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Hot air balloons taking flight in Albuquerque

California, New Mexico, Kentucky, Vermont, Alabama

5 Spectacular Balloon Festivals in the United States

By: Zach Everson

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  • States:
    California
    New Mexico
    Kentucky
    Vermont
    Alabama

Travelers worldwide flock to the United States to explore its dramatic landscapes.

Vast deserts, thick forests, rolling fields, deep canyons and rugged coastlines lure adventurous visitors. Add a hot air balloon to the scenery, as they do at each of these five festivals, and the views get even better — especially for the riders.

U.S. Bank Kentucky Derby Festival Great BalloonFest

Louisville, Kentucky

Festival highlight: Part of the annual month-long Kentucky Derby Festival, which precedes the prestigious horse race, the U.S. Bank Kentucky Derby Festival Great BalloonFest features five ballooning events. During the nighttime Great Balloon Glow, the pilots of earthbound balloons fire their burners in sync to a musical score.

How to get there: Louisville International Airport is about 1 kilometer southwest of the Kentucky Exposition Center, where many festival events are held.

What else to do: Kentucky is home to the top bourbon distilleries in the world. To learn how this variety of whiskey is made — and taste the results — visit the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in Louisville or head just east of the city and tour the distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

Hot air balloons at sunset in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Hot air balloons at sunset in Albuquerque, New Mexico
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Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Festival highlight: With more than 500 balloons, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico is what the city touts as the largest ballooning event in the world. That’s no surprise given the ornate designs on the balloons, with fractal and kaleidoscope patterns, and the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains. The fiesta is one of the rare hot-air balloon events where you can walk among the balloons and chat with the pilots, too.

How to get there: Albuquerque International Sunport is 25 kilometers south of Balloon Fiesta Park.

What else to do: While it incorporates Native American, Mexican and Spanish flavors, New Mexican cuisine’s use of red and green chiles gives it a unique flavor. Visit restaurants along Central Avenue to taste some of the creative ways Albuquerque chefs are using chiles.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
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Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic

Windsor, California

Festival highlight: Want to ride in a hot air balloon ride but feel a bit nervous about the experience? The Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic in California offers five- to 10-minute rides in balloons that are tied to the ground. The journey could give you a good look at the city’s old downtown and lush parks.

How to get there: Fly into San Francisco International Airport and then drive 134 kilometers north on US Highway101.

What else to do: Sonoma County is one of the top U.S. wine regions, so don’t leave without visiting at least a few of the area’s more than 400 wineries.

Getting a hot air balloon ready to take off

Gettinga hot air balloon ready to take off
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Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival

Foley, Alabama

Festival highlight: Volunteer at the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival in Alabama for an up-close look at the balloons — and the chance to fly in one and see the Gulf Coast shoreline. (Also, you’ll get a free T-shirt.)

How to get there: Pensacola (Florida) International Airport is 55 kilometers east of the Foley Sports Complex.

What else to do: For insight into a less leisurely form of air travel, head back to Pensacola and visit the National Naval Aviation Museum, where you can experience a fighter-jet simulator.

2014 Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival

2014 Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival
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Quechee Hot Air Balloon Craft and Music Festival

Quechee, Vermont

Festival highlight: The Quechee Hot Air Balloon Craft and Music Festival in Vermont offers 40-minute ascension rides (weather permitting) that can provide stunning views of the 50-meter-deep Quechee Gorge. And, keeping with a ballooning tradition, the rides end with a glass of Champagne.

How to get there: Logan International Airport in BostonMassachusetts, and Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut, are both about 220 kilometers away.

What else to do: For a closer look at Quechee Gorge, hike in Quechee State Park.

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