Getting high at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

New England may be the standard-bearer for fall travel, but New Mexico is an equally spectacular destination to spend the season. And perhaps there is no better way to usher in autumn than with necks craned skyward, under a dawn Albuquerque sky slowly filling up with several hundred illuminated hot air balloons.

Now in its 40th year, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta kicks off on October 1 for 9 days of events. The largest ballooning gathering in the world, and one of the largest events in the state, over 100,000 people attend to watch more than 700 balloons inflate, launch, and float over northern New Mexico. Many of these people happily set their alarms extra early in order to observe these vibrantly decorated balloons rise with the sun for the 5:30 a.m. mass ascent.

All of the week’s events take place at a 365-acre, tailor-made balloon park in the north of Albuquerque, about 10 miles from the airport and city center. So the city makes a perfect base for exploring both the Fiesta and the region. And surprisingly, for an event that brings 100,000 visitors into the area, affordable hotel rooms are still readily available. The event’s planners are also providing bus transportation from various points throughout the city, so thankfully there is no need to worry about driving through traffic or fighting for a parking spot.

For all you procrastinating gas balloon pilots out there, registration is unfortunately closed and you will have to wait until 2012. But for all you procrastinating spectators, tickets are still available. And who knows, instead of gazing up you may end up gazing down – it’s not unheard of for pilots to offer friendly, curious tourists a lift.