Early Morning Adventure: Balloon Fiesta

shades Our morning started about two hours before sunrise. After layering up and grabbing the camera, we ventured out into the chilly dark morning and drove north. By the time we made it to the parking lot, any sleepiness or grumpiness had been completely replaced with sheer excitement. We quietly boarded our (school bus) shuttle with another 40 early risers. Our destination: the International Balloon Fiesta.

This year marks the 42nd annual Balloon Fiesta, with balloonists from 18 countries and 35 US states represented. Why Albuquerque? Turns out this high desert city is perfectly suited for hot air balloons, thanks to its unique early-morning weather patterns in the fall. There are two alternating winds that exist at different altitudes: closer to the ground, the wind blows south; higher up, the winds blow north. This so-called "box" effect gives balloonists the chance to turn back and land near their launch points simply by changing their altitude. The catch: as the temperature rises, the effect lessens...thus, the early morning wakeup.

Upon arriving, we joined a sea of people craning their necks, cameras, and iPads to capture glimpses of twenty or so hot air balloons floating quietly overhead. They were barely visible in the dark morning sky until a voice counted down to coordinate a “flicker” and then “full glow”, which lit up the balloons for a spectacular effect. It was only 2 minutes into our first Balloon Fiesta, but we were already captivated.

The crowd cheers a flicker glow

After that, we bought some hot coffees and considered breakfast, but the food vendors left something to be desired. There were even some repeat vendors from big chain businesses. Albuquerque, if you're listening, the Fiesta is a great opportunity for food trucks! This city has some fantastic food options, so why not showcase some local small businesses that offer greater variety than breakfast burritos or funnel cakes? I understand that the attention should remain on the balloons, but the event could represent the best and most unique vendors that the city has to offer, and I'd argue that the local Satellite Coffee would be far more memorable than Dunkin Donuts any day.

Leaving the vendor tents behind, we walked out onto the field, guided only by the mass of balloons that were prepping for the big event. We followed a path to a pair of almost-filled balloons that were flashing their gas fires and illuminating their colorful nylon envelopes (that's apparently what they're called).


A wall of balloons rises around the crowd

The crowd was electric with anticipation as lines of balloons began to take shape all around us. With temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, we relished in the bursts of heat that accompanied the firelight.

balloon fiesta fire

As dawn broke, the loud speakers played the National Anthem while thousands of people sang along, and the first balloon to lift off fittingly displayed the flag. Mass Ascension had begun.

Father and son, mass ascension

Within minutes, scores of balloons were ascending, displaying their brilliant colors to the wild cheers of their surrounding audience. We threaded our way through balloons in all stages of preparation - rolling out, filling up, standing up, and lifting off.

A pilot stands up his balloon

Over 500 balloons drifted into the sky during Mass Ascension, offering up a huge variety of colors and shapes that slowly flew into the distance.


Darth Vader was my favorite!

Even after much of the crowd had dispersed and only a few balloons were launching, Loren and I were laughing and pointing to standout shapes. Smiles were glued to our faces as we squinted into the bright blue sky.

Loren loved the dead cat...

By the end, we'd taken hundreds of photos. I overheard that Balloon Fiesta is the most photographed event in the world, and while that may be debatable, it certainly generated enough data traffic to cripple the cell networks. Here are a few of our favorite balloons:

Balloon Fiesta 2013 Favorites

The overwhelming happiness, wonder, and excitement I felt around the balloons transported me to my childhood. The Balloon Fiesta is amazing in the truest sense of the word.

If You Go:

Use the Park and Ride. It's cheaper, and you don't have to battle traffic getting to the grounds. Choose one of the parking sites further from the highways to avoid the lines.

Layer up. It's cold in the morning, but as soon as the sun rises, temps begin to climb quickly. We wore hats and winter jackets, but gloves would've helped.

Bring sunglasses. The desert sun is bright, and you'll be looking up a lot. Enough said.

Pack something to sit on. The morning events last a good 4 hours, and seats were hard to come by. A good option would be a blanket or some lightweight camping chairs.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual week-long festival that takes place in early October.

The classic balloons were so colorful and beautiful! (Zebrahead Balloon photobomb!)

Update: Check out a video of our Balloon Fiesta experience!

Two Nights Camping in Yosemite

Half Dome at Yosemite National Park, California On our way back to New Mexico from a Palo Alto wedding in July, we decided to stop off and see one of the most epic national parks in the states: Yosemite. Known the world over as a superb destination for climbers, the vast valley surrounded with mountains is home to the granite giants Half Dome and El Capitan, two of the most famous rock climbing challenges.

Kristen at Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Mountainscape

During the summer months, the campsites down in the valley are mostly reserved ahead of time, so we camped one night at Tamarack Flat, on the north side, and then one night at Bridalveil Creek, south of the valley. The first morning, at Tamarack Flat, we spotted two chipmunks kissing on a boulder just behind our tent.

Yosemite chipmunks kissing

We got moving pretty early so we could stake out our second campsite before spending the day down in the valley. We were happy to find a sprawling site equipped with boulders and much-needed shady trees, where we were even able to set up our camping hammock! Since we knew we had a campsite to come back to, we headed to the valley.

For us, a highlight of the valley was Yosemite Falls. We followed a path to a viewing area, then scrambled our way through the woods and over boulders, ending at the place where the tallest waterfall in North America pounds the boulders and creates a gorgeous (swimmable) pool.

Lower Yosemite Fall

While driving back to our campsite, somewhat dazed from the awesomeness of nature, a confident coyote trotted up right next to our car for a brief photo op! I grabbed my iPhone and Kristen grabbed the Canon 7D, but neither of us were quick enough to get a crisp shot.

Yosemite Valley Coyote

The next morning, we packed up our campsite with the intention of getting to our next destination, Sequoia, as soon as possible. We'd only driven 15 minutes from our campsite before we couldn't resist the urge anymore and to stopped off at a serene and colorful meadow. We spent a half hour exploring the native insects and flowers, but easily could have stayed all day.

Yosemite National Park, Yellow Flower and Bee

Next time, we're bringing our climbing gear!

The End of the Road

Roadtrip Map Alas, after seven full weeks on the road, we arrived in Woodbridge, VA, at Kristen’s parents’ house, marking the official end of our cross-country roadtrip. It was a fantastic vacation, an impromptu whirl around the contiguous states, visiting family, friends and lots of beautiful, scenic views along the way. Here are some stats to put it into perspective.

49 days 11,559 miles 25 state lines crossed $1718.65 spent on gas 19 nights sleeping in a tent 5 nights in a hotel 15 National Parks visited 1 parking ticket 0 speeding violations

The first thing we did was reunite with our two kitties who’d been under the careful care of Kristen’s family. To celebrate our homecoming as well as Carolyn’s 24th birthday, we set out to shop for some quality dinner ingredients, which was tough in this neighborhood. (We suppose beggars can't be choosers?) After failing to find humanely-raised chicken at Food Lion (boo), we walked out and drove further down the road to Harris Teeter. Stocked up for the evening, we returned eager to let loose in a kitchen! The celebratory feast consisted of grilled chicken, sweet potato and coconut milk mash, and a delicious strawberry goat cheese salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

Celebration Dinner

For dessert, Gary made a chocolate cake with rainbow chip frosting, with big “24” candles on top. Few things evoke childhood memories like rainbow chip frosting...

Carolyn is 24

It’s always bittersweet when a trip reaches its end. For us, it seemed like we’d been gone for about a week. We couldn’t have asked for a better return. And we can't wait to hit the road again, whenever that may be.