Snowmass Balloon Festival paints the sky

Colorful hot air balloons fly over Snowmass for the annual Hot Air Balloon Festival in June 1994. The festival moved into the fall in the early 2000s.
Aspen Historical Society/Russell Collection

The Whisper of the Wind; October Moon; Skytrek; and, of course, Colorado High: these are just a few of the more than 30 balloons that will float gracefully over and around the Snowmass mountains this weekend.

Reader Barry Mink made a collage of “all the Rat Race balloons passing my house in Brush Creek” during last weekend’s Snowmass Balloon Festival.
barry mink

Pilots converge from all over the country to fly in the Colorado Rockies, and their balloons are just as diverse as the region they hail from. A red, white and blue “Spirit of ’76” celebrates our nation’s independence from Alexandra, Virginia. “DAIRy”, a white balloon with black spots, originated in Fort Worth, Texas. A black, hot pink and electric blue balloon represents Sun City, Arizona. “Humpty Dumpty,” with arms, legs and a big smile, rides from Louisville, Kentucky. And then there are the Colorado and New Mexico balloons, which soar with designs ranging from the Colorado flag to a marquee-inspired circus theme.

Crowds gather for the launch of the balloons during the 46th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival on Sunday September 12, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Pilots can participate in the 47e Snowmass Balloon Festival by invitation only. Official Balloon Mistress, Colleen Johnson of Mitchell, Nebraska, picks the pilots, making sure they’ve followed all flight regulations (she also brings her own multicolored balloon, named “Mary Alice in Wonderland”).

“Most of the pilots are retired,” said Snowmass Tourism events manager Julie Hardman, adding that they spend their time traveling to various hot air balloon festivals around the country. “They pick their favourites, and I feel like Snowmass is definitely one of their favourites. … And it’s our signature event (held during) a great time of year with our colors and weather ‘fall.

Primary colors, Rastafarian colors, Patriot colors and just about everything in between take their first flight in 2022 at Snowmass Friday morning, assuming the weather cooperates. The yellows, reds, purples, blues and oranges begin to swell around 6 a.m. Friday at Snowmass Town Park. Since winds typically pick up later in the day, pilots should be back on the ground by 10 a.m. daily. On Saturdays and Sundays, the best viewing time is usually 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. (again, depending on the weather), Hardman said.

On Friday, about half of the drivers will participate in the Carter Memorial Colorado Rat Race. Skilled and daring pilots see who can fly the farthest down the valley in two hours. The other half of the balls will remain above the Snowmass Town Park softball field, starting around 6 a.m.

Every day, spectators can walk to the balloons on the pitch and talk to the pilots. MC Brandon Blocker will be playing music and educating people about balloons and flying. And, if you don’t want to get up close and personal, you can bike or hike Snowmass — Rim Trail and Sky Mountain Park are great viewing areas, Hardman said — and see the flights.

“(Over) 30 balloons really means that when you look over Snowmass, you can see a balloon anywhere,” said Sara Stookey Sanchez, public relations manager for Snowmass Tourism.

On Saturday, the X-Marks the Spot challenge takes place from 7-9 a.m., pilots maneuver as close as possible to two different targets, located on the Snowmass golf course, so they can drop their beanbags on the X. Along the competition, the balloons float up and down at different altitudes, creating scenic opportunities. In fact, one of the friendly little contests Hardman and Stookey Sanchez enter is to see how many balloons they can frame on their camera phones.

Food trucks will also be on site from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday during the SnowMASS Ascension, where balloons will fill the sky with color. Around 2,000 people attend the free event throughout the weekend.

Friday’s Night Glow, 7:45-8:45 p.m., is one of the highlights of the festival, as each balloon glows brightly against the darker sky. Although the weather has presented challenges in the past, “it’s super cool when it happens,” Hardman said, especially because the public can walk up to the balloons, which are all attached as they go up, or stand just below a hovering basket. The food trucks will be open from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and the music will add to the lightness.

Although the rides are not available for purchase throughout the weekend, volunteers are usually still needed, often right up to the day of the event. Volunteers help with check-in, take the balloons out of the basket before inflating them, and collect and raise the balloons.

“Volunteers should expect to work and should be in good physical shape,” Hardman said, adding that they are almost always looking for volunteers to add weight to balloons during flight.

“It’s a to-do list item whether you can ride as a volunteer or not,” Stookey Sanchez said. “It’s a fun event for all ages.”

Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times
People watch hot air balloons soar above the village of Snowmass on the first day of the 46th annual Snowmass Hot Air Balloon Festival, Friday September 10, 2021.
Centennial’s Danielle Shewmake and Jack Bobzien help set up the ‘Laughy Taffy’ hot air balloon early Friday morning during the 42nd annual Snowmass Balloon Festival.
Anna Stonehouse/Snowmass Sun |
Burners fill ‘The Foreplay’ balloon at a previous festival.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |