Gallup Balloon Rally
The first weekend in December, balloonists gather at the magnificent Red Rocks State Park for a fun weekend of hot air balloon morning ascensions and night glows. The intimate and beautiful setting makes this an ideal sidetrack for families and shutterbugs.
West of Albuquerque near Gallup, NM
Sometimes I stumble across a photo that makes me say "wow". That happened to me once when I was browsing on the website Pinterest. The photo had a colorful hot air balloon similar to the ones that we take for granted seeing above our gorgeous Albuquerque skies, but this scene was different. The balloon was aloft in front of a landscape of beautiful red rocks. It caught my attention and upon reading further, I found it to be an advertisement for the Red Rocks Balloon Rally held the first weekend in December annually since 1980. For over 30 years this fabulous festival has returned to Red Rocks State Park near Gallup, and I had never even heard of it!
Like most families, December is a very fun but pretty hectic month in our house. It always seems there are more activities than we have the time. If we were going to go check it out, I knew I had to make room in our busy calendar or wait another year when we would be just as busy. We chose to attend the Sunday morning mass ascension.
Early morning risers we are not, so we opted to drive to Gallup Saturday evening and spend the night at a motel so that we could wake up Sunday morning at zero dark thirty and be closer to Red Rocks State Park where the event is held.
I watched the weather closely prior to the weekend. Travel on I-40 in the winter can be dicey. I find the state of New Mexico's Road Advisory Hotline useful in winter: 800-432-4269. Luckily, weather worked in our favor and we were able to check in, let the kids have a quick swim in the motel's indoor swimming pool, and get a decent night’s sleep.
Sunday morning we grabbed the complimentary continental breakfast at the motel alongside a handful of balloon pilots and crew. The friendly pilots invited us to come on over and help crew their balloons if we liked. I was actually on crutches from a knee accident, so we were unable this time.
We arrived at Red Rocks State Park as the sun was coming up (around 7am). We paid for our parking pass as we drove in and there was plenty of parking. There was a volunteer table set up, and though there were mostly balloonists and their crews at this event, the few bystanders in attendance were welcomed and asked if they wanted to be matched up with a balloon to help crew. This is a fantastic way for a family to get up and personal with the world of hot air ballooning. You will have a “hands on” opportunity to learn the process from unloading everything from the van, to taking flight, to assisting in the landing, and packing up the envelope and basket. You may even be offered a seat in the gondola by the pilot and get the ride of your life! It was a brisk December morning. We were bundled up with winter hats, mittens, warm socks, and boots. The pilots and crews were gathered in the park’s campground and there were a few RVs set up for tailgating. Quite a few people were staying warm next to a roaring campfire at one of the RV sites and the mood was relaxed and jolly. It appeared most of the pilots had long standing friendships. We were invited to warm up at the fire as if we were old friends as well. There were also picnic tables at each camp site which were nice for sitting at while we waited for the rally to begin. After a short opening ceremony and pilot weather briefing at dawn, a gas lantern was set to the sky to check wind speed and direction. After the officials analyzed the situation, the pilots were cleared for flying. Our family was interested in capturing this event with our cameras and because I was on crutches, we decided to split up once the balloonists started unpacking and setting up their balloons. The red rock canyon has a giant ridge overlooking the fields where balloons inflate, and there are trails making getting up to the top of the ridge fairly accessible (if one is not on crutches). My husband and son climbed to the top of the ridge and had an absolute blast greeting the pilots as the gondolas ascended up towards them. The top of the ridge is also a prime spot to photograph the event. Weather permitting the balloons "kiss" the rocks by perching their gondolas on small rock edges jutting out of the canyon wall. The balloons seemed to dance along the rock walls and created amazing shadows and displays. The balloons also rest on top of the ridge, so my husband and son enjoyed chit chatting with the pilots as they slowly floated by at eye level. This event was an extra treat because the balloons took off but stayed in the canyon near us instead of floating away to a further destination. I had a ball back at the launch site watching crews lay out and inflate their balloons and prep the gondolas for flight.
Soon the sun was up over the horizon and shining warmly down on us. I was able to take some of my warm gear off as the morning went by. After a couple hours of getting all the balloons up into the sky and watching their flights, they began to land back near the parking lot. My husband and son had followed some park trails pretty far back into the canyon in the direction of some of the balloons and had a blast exploring that area. Cell phones were handy here as we could keep track of each other and coordinate meeting back at the parking lot. The event wrapped up by noon. We headed back to Albuquerque with a stop for a yummy brunch at the WOW! Diner, which is just off the highway, west of Grants on I-40. We enjoyed sharing stories and photos of the balloon rally and feeding our hungry bellies. It was the perfect ending to a fun family sidetrack.