Albuquerque is the Hot Air Ballooning Capital of the World. The host of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta®, the city's skies turn into a kaleidoscope of color during early October. But that’s not the only time you can spot hot air balloons in the air. With more than a dozen private ballooning companies in the city, you can embark on a journey via hot air balloon any day of the year. I was lucky enough to hop on my first-ever balloon ride with the founder of Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloon Ride Company, Scott Appelman, and it was a magical experience.

The call time is early, as most hot air balloons take off just as the sun is rising over the Sandia Mountains. We met at Balloon Fiesta Park, but due to the winds, we headed to a dirt lot on the city's Westside near Coors and Montaño. After all, you go where the wind blows. Once we reached our launch site, it was time to unpack the balloon and get ready to take off.

A hot air balloon is being unloaded from a van in a dirt field

A ground-based flight crew helps out with launching the balloon, following the balloon and packing everything up when the balloon lands. With 10 people going up, the basket was pretty large, and weighed 1,200 pounds. The 275,000 cubic foot envelope, or the colorful part of the balloon, weighed about 150 pounds.

The first step was filling up the envelope with air. The flight crew brought large fans that helped direct air into the envelope, slowly filling it up. Once the envelope was full, it was time to ignite the propane burner and heat the air inside. The envelope and basket started out horizontal, but as the air warmed up, the envelope gained more buoyancy and eventually the basket and envelope tipped vertically. That meant it was time to climb in.

A hot air balloon envelope is being filled with air by a large industrial fan

I’m almost positive there is no graceful way to climb into the basket. With the assistance of a step stool, the crew and a bit of flailing, everyone got on board, and with a few more blasts from the burner, we took off toward the Rio Grande.

It can get to around 175º Fahrenheit in the envelope, which is how hot air balloons fly. The warmer air rises above the cooler air, which is why hot air balloons get better lift in the winter. The direction of the wind determines which direction the balloon will fly. Albuquerque is a special place for hot air ballooning due to a phenomenon called the Albuquerque Box. Winds tend to blow from the south at lower elevations and from the north at higher elevations, meaning a balloon can fly in a box shape and land near where it took off from.

The shadow of a hot air balloon is visible on cottonwood trees along the bosque

Because a hot air balloon floats with the wind, rather than against it, the ride is smooth and gentle. Our balloon flight led us right over the Rio Grande. It was beautiful to see the cottonwoods stretching along the river. We were lucky enough to participate in another Albuquerque experience, a “splash and dash.” The balloon floated down low enough to brush the top of the water in the Rio Grande, and then headed back up into the sky. It was pretty magical to hear the water running around the basket as we drifted through the river for a few seconds.

Rainbow Ryders Balloon Ride Splash and Dash

On our ascent back up from the river, the winds took us further south, giving incredible views of the westside of Albuquerque and the city as a whole. As we floated above houses – and some very concerned dogs ready to protect their yards from whatever drifting threat was up in the sky – we learned a little more about Rainbow Ryders. Scott founded Rainbow Ryders 40 years ago. His love of hot air ballooning first sparked when he attended the first-ever Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta® 50 years ago. His company has grown to encompass almost 50 balloons and more than 100 employees in Albuquerque, Colorado Springs and Phoenix. Around 150-200 people take flight in one of their balloons every day.

A view of the West side of Albuquerque from a hot air balloonOne unexpected joy of flying in a hot air balloon is waving at all the people who come out of their houses to see you. As we began our descent toward an empty field on the city’s Westside, at least half a dozen families out on walks waved at us or came outside to snap a picture of a hot air balloon flying over their neighborhood.

A young woman wearing a yellow turtleneck and overalls holds a mimosaJust about an hour after take-off, we landed gently in a dirt field. Landing was the part I was the most nervous about, but it was so smooth I could barely tell we weren’t flying anymore. Once we were safely on the ground, my mind turned to one thing: champagne. When hot air ballooning began in France in the late 18th century, balloonists who landed in frightened farmers’ fields were often greeted with pitchforks. To appease the farmers, balloonists began carrying a bottle of champagne on board to share with the locals upon landing. The tradition continues today, as passengers celebrate a successful hot air balloon flight with a champagne toast and recitation of a poem called the Irish Balloonist Prayer.  It’s nice to enjoy a drink with your fellow passengers while waiting for the flight crew to pack up the balloon.

After a few minutes, the flight crew transported us in a van back to where our vehicles were parked, and everyone received an official flight certificate to mark the occasion.

Hot air balloon rides are available year-round in Albuquerque. My first balloon ride was an unforgettable experience, and I encourage everyone to add this adventure to your bucket list!