If you want to conjure up an iconic image of Sonoma County, a prime example is the vision of hot air balloons soaring over vineyards.
Hot air balloon tours are a popular tourist attraction, but the annual Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic has been the county’s premier hot air balloon event since its inception in 1990.
The event, which has drawn up to 18,000 spectators in recent years, was grounded by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, but is returning in June.
And it’s moving from its traditional site at Keizer Park in Windsor to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. The move was prompted by the need for more space and easier access, organizers said.
“The Santa Rosa Fairgrounds, near two freeways, is not only easy to get to with plenty of parking; the central location will allow the balloons to be visible to many residents of the city and beyond,” they said in a statement.
The popular annual celebration began as a local Rotary club project that later led to the creation of a separate nonprofit, said Ted Richie, president and chairman of the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic board. for almost a decade and a half.
“It originally started as a rally for local balloon pilots,” Richie said. “They were flying together and people were coming to watch.”
In the past, the hot air balloon event was an all-volunteer effort, but this year organizers have hired Janet Ciel, producer of the Bodega Seafood, Art & Wine Festival since 1993 and director of the Healdsburg Farmers’ Market, to produce the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic.
Ciel also produced the Wine Country Winter Festival in 2016 at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds and Petaluma’s July 4th events in 2015 and 2016.
“The ultimate goal of this festival is to educate and create excitement around hot air ballooning, and I’m all for it,” Ciel said. “Many years ago I was lucky enough to ride in one of the balloons at this event and I will never forget it.”
“I hope not only to increase the number of participants, of course, but to make this event a dynamic event for all members of the family. In addition to all the balloon-related events, there will be lots of good food, cool balloon-related treats for shopping, live music and family entertainment, and activities for kids,” she added.
Doors open at 4 a.m. on June 4 and 5, followed by the popular Dawn Patrol, featuring light-up balloons, at 5:30 a.m. on dark skies. The main launch, featuring around 30 balloons from around the world, takes place around 6 a.m. Bring a jacket. It can be chilly this early in the morning.
Tickets for a captive ride will also be on sale, so visitors can take a hot air balloon ride without going too far.
Festival times may vary depending on weather conditions, but the event usually ends around 10am. The event features food, coffee, beers and mimosas.
Participants have the opportunity to talk to the balloon pilots and see for themselves what it takes to inflate and launch the balloons. The public is also invited to volunteer to help the crew with the balloons after a short training.
Ticket sales will be announced later this month or early February. For more information, check out SCHABC.org or the Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic Facebook page.
You can reach editor Dan Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.
(Editor’s note: This story has been edited to clarify the festival’s new location.)