I left the Grand Canyon after sunrise and drove towards Albuquerque. At around noon I reached Petrified Forest National Park and made a quick stop. I’d been to the park once before, but I didn’t get any good photos and wanted a second chance.
It’s really tough to get exceptional landscape photos under a sunny mid-day sky. The light is just too stark and direct. If I truly wanted a chance to get a great Petrified Forest shot I’d need to stay for sunset, but I wasn’t willing to wait. So I hiked the park’s short Blue Mesa loop trail and did my best.
I rolled into Albuquerque in the early evening, excited for the start of the Balloon Fiesta. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual event that started in 1972 with 13 hot air balloons in a shopping mall parking lot. This year there would be more than 500 balloons flying from a 365-acre custom-designed park over the course of nine days.
I’d seen some amazing photos from the Fiesta, especially of an event called the Mass Ascension, when all 500+ balloons take flight at dawn. The Fiesta stretches over two weekends, with Mass Ascensions on each Saturday and Sunday morning. Given the huge variable of the weather – if conditions aren’t right the balloons won’t fly, and without sunlight the balloons aren’t nearly as photogenic – I planned to attend the first Saturday and Sunday and then return the next weekend if both of those days were a bust.
The first event each day of the Fiesta is Dawn Patrol, when a handful of balloons take off before sunrise to test the wind. Dawn Patrol started at 6am, which meant huge traffic jams on the way to the Fiesta would begin at about 5am, which meant I wanted to arrive by about 4:30am, which meant I needed to wake up painfully early. Sacrificing sleep paid off, however, and I made it to the balloon park just before the roads began to lock up.
The concession stands were already in full swing and I powered through a breakfast burrito while warily eyeing the eastern horizon. Our luck that morning appeared to be mixed. Conditions were fine for flying, but it looked like a layer of clouds would block the early light.
The Balloon Fiesta prides itself on open access to the launch field. You’re free to go almost anywhere, and big crowds gathered closely around the balloons preparing for Dawn Patrol. In the cool pre-dawn dark, the blast of heat and light from the liquid propane-fueled burners was intense.
One by one the Dawn Patrol balloons rose into the sky.
Conditions continued to be favorable, and at about 7am the rest of the balloons began inflating and launching for the Mass Ascension. We still didn’t have any direct sunlight, but it was an incredible experience to be be surrounded by hundreds of balloons taking flight.
Thankfully the sun emerged from the clouds before all the balloons had flown, and I had a good window to take shots before the light faded again.
What a great morning. My senses were overloaded. The sun didn’t cooperate fully, but I was happy it at least made an appearance.
At 5am the next morning I was back on the launch field. I finished off another breakfast burrito and waited for the Dawn Patrol balloons to begin their preparations. Clouds blanketed the sky and it was unclear if wind conditions would allow the balloons to fly, but eventually the pilots received a green light and began to take off.
The sun remained blocked all morning, which was bad for photos, but it allowed me to relax a little bit and just enjoy the show. I couldn’t believe how many ballons were customized into unique shapes. Across the field I could see Smokey the Bear, a Wells Fargo stagecoach, a sea horse with a snorkel, Spider Pig, Humpty Dumpty, a pig wearing sunglasses, bumblebees, a frog, a chicken, a clown, and a cow. And best of all, Darth Vader and Yoda.