A hot air balloon ride is to airborne adventure what a lazy river float is to whitewater. It’s a chance to experience the more enjoyable attributes of a particular environment without the inherent risk that comes from more adrenaline-fueled endeavors. A ride in the gondola of a hot air balloon rewards passengers with the open air and exhilarating views of hang gliding or even skydiving, but with gentler elevation changes and mitigated risk. An element of the unknown adds to the excitement, however. Wind and weather conditions are the ultimate decision makers with regard to your flight course and landing location. Ultimately, it qualifies as a bucket list excursion.
Although most of the hot air balloon tours are similar from a logistical standpoint—balloon up, marvel at the view and the ride, balloon down—the takeaways can be as varied as the landscape of the Northwest itself. For most outings, expect to spend about an hour in the sky, with an additional hour on each side of the actual floating time for safety briefings and setup and teardown. Most operators let you assist in the process if you are comfortable doing so or just watch the magic happen from the sidelines. You can take a private or public tour, and many provide a celebratory pre- or post-adventure picnic and libation (a glass of bubbly can calm the pre-flight jitters). Whether public or private, each showcases the beauty of the region in an uncommon way. Here are three of our favorites.
Above Willamette Valley Wine Country
Vista Balloon Adventures, Newberg, Oregon
If you’ve spent any time in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, you’re already familiar with the pastoral, rolling green countryside as well as the wine it produces. But if you get up in the air on a clear day you can get a real lay of the land and take in as many as ten Cascade Mountain peaks if atmospheric conditions cooperate. With almost 30 years of experience, Vista Balloon Adventures is the Pacific Northwest’s largest and oldest hot air balloon company, and perhaps one of the best avenues for accessing such a rare view. Typical flights begin with a catered breakfast before guests ascend in one of seven balloons, each capable of carrying anywhere from two to ten people. To book, go to vistaballoon.com; to plan your stay in the Willamette Valley, visit oregonwinecountry.org.
Above British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley
Okanagan Ballooning, Kelowna, British Columbia
British Columbia’s Okanagan region is populated by deep valleys and vast lakes, vineyards and orchards, as well as magnificent pine forests and provincial parks. Kelowna’s Okanagan Ballooning is a family owned and operated outfit that has been granting aerial access to the region’s majesty for nearly two decades. Flights run year-round, providing seasonal twists and dramatically different experiences depending on when you go. And to top it all off, each outing ends with a VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) Sparkling Wine celebration. Book your tour at okballooning.com; plan your trip to Kelowna at tourismkelowna.com.
Above Southwestern Idaho
Boise Hot Air Company, Boise, Idaho
Is there a finer way to start a day than by taking in the sunrise? Boise Hot Air Company affords the opportunity to embrace the morning via hot air ascent and take in views that extend for miles in the process. You’ll meet about a half an hour before the sun emerges from the eastern horizon. But watching the morning light slowly spill across the southwestern Idaho landscape is an experience that will help solidify the fact that waking up that early was a good idea. Reserve your spot at balloonboise.com; learn about visiting Boise at boise.org and Southwest Idaho at visitsouthwestidaho.org.
Even if you’re still not quite convinced that going up in a hot air balloon is in your comfort zone, annual ballooning events like the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic are fun for everyone, particularly those looking for great photos. They are proof that anybody can enjoy the wonder of hot air balloons, even those who keep their feet firmly on the ground.