Every year, since 1982, the city of Reno has hosted a one-of-a-kind event dedicated to the celebration of flight and community awareness. Ever awe-inspiring, the Great Reno Balloon Race occurs once a year, the weekend following Labor Day, in the open fields of Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. A reported 125,000 visitors attend this event in the wee hours of the morning to eyewitness approximately 100 hot air balloons simultaneously ascend into the open skies displaying an array of shapes and colors that send “Ooh’s” and “Aah’s” throughout the crowd. Not only does the balloon race occur three consecutive days (Friday through Sunday), but it is free to the public. In fact, The Great Reno Balloon Race has officially been recorded as the world’s largest free hot air balloon event! It is sponsored by many local community businesses.
We took advantage of this opportunity and attended one of the three days, Sunday, September 13, 2015 to be exact. We had heard about the event several months before from friends that were previous residents of Reno. This was also something that was on my bucket list as I had never laid eyes on a hot air balloon save for TV or high up in the air, in the far distance. Much of the event’s details were gathered online as there is a website devoted to its history and ways to participate. The website has great suggestions regarding arrival time, supplies to not leave home without, and an itinerary of events each day. The entire experience was more than what we ever anticipated. This is our take on The Great Reno Balloon Race and some suggestions to help make this event one to remember and cherish for years to come.
At the time of the event, my husband and I were working temporarily in Fernley, Nevada. This city is about 30-40 minutes east of Reno driving down the I-80. We had read that entrance into the parking lots of Rancho San Rafael Regional Park would open up to the public at 3:30 AM. We agreed to wake up at 2:15 AM and take off to Reno around 2:45. We brewed some coffee and baked cinnamon rolls for the ride and packed a few sandwiches and fruit in case we got hungry later that morning. We packed a couple of backpacks with the food, picnic blanket, and jackets as the weather was forecasted for chillier temperatures later that morning.
Although we would have loved to bring our dog, pets were not allowed, and for good measure. The large crowds and noises made by the hot air balloons could easily spook a dog. Smoking was not allowed either, especially on the field around the hot air balloons, for obvious reasons.
There were a number of places attendees could park for the event. As mentioned, San Rafael Regional Park offered parking spaces. There was a fee (or rather donation) of $10 a space. For a bit of a steeper price, VIP Parking Passes for one or all three days to the event could be obtained, as well. Many people purchased these passes in advance via the event website. Reno’s transportation department (RTC) also provided shuttle service to and from the event for a fee. We opted for free parking and chose one of the parking garages located at the northern end of UNR (University of Nevada, Reno). The stipulation to parking here was that guests had to vacate by 10:00 am.
At 3:30 AM we parked in the parking garage located at the crossing of Virginia Street and 16th Street, a little less than a mile from the entrance of Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. Using our phone’s GPS system and a flashlight, we made the trek safety to the park were a line of cars was waiting while police officers and event volunteers escorted pedestrians with flashlights and directional signs into the appropriate parking lots. There was an additional hike into the park to the main field where hot air balloons would be showcased and launched in just a few hours of our arrival.
The Event Set Up
As we made our way closer to the field, smells of funnel cakes and all things fried food filled the air. We glimpsed glow in the dark toys hanging off of carts and tents. Once we made the clearing, we could see the entire park set up, booths selling breakfast goodies and souvenirs lined one side and a giant open field with attendees already setting up blankets and lawn chairs on the other. The whole ambiance was rather nostalgic, taking us back to our childhoods when we attended state fairs and carnivals with family and friends.
We came to the event with backpacks full of snacks and extra clothing but could have very well shown up empty-handed. A Macy’s booth was selling blankets, sweaters, and jackets of all sizes, for adults and children. A dozen or more stands were cooking anything from breakfast burritos to fried donuts, coffee and hot cocoa. Souvenirs sold included clothing apparel, pins, posters, jewelry, toys, and other random trinkets. Community businesses were handing out freebies with information on what their companies offered the public. We did not have any cash on hand, but that didn’t matter. Some booths accepted card, and if not, an ATM machine was available.
The Main Event
The Great Reno Balloon Race offers a plethora of activities throughout this three-day event. Friday and Saturday featured fun contests like a “Bed Head Competition” and a children’s “Tissue Paper Balloon Launch Contest.” Tethered hot air balloon rides are also offered to children. The three main shows that everyone comes out to partake in, however, happen between 5:00 AM and 7:00 AM: the Glow Show, Dawn Patrol, and Mass Ascension Launch.
A Master of Ceremonies keeps the event moving along by adding commentary throughout the event, keeping attendees abreast of the morning’s happenings. Music is played creating the final element to this festive ambiance.
The best part about the balloon race is that visitors can get up close and personal with the hot air balloons and crew since everyone is allowed on the field throughout the process of set-up, launch, and breakdown. This is a photographer’s haven and every hot air balloon enthusiast’s dream. Volunteering to help with set up is hardly turned down by crew members, especially with the time constraints. You may even be offered a ride for helping.
The Glow Show and Dawn Patrol take place when the sky is still dark. The Glow Show features 4-5 stationary hot air balloons. The pilot of each balloon takes turns igniting his/her burners to music, creating a choreographed balloon light/glow show. This playful act was showcased to the song “Dueling Banjos” or as the MC dubbed it, “Dueling Balloons.” Part of the show was captured.
Dawn Patrol included 6 hot air balloons lined up in a row, ready to ascend into the still, dark sky. The pilots of Dawn Patrol have a special license that allows them to fly at night. Before ascending, the balloons are showcased much the same way as during the Glow Show, with their burners lite up in various patterns to music. They finally ascend into the early morning hours. We were standing just a few yards from these balloons and the sight of these peaceful giants ascending into the air was breathtaking.
The main event follows the “National Anthem”, the Mass Ascension Launch. Almost 100 hot air balloons of all fun shapes, sizes, and colors are set-up throughout the field. We glimpsed balloons resembling Smokey the Bear, Elvis, Yoda, and Darth Vader. We walked in the field as the crews began filling the balloons, it was a sea of fabric, waves of color ascending from the ground. The speed of set-up was astounding. One minute we were watching six balloons ascending during Dawn Patrol and the next we were like little ants traversing a sprouting balloon garden.
Once a balloon was ready, the pilot launched into the air. One hot air balloon at a time, sometimes simultaneously, ascending into the now-bright morning sky. The inner child in you couldn’t help but smile watching balloons galore soaring above. Unfortunately, the wind began to pick up and the last of the balloons were unable to be launched. As a rule, pilots will not ascend with winds over 15 miles an hour.
And just as the mass ascension concluded a mass exodus of event-goers commenced. This was expected, as was the traffic delays on the drive out of Reno. We made our way back home reminiscing about the morning’s events. There was so much we saw in such a wrinkle of time. I continue to replay images in my head of this day: the lit-up balloons sitting amidst the dark sky, the playful tunes from the speakers, the enormous balloons ascending one after the next, and the excitement my husband and I felt throughout our experience at The Great Reno Balloon Race.