Float over Mountains in Snowmass Village, Colorado
An early morning flight in a hot-air balloon is a peaceful and memorable experience in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
Hot-air ballooning is the oldest successful human-carrying flight technology. Its history, like the history of flight itself, is full of interesting, and somewhat alarming experiments and less than successful maneuvers, however, the experience itself is peaceful, serene, and gently exhilarating.
Roaring Fork Valley Balloon Companies
In the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, two hot-air balloon companies, Above it All Balloon Company and Unicorn Balloons, offer daily balloon flights. These companies employ FAA licensed commercial balloon pilots and host a fleet of balloons varying in size from those that accommodate as few as two people, to baskets that can carry a group of twelve.
Wind & Weather Conditions
Because the winds and temperature are most stable and predictable in the early morning, all balloon trips in the mountains occur only during the first few hours after sunrise. Mountain winds, afternoon thunderstorms, and temperature fluctuations do not allow for the afternoon flying. Conversely, hot-air ballooning in the winter in the desert southwest is possible both at sunrise and sunset because the temperature fluctuations are not as variable.
The launch site is located at the Snowmass Rodeo Grounds. Passengers arrive thirty minutes prior to launch time and watch as hard-working crews lay out the balloons for cold inflation. Arrival at the launch site occurs well before sunrise. Even in mid-summer, these early mornings are cold (40-50 degrees) and clothing layers are highly recommended for this type of excursion. Once the sun rises, however, the temperatures warm significantly, even as the balloon rises in altitude.
Prices range from $245 for an adult to $175 for children (ages 6-14). Children under six are not permitted in a balloon. Individual weight limitations do apply; if this is an issue, inquire with the balloon company in advance of a flight.
Flights are one and a half to two hours in length. Generally, balloons fly from 1,000 – 2,500′ above the ground and as a result, the views from above are detailed and spectacular. Because balloons are silent movers, and because most trips occur in the early mornings, wildlife is prevalent and undeterred by the presence of the large floating object above them. The balloon flight follows Brush Creek out of Snowmass Village, hovering a few hundred feet above the ground. Beaver and muskrat are very much in evidence in the creek in the early mornings. As the balloons rise out of Brush Creek, elk and deer emerge on the hillsides above Woody Creek and Old Snowmass.
Hot-air balloons are propelled by winds, primarily. However, propane heats the balloon, allowing it to rise higher into the sky. To come down, the pilot simply pulls open the flaps at the top of the balloon to let out some of the hot air. It may seem simple, but there is a science to understanding the air currents, temperature fluctuations, and wind speed and direction.
Safety is the primary concern and bad weather or wind blowing over 10 m.p.h. will be cause for cancellation of a trip. In the balloon itself, passengers stand in individual compartments within the larger balloon basket. Handholds are available, and in fact, in preparation for landing, the pilot requests that all passengers bend their knees and grab hold of the hand-holds for safety. The basket is approximately chest-high on a 5’5″ person and is rimmed by a soft layer of leather or rubber matting for comfort.
It is a tradition amongst all balloon companies to offer a champagne breakfast to passengers following a balloon flight. The champagne is brought out to celebrate a successful flight, and to commemorate the first “free flight” taken by Scientist Pilatre DeRozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes in France. The two men flew to 500′, untethered, traveling five and a half miles and coming down to a champagne celebration of their own. At this point, all passengers also receive a Flight Certificate and a recitation of the Balloonist’s Prayer.
During brunch, the ground crew packs up the balloons and baskets. Finally, passengers load into the vans and are ferried back to the Rodeo Lot in Snowmass Village. Amazingly enough, all of this happens before 10 a.m. A whole day of adventure can still occur.