Snowmass Balloon Festival paints the sky again this weekend |

Snowmass Balloon Festival paints the sky again this weekend

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to The Aspen Times
Colorful hot air balloons fly over Snowmass for the annual Balloon Festival in June 1994. The festival moved to the fall in the early 2000s.
Aspen Historical Society/Russell Collection

The Wind Whisperer; October Moon; Skytrek; and, of course, Colorado High: These are just some of the names of the more than 30 balloons that will gracefully float above, and around, Snowmass’ mountains this weekend.

Reader Barry Mink made a collage of “all the balloons in the Rat Race going past 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 in which they originate. A red, white and blue “Spirit of ’76” celebrates our nation’s independence from Alexandra, Virginia. “dAIRy,” a white balloon with black spots, hails from Fort Worth, Texas. A black, hot pink and electric blue balloon represents Sun City, Arizona. “Humpty Dumpty,” complete with arms, legs and a big ole smile, rides all the way in from Louisville, Kentucky. And then there are the Colorado and New Mexico balloons, soaring with designs ranging from the Colorado flag to a big top-inspired circus theme.

Crowds gather as balloons launch at the 46th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Pilots can participate in the 47th Snowmass Balloon Festival by invitation only. The official balloon Meister, Colleen Johnson from Mitchell, Nebraska, chooses pilots, ensuring they’ve met all flight regulations (she also brings her own multicolored balloon, named “Mary Alice in Wonderland”).

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

Primary colors, Rastafarian colors, patriot colors and just about everything in-between take their first 2022 flight in Snowmass Friday morning, assuming the weather cooperates. The yellows, reds, purples, blues and oranges begin to inflate around 6 a.m. Friday in Snowmass Town Park. Since winds usually pick up later in the day, pilots are required to be back on the ground by 10 a.m. every day. On Saturday and Sunday, the best viewing time is usually 7-9 a.m. (again, weather dependent), Hardman said.

Friday, about half of the pilots will compete in the Carter Memorial Colorado Rat Race. Seasoned and daring pilots see who can fly the farthest down valley in two hours. The other half of the balloons will remain above Snowmass Town Park’s softball field, beginning at approximately 6 a.m. Food trucks in the park offer breakfast and coffee to stay warm and fueled.

Each day, spectators can walk right up to the balloons in the field and actually talk to the pilots. MC Brandon Blocker will play music, as well as educate people about the balloons and flying. And, if you don’t want to be up-close-and-personal, you can bike or walk around Snowmass — Rim Trail and Sky Mountain Park are great viewing areas, Hardman said — and view the flights.

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

Saturday, the X-Marks the Spot challenge takes place 7-9 a.m., as pilots maneuver as close as they can to two different targets, located on the Snowmass Golf Course, so they can drop their bean bags on the X. Throughout the competition, balloons float up and down at different altitudes, creating picturesque opportunities. In fact, one of the friendly little contests Hardman and Stookey Sanchez take part in is seeing how many balloons they can frame on their camera phones.

Food trucks will also be on site 7-9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday during the SnowMASS Ascension, where balloons fill the sky with color. About 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 vividly glows in the darker sky. Though weather has presented challenges in the past, “it’s super cool when it happens,” Hardman said, especially because the public can walk right up to the balloons, which are all tethered as they rise, or stand just below a hovering basket. Food trucks will be open 7-9 p.m., and music will add to the levity.

While rides are not available for purchase throughout the weekend, volunteers are usually always needed, often up to the day of the event. Volunteers help with check in, pulling balloons out of the basket before inflation and collecting and rolling balloons back up.

“Volunteers should expect to work and should be physically fit,” Hardman said, adding that they’re almost always looking for volunteers to add weight to the balloons during flight.

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

If you go…

What: Snowmass Balloon Festival

When: Sept. 16-18

Where: Snowmass Town Park

Getting there: The Snowmass Village Shuttle and RFTA offer free transportation. Free parking is also available at Town Park and Rodeo lots.

Ideas on what to do after the morning launches:

  • Grab breakfast at places like The Crêpe Shack by Mawa’s Kitchen, Limelight Lounge, Big Hoss, Jüs Snowmass, Fuel or First Chair
  • Go on the Snowmass Mountain Mission Virtual Scavenger Hunt or the Art Walk or check out the following events:
  • Community Trail Group Run with Ryan Montgomery, queer pro ultrarunner, 8-9 a.m. Friday
  • Music on the Mall with Spore Favore at Tower Stage (free), 4:30-6:30 p.m. Friday
  • King Yoga Jam at the Collective Rink, 9-10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
  • Snowmass Wine Festival Grand Tasting, 1:30-5 p.m. Saturday
  • VIDA MTB Series Women’s Skills Clinic, all day Saturday and Sunday
  • Golden Leaf Half Marathon, all day Saturday

More info:

Another ‘soaring’ event this weekend

What: Snowmass Wine Festival

When: 1:30-5 p.m. Saturday (Friday’s wine dinner is sold out)

Tickets for Saturday’s Grand Tasting: $115 (advanced purchase). One hundred percent of the ticket price benefits local nonprofits in the Roaring Fork Valley and charitable organizations worldwide.

The 20th Snowmass Wine Festival returns this weekend, hosted by Rotary Club of Snowmass Village and its partners. Saturday’s Grand Tasting features celebrity chef Susie Jimenez, who will present a food pairing with Mico Tequila & Selzers.

A variety of old and new wines from across the nation and the globe will be featured. Whether you’re a seasoned expert or an intrigued beginner, winery representatives welcome you to learn the story of their wines while enjoying the fruits of their labor, as well as amazing local cuisine.

More info:

The Balloonist’s Prayer

The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well, that God has joined you in your laughter and has set you gently back again, into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

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

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