Balloons set to soar above Bluff January 13-15
By Andrew Gulliford
Every Western small town crows about its festivals, but only Bluff, Utah has balloons that launch beneath red rock cliffs on cool January mornings. Balloons gracefully glide upward with a low hiss and then move at the mercy of the wind. Eager visitors and balloon chase crews smile and laugh in the desert below.
Bluff’s balloon festival is fine, free winter fun averaging 25-30 balloons from all over the West and an occasional Canadian balloon pilot so it can be called an “international” festival.
When I’m in Durango I’m a Durangatang, but when I’m in Bluff I’m a Bluffoon mesmerized by the silent, slow-motion action of the balloons, a 19th-century mode of travel compared to our jets and teeming airports of today.
How many of us as children holding balloons waited until our parents weren’t watching and then let them go? We held our breath as those birthday and holiday balloons rose into the sky.
Now imagine riding in a stout wicker basket below a large balloon and feeling untethered, not bound by gravity, the landscape sliding by beneath you.
The Bluff Balloon Festival, always held on the weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, begins on a Friday evening with a glow-in near the town’s Community Center.
From miles away the balloons can be seen getting brighter, then fading, then brighter again in a strange synchronized rhythm that draws the eye. A disk jockey plays electronic music and volunteers sell basic food – chili, ice cream, water.
“The Glows are great for the spectators but challenging for the pilots. The turnouts are always huge. Bluff’s a good place to glow, but cold. The balloons want to rise up into the night, but of course they are tethered,” explains Chris Liberti a Colorado balloonist who loves coming to Bluff.
“We’ve been doing the festival a long time. We came by invitation and now it’s been almost 20 years. It’s gorgeous scenery and an unbelievable place to fly. It’s the attraction of being close to the Navajo Nation and Bears Ears National Monument. It always brings us back.”
Saturday morning begins with a liftoff in town. As the sun comes up, within an hour balloons begin to rise, sometimes as high as 3,000 feet.
“Lifting off in town is a different experience as you float up with the bluffs right beside you. When you get up high you can see Shiprock in New Mexico and all the way west to Monument Valley,” offers Liberti who adds, “In town to land you’re looking for open space. It’s challenging to say the least.”
In January 2022 a slight breeze came up and the balloons, which normally drift west towards open ground, moved east to the cliffs above St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission Church.
Onlookers delightedly followed, worried that the balloons would get lost in the maze of red rocks to the north of the mission. But there are roads up there and every balloon was retrieved.
Usually, balloons land on gravel streets or vacant lots. Everyone tries to help, but sometimes it’s not that easy. A balloon’s basket can weigh 450 pounds and with the balloon the total can be 600 pounds. Try and wrestle that much weight out of a cliff or canyon with no vehicular access.
Sunday is the grand finale with balloons trucked and trailered to Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument. The festival has a Bureau of Land Management permit and as the balloons begin to rise, hundreds of spectators walk and run in the desert below.
Many camp to be there at first light. The balloons are colorful and so are the tents. For photographers, it’s a rare opportunity. Last year there were returning visitors, but others just happened to be driving through the Four Corners.
Dutch Selman from Santa Cruz, CA told me, “Last summer I saw a poster for the balloon festival. We love Bluff and the trading posts so we came. It was our first balloon festival. We’ll be back. The balloons make you feel like a kid. It’s slow-motion fireworks.”
Elysa Parker from Denver said, “It’s really cool. I like the bright colors of the balloons against the red rocks. It’s beautiful country. This is my second year.” She added, “I’ve seen a lot of balloon festivals, but this is one of the prettiest.”
In October this year Albuquerque had a picture-perfect takeoff for their 50th Balloon Fiesta. We happened to be driving through and saw it. Much to our surprise we spotted a few balloons far from the other 625 balloons that had launched.
These errant balloons had drifted dangerously close to I-25. I had no idea where they were going to land amidst the town’s urban sprawl. Compare that with Bluff where there’s plenty of room to lift off and come down.
Launching in Valley of the Gods “is a real spectacular setting,” offered Ken Kelley from Santaquin, UT. “A balloon ride is one of the great things you can do. It’s like being an angel.”
Lindsay Weaver from Provo, UT smiled and said, “I love it. It’s peaceful to watch. This is a great festival. It clearly draws a lot of people, but it’s not packed. We’re helping crews and learning hands on.”
From a pilot’s perspective Chris Liberti told me, “We’ve had a couple of extraordinary flights there. Flying the Valley can get a little challenging. Usually it’s cold and crisp in the morning. One year we had patchy fog and it was so beautiful. I took my wife and son and it was a very special flight for me.”
Our attraction to balloons continues. In 1872 the French novelist Jules Verne wrote Around the World in Eighty Days about a fictional attempt to circumnavigate the earth in a silk balloon. Recently a European psychiatrist made that dream a reality.
Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Picard, from a famous family of scientists and explorers, became the first balloonist to circle the globe. He did it in twenty days. His balloon The Orbiter climbed to 20,000 feet.
Because Picard has dealt with patients worried about their lives, he has a different concept of danger. He feels that what is truly dangerous is not the unknown, but deadly routines.
“Routine is more dangerous than adventure,” Pickard told author Ben Taub in an article in The New Yorker. “I don’t like random, incalculable risk. . . . It’s acceptance versus will. But acceptance is a decision you take. You accept to go with the wind. You accept to go into the unknown,” Pickard stated.
Yet as Taub noted, “To travel in the vertical dimension is to brush against the limits of the possible.” Pickard landed in the Egyptian desert with only one percent of his fuel remaining.
He flew at the edge of the atmosphere with nighttime temperatures outside his enclosed capsule of 50 degrees below zero. Piccard’s scientific family has been recognized by NASA for inspiring an important element of spaceship design.
Family artifacts are at the Smithsonian and Piccards have been guests for Apollo rocket takeoffs. The family pushed the limits of science and yet Bertrand was equally moved by beauty.
High above the circling earth he explained the power of seeing blackness turn to daylight. He reminisces, “This line becomes wider and wider until the sky becomes silver. . . . Then you have a flash and color lands on the Earth. For me, it was every morning as if I was at the moment of the creation of the world.”
Some of that beauty can be found at the Bluff Balloon Festival. Launching balloons in red rock country is not like going vertical to 20,000 feet, yet the experience is profound.
I’ll be there again next month to watch the balloons rise and to help if pilots drift too far. Risk has its own rewards and challenge is always worth the effort.