar and I booked a hotel room, packed our bags, and hit the road. (Yes, we made the 13-hour drive from Kansas City.)
What makes the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta so special? It’s the largest hot air balloon festival in the world. Beginning with only 13 entries in 1972, the Fiesta has grown to 550 balloon registrations in 2018. The location also makes it an idea place for this event because of the city’s varying altitude. There is hardly a place in the city where you can’t see the balloons when they ascend. The most photos are taken at this event than any in the world, 21 million still photos in just two weeks. This year’s Fiesta ran from Saturday, October 6 through Sunday, October 14.
We arrive in Albuquerque very early Saturday morning and headed straight to the park grounds. The Fiesta gates open at 4:30 AM, which meant the parking gates opened even earlier. Since the first event of the day wasn’t for a few more hours, we kicked back the car seats and napped before the day ahead of us.
Entry to the International Balloon Fiesta is $10 per session and includes access to the field where the balloons launch, as well as various types of vendors and entertainment. Car parking at the Fiesta is $15 per session. Since we got there early (which I would highly recommend), we had an easy time parking. However, there are alternative methods for getting to and from the Fiesta. A park-and-ride option is available for $15 in advance or $22 the same day and includes your entry into a Fiesta session. Parking can be limited, and traffic may be rough, so the latter seems to be the encouraged by the Fiesta coordinators. Either way, be sure to arrive early and plan for large crowds so bring your patience and prepare to spend time waiting.
Albuquerque in the fall is beautiful, however be warned the mornings can be chilly so it’s best to dress in layers because by noon it feels great.
Fortunately/unfortunately, the only time that we were able to see the hot air balloons ascend during our trip was Saturday morning. The session kicked off at 6 AM with Dawn Patrol. This is when a few hot air balloons inflate and launch before the sun rises. Even though it’s early, the crowd is ecstatic as balloons take off. There is also a Laser Light Show (which isn’t impressive) but is followed by the Morning Glow. During the Morning Glow, pilots and their crew are assembling their balloon/basket, occasionally lighting up their balloons but remaining on the ground while others began taking off.
What’s really great about this event is that you can walk around the field and get up close to all the action happening. Seeing things such as the assembly of the balloons, the balloons being laid out and inflate, and most exciting of all: watching for that moment balloons are cleared for take off and lift off the ground. There is always something happening on the field to watch (and photograph and/or record). Finally, there’s a point in the morning when balloons consistently takeoff. This is the event everyone has been waiting for… Mass Ascension is when all the balloons launch from the Fiesta park. I wondered how all this was coordinated and turns out there are people (apparently called “zebras” for their referee-like-outfits) providing directions.
There is also a Chainsaw Carving Invitational at the end of the morning session and at the beginning of the evening session which we chose to forgo.
During our time in Albuquerque we didn’t get a chance to experience the evening session due to high winds. However, typical events scheduled include: Twilight Twinkle Glow, Laser Light Show, and AfterGlow Fireworks. The Twilight Twinkle Glow and Laser Light Show should be similar to the events during the morning session.
Even though we didn’t know that portions of the Saturday evening session were going to be cancelled, we had planned to watch the event from a different vantage point, outside the field at a park across the street instead. The first event they called off was the Twilight Twinkle Glow because the winds were too strong for the balloons to lift off. Even though we didn’t get to see the balloons, there was a beautiful sunset that night. Apparently, there were going to be skydivers, so we hung tight until they called that off from the air determining winds were still too strong to jump safely.
For the record, we didn’t go up in a hot air balloon. While it’s on my bucket list to ride one (but not necessarily in Albuquerque), we thought a price tag of $600 per person was just too much! That would have been two times the amount we paid for this weekend excursion.
For all the official information on the Fiesta each year, visit their website, here, or Facebook page, here. You can tune into their Facebook page for a live stream of the events too. It’s nice because you get to hear the commentary that you don’t get to hear on the field. You better bet I’ll be tuning in each year from now on out! Next year’s event, themed Picture Perfect, has been scheduled from October 5-13.
In addition to visiting Albuquerque for the Fiesta, I would highly recommend planning other activities to do and sights to see for downtime from the Fiesta and in case of any weather-related delays or event cancellations. Old Town is a neat area of town to walk and shop around. There is a square in the middle where there is often live music.
Another popular attraction is the Sandia Peak Tramway. While I would have loved to do this, it wasn’t meant to be. The Fiesta draws huge crowds to Albuquerque each year so the city in generally is bustling with visitors. The first time we attempt to ride the tram, there was a 2-hour wait to even purchase tickets (tickets are not available for purchase online or in advance). Our second attempt was on the next day when the Fiesta events were canceled due to the winds, in which the tram was also closed.
We did get a chance to explore the Petroglyph National Monument, specifically the Boca Negra Canyon trails. There are three short trails that take only an hour to view many petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are images carved into rock formations. Remember that game you’d play as a child where you’d identify different shapes of the clouds? It was fun interpreting what the petroglyphs looked like too!
Finally, a few notable food options:
- Green Jeans Farmery is a food and drink hub built out of shipping containers that’s worth checking out, including: Zeus’ Juice & Nutrition, Nitro Fog Creamery, Santa Fe Brewing Co., and more. The concept is a smaller scale of Las Vegas’ Downtown Container Park.
- Weck’s is a southwestern chain restaurant serving breakfast and brunch in a diner-styled environment.
- Frontier, located across the University of New Mexico, is a low-priced restaurant where you order at the counter and take a seat in any of the five dining rooms meant to serve up to 300 people at a time. Don’t be alarmed by the line, it moves quickly!
- Range Cafe is decorated with eccentric items but is known for their comfort food. I would recommend the New Mexico Mac and Cheese because it has green chile in it!
For those of you following along, what are some places you’d suggest for a 3-day weekend trip from Kansas City? We have another one coming up in November. 😉 As always, I welcome any feedback, comments, and/or questions.