Pagosa Springs, a small town in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, lies 7,100′ above sea level. It is locally known for its therapeutic hot springs. Pagosa also boasts a 35-year business called Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures, which takes you an additional 3,000′ above sea level for “360° views of the beautiful valley [of Pagosa] below”. Maybe you’ll climb aboard their basket and go for a float someday. If you do, my apologies for not joining you. I’d rather spend my time in the terra firma of Pagosa’s hot springs than the “terror for-sure-a” of a balloon ride above.
Logic says my fear of heights denies me the thrill of soaring up, up, and away. Not true. It’s more about the “gone with the wind” part (sorry for that, Scarlett). Once the balloon reaches cruising altitude, the pilot extinguishes the fire and Mother Nature silently takes over. Then your high-rise ride gets a little
dicey unpredictable. It’s the whole not-knowing-where-you’re-gonna-end-up moment that gets me.
Possible outcomes as follows. You descend gracefully into a farmer’s field with the “chase vehicle” just minutes away. You zip hundreds of feet up and then hundreds more down, depending on which fickle air stream you encounter. Or, you float all the way to nearby New Mexico on the strong winds we have here in Colorado. All while literally hanging by threads.
Speaking of New Mexico, it wouldn’t be the worst destination for one of Pagosa’s rogue hot air balloons. After all, the International Balloon Fiesta – the largest gathering of balloonists in the country – takes place every October in Albuquerque. At least you’d have professionals on the ground eager to reel you in. Also in Pagosa’s favor: small town = few power lines. Hot air ballooning and power lines do not mix. See here for what happens when they do (coincidentally, just weeks ago in Albuquerque).
Despite the occasional crash landing, ballooning fatalities are rare. In fact, hot air ballooning has been designated “safest air sport in aviation” according to years of statistics, and a Swiss aeronautics organization whose name I can’t pronounce. So maybe it’s not so bad if you never have a neatly paved runway to greet your touchdown. Heck, Pagosa locals love it when a hot air balloon ends up in their backyard. They come running out of their houses to greet you with coffee and cinnamon rolls. Breakfast? Hmmm. Maybe I can do this ballooning thing after all.
I may not be a balloon flyboy but that doesn’t mean I’d rain on a parade of those big colorful inflatables. After all, hot air balloons first appeared to me in favorite childhood stories, like L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, William Pène du Bois’s The Twenty-One Balloons, or Albert Lamorisse’s priceless (and wordless) The Red Balloon. They show up as flying animals every Thanksgiving Day at the Macy’s parade in New York City. As well, right here in my hometown we have an impressive showing of hot-air balloons every Labor Day weekend, including a “balloon glow” in the evenings. Now that I think about it, there’s probably more ballooning going on in this part of the country than anywhere else.
It’s not as if hot air ballooning is some new-fangled sport (hoverboarding, anyone?) The first untethered hot-air balloon flight took place back in the eighteenth century. Hundreds of commercial operators offer hot-air balloon rides in the United States, and hundreds more are private owners. Add a little perspective and 3000′ above Pagosa Springs is nothing. The world record for the flight height of a hot-air balloon is 64,980′ (like a Mt. Everest on top of a Mt. Everest).
Strict definitions aside, the altitude record for hot air ballooning is about to topple, in a big way. A company called Space Perspective is now taking reservations for its giant hot air balloon, launching in early 2024. You, seven other passengers, and your
pilot astronaut will take a six-hour ride in a pressurized capsule under a giant balloon… to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. A seat on “Spaceship Neptune” costs $125,000. Operators are standing by to take your payment…. for 2025, that is. The 300 seats offered in 2024 are long gone.
Maybe 3000′ above Pagosa Springs doesn’t sound so bad after all.