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Balloons rise above red rocks: The Bluff, Utah, Balloon Festival

Colorado balloon pilot Chris Liberti skillfully poses his balloon between Bluff, Utah’s famous Twin Rocks. (Courtesy of the Liberti Family)

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. Most of Bluff’s population, just shy of 250 people, show up to watch.

Bluff’s balloon festival is fine, free winter fun averaging 25 to 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.

In 2022, as the balloons drifted east instead of their usual path to the west, a few balloons came down in the churchyard of the St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission Church. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

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 disc 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,” said 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,” Liberti said. “In town to land, you’re looking for open space. It’s challenging to say the least.”

In 2022, the balloon fest balloons, which normally drift west on a Saturday morning, drifted east against the red rock cliffs near Bluff barely grazing the ancient sandstone slickrock. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

In January, a slight breeze came up and the balloons, which normally drift west toward 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 to wrestle that much weight out of a cliff or canyon with no vehicular access.

Friday night’s Glow-In for the annual January Bluff Balloon Festival is a community social event. Balloon pilots rotate through a sequence of hot air blasts that inflate their colorful balloons against a dark night sky. Music plays and everyone eats hot chili and cold ice cream. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

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.

“Last summer, I saw a poster for the balloon festival,” said Dutch Selman from Santa Cruz, California. “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.”

“It’s really cool,” said Elysa Parker from Denver. “I like the bright colors of the balloons against the red rocks. It’s beautiful country. This is my second year. I’ve seen a lot of balloon festivals, but this is one of the prettiest.”

On the Sunday morning before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday holiday, brave balloonists launch in the Valley of the Gods, which is a part of Bears Ears National Monument. Hundreds of spectators arrive and many camp nearby to be there at first light when the balloons lift off. Looking up, children love to chase after the balloons by running in the soft sand of the monument. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

In October, Albuquerque had a picture-perfect takeoff for its 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 amid 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,” said Ken Kelley from Santaquin, Utah. “A balloon ride is one of the great things you can do. It’s like being an angel.”

Lindsay Weaver from Provo, Utah, 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.”

“We’ve had a couple of extraordinary flights there,” said Chris Liberti, a balloon pilot. “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 by simply floating up and letting the planet move beneath a silk balloon. Recently, a European psychiatrist made that dream a reality. Swiss aeronaut Bertrand Piccard, from a famous family of scientists and explorers, became the first balloonist to circle the globe. He did it in 20 days. His balloon The Orbiter climbed to 20,000 feet. Because Piccard 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,” he 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.”

Yet as Taub noted, “To travel in the vertical dimension is to brush against the limits of the possible.”

Piccard landed in the Egyptian desert with only 1% 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 the 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.

With a chase truck nearby on the left, this balloon lands close to a house in Bluff’s Copper Cliffs neighborhood. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

“This line becomes wider and wider, until the sky becomes silver … then you have a flash and color lands on the Earth,” he said. “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.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.