Snowmass Balloon Festival celebrates 45th anniversary this weekend amid pandemic

The Morning Glory Too fills up as other hot air balloons float during the 44th Annual Snowmass Balloon Festival in Snowmass on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019.
Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times

Early mornings. Balloon-filled skies. Pictures and videos to freeze the moment.

These are just a few aspects of the Snowmass Balloon Festival locals and visitors will get to enjoy this weekend, as the hot air balloon showing returns for its 45th anniversary year.

But while the festival will still feature three days of 7 a.m. hot air balloon launches from Snowmass Town Park, it will not include mingling with pilots and neighbors on the softball field. Instead, Snowmass Tourism is encouraging people to view the colorful spectacle from area trails or drive-in style in their vehicles due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“All of us really wanted to make this happen because not only it is one of our signature events, but it’s the 45th anniversary,” said Julie Hardman, special events manager. “So it meant a lot to keep this one going.”

As Hardman explained, this year’s balloon festival will anchor on a drive-in concept, where locals and visitors can reserve a space in the Town Park lot or along Brush Creek Road to view the morning balloon launches from their cars, as previously reported.

Hardman said the groundwork for this idea happened earlier in the summer when Snowmass Tourism launched its drive-in movie and concert series, which didn’t last through the summer but helped tourism staff better plan for a drive-in style balloon festival.

How it will work is people can reserve one of the 250 spaces available each day for early morning balloon viewing through EventBrite. The reservations are free and will get locals and visitors into the blocked off viewing area in two waves, and socially distanced parking spaces in the Town Park lot and along Brush Creek Road will be available on a first come, first served basis.

A detour will be in place for all other traffic — the same as the one that was implemented for the Brush Creek Road water line replacement and re-pavement project over the summer, Hardman said. Balloon fest viewers will need to stay in their vehicles or in the beds of their trucks. They cannot sit next to their vehicles, walk around the parking area or go out onto the softball field at any time.

KSPN radio will be broadcasting live updates from the event, giving viewers tuning into FM channel 92.1 background on each pilot, balloon and a play-by-play of what’s happening.

“We are losing that festival atmosphere where everyone in the past has been gathered on the field. Now we’ll all be separated in our vehicles, … but KSPN will be announcing and people can tune in so there will be some cohesiveness,” Hardman said.

She went on to say if locals and visitors do not want to take part in the drive-in morning balloon viewing, Snowmass Tourism has a “how to balloon festival” list of good hiking and biking trails on its website people can utilize to still get a good view of the event and stay socially distanced.

There will also be a free Friday evening “night glow” where each pilot will be positioned with their balloons around the Snowmass Golf Course, lighting them up to music broadcast on KSPN’s home station. People will be able to view the glow by driving in a loop around the golf course from Brush Creek to Owl Creek to Highline roads, and are encouraged to make more than one lap.

For Colleen Johnson, balloon meister for the Snowmass Balloon Festival, the Snowmass Tourism — namely Hardman and Keisha Techau, groups and events manager — are the “heroes of the story.”

She said they’ve been the ones that have coordinated the logistics of the event with the Pitkin County Health Department and other town officials, while she’s focused on making sure the pilots are safe and informed of the social distancing requirements.

Johnson said all 29 pilots will bring their own crews to Snowmass this year, no volunteers are allowed; will be spaced apart on the field where they have to wear masks and will not be allowed to congregate outside of the morning weather briefings, where they will have to wear masks as well.

Overall, Johnson said she feels many of the pilots are excited to take part in the festival, as it’s one of the only one’s in the state and in the region that hasn’t be canceled, and will be a positive contribution to Snowmass Village in more ways than one.

“I just think this event is really important for the community. People are so sick of being locked up inside and this is a way for them to get out and enjoy the balloons,” Johnson said. “And you know, it also brings tourism dollars to the community. The pilots come up and spend money on groceries and food and all of that stuff, so it’s helpful that way, too.”

Hardman and Rose Abello, tourism director with Snowmass Tourism, expressed similar thoughts. In years past, events like Cidermass and Septemberfest have helped draw more people into the village and make a day or weekend out of the balloon festival, which supports local businesses and the village economy.

This year Cidermass and Septemberfest were canceled due to the pandemic, but there will be other smaller events people can take part in, like yoga and an outdoor movie in Base Village and an expanded Social Saturday on the Snowmass Mall.

Village restaurants and retailers also will be offering specials over the festival weekend and handing out free commemorative pins, Abello and Hardman said.

“It’s taken a lot of hot air, a lot of effort to make this happen,” Abello said. “I often say it takes a village, and it truly has taken a village and all of our departments to make this happen.”

Hardman agreed.

“We are doing this event but it’s still super challenging and we want to make sure everyone remains aware that we need people to cooperate, stay socially distanced and be COVID-aware,” she said.

“But I think at this point I feel really confident that we can put on a safe event for the community and let people still enjoy this historic event.”

For more information on the 45th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival, visit


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