Soaring in Balloons High Above Snowmass, Colorado
The Snowmass Balloon Festival: A Pandemic Distraction
By Paulina Colwell
It’s no secret that canceled travel plans, airplane ticket vouchers, and unchecked bucket lists have become the disappointing travel realities of 2020.
The good news is that while travel in 2020 might not be international, it can still be memorable and bucket list-worthy. The key is finding the right events.
Ever wanted to visit Cappadocia, Turkey for the miraculous balloon festival? While tickets to Turkey might have been off the table this year, Snowmass provided an equally exciting event.
The 45th annual Snowmass Balloon Festival took place this year on September 11to the 13th and the event was just as colorful as Cappadocia.
Many traded in the backdrops of Turkish rock formations for the Elk Mountains of Aspen in a celebration of the only balloon festival within the United States to run in 2020 due to COVID restrictions, the event was a huge and beautiful success.
How To See the Balloon Festival
Balloon launchings took place at the Snowmass golf course Saturday and Sunday from 7 am-10 am. People viewed them from various hiking locations or by reserving a drive-in spot.
This year, COVID restrictions only allowed for 250 car load-ins along with designated areas of Bush Creek Road, closest to the launch area. Attendees were asked to stay in their cars or at socially distanced locations on the Golf Course, in a way this made it more magical.
The event still drew a large crowd but with a more secluded feeling with people watching the event from greater distances surrounded by family and friends. Hundreds of attendees without a car reservation enjoyed the viewings from the hike up to Lowline trail or parked along Owl Creek Road. The event felt less like another tourist getaway and more like a private watch party.
Balloons in the Air
The best pictures were taken during sunrise when most of the balloons were in the air. There were two loading times for car spaces, 7 am and 8 am. If you arrive past 9 am the balloons will already be beginning to fall, so make sure to set your alarms early for future events, especially if you plan to hike.
On Friday night there was an optional night glow around the golf course to watch the balloons light up and get an up-close look at the balloon’s designs. This year’s event was the first successful nightglow in two years, with vibrant patterns and colors lighting up the golf course as people drove around and tuned into the local radio station with accompanying music.
It felt like a Vegas light show but with the backdrop of nature and comfort of your own car. Event staff even sweetly provided free ice cream located at the Rodeo Lot of Town Park.
Where to Stay and Play
Ninety-five percent of lodging in Snowmass is hike in/out or bike in/out with access to over 90 trails. While the famous nearby town of Aspen is “see or be seen,”
Snowmass is more of a “quieter escape where people can enjoy the outdoors without seeing a congregation of people”, said Snowmass tourism representative Sara Stookey Sanchez.
Lodging includes high-end resorts such as the Westin, Crestwood Condominiums, Limelight, Timberline Condominiums, and Viceroy with the award-winning Richard Sandoval restaurant, Toro.
Snowmass is essentially built to be a giant ski resort with it’s a fairly new development, Base village, that was an old hole in the wall turned into a six million dollar project completed in December 2018 filled with high-class dining, shopping, and lodging.
Because of this lodging averages $200 a night at any of the resorts.
Taking the Skittles Gondola
However, staying in Snowmass resort allows you to take what the locals call “the Skittles” gondola, a chair lift named after the colorful seats in the lift, down to basecamp and base village with tasty food and ski access. In the summer, Venga Venga, another highly favored Sandoval cantina and tequila bar, is a great place to watch the weekly concerts on Thursday nights in basecamp.
This year Balloon Festival events in town included Social Saturday and Movies Under the Stars. Social Saturday was a completely new concept created this year due to the pandemic that consisted of outside street sales, food specials, and festival activities.
Movies Under the Stars event in the base village was completely free and featured the animated Lion King on a giant screen with and options for outdoor dining with viewings at the famous Limelight Hotel Restaurant with gourmet food and aprés from 3-7 pm.
An Outdoor Escape
Because the balloon festival and activities only covered parts of the day, this left a lot of free time to explore the surrounding scenery. The festival weekend was a perfect balance of exploring towns, watching the event, and independent adventuring.
During the day there are plenty of hiking and biking options. You can trek up to Spiral Point via the Rim Trail South for stunning 360 views of Aspen around the famous yin-yang.
The hike is fairly easy and about 2.5 miles, with options to take the Rim Trail further for a more challenging route.
Bike rentals are available at Four Mountain Sports in both basecamp and base village. All of the trails are beautiful, especially in the fall so you really can’t go wrong with whichever path you choose to take.
Bike thirty minutes down the Bush Creek Trail along the river to Woody Creek then stop for lunch at the famous Woody Creek Tavern, filled with a bizarre arrangement of Christmas lights, license plates, photos, and a disco ball all in honor of the beloved local writer who magazine clippings of Hunter S. Thompson who used to frequent the dive.
This eccentric landmark place is definitely worth it to check out, but always be aware that this is a cash-only diner with constant long lines and interesting characters.
The locals of Woody Creek were not nicknamed the “Woody Creek Creatures” for no reason, the town is distinctly different from the luxurious atmosphere of Aspen.
Views of the Elk Mountains
Bike down to Aspen via the stunning Rio Grande Trail for amazing views of the Elk Mountains, the Roaring Fork River, and a hidden waterfall on the side of the trail.
The bustling town of Aspen is filled with lots of high-end shops such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana, and other stores that you’d expect to see walking down 5th Ave.
It’s no wonder that the Kardashians are known to frequent this town, and If you’re craving mountain luxury then you will love wandering the brick shopping streets of Aspen. If you’re lucky you might even spot a celebrity.
For a more adventurous biking route, check out the Maroon Bells. Due to COVID, access to the bells is restricted to shuttle with limited tickets that sell out months in advance.
While visitors used to be able to drive up to the viewpoint in their own cars before 8 and after 5, the only other option besides a shuttle reservation is now to bike up. While the bike ride is not considered easy, it’s worth it for the stunning view.
Looking for an outdoor adventure with an adrenaline kick? From Base village take the Elk Camp Gondola up to The Lost Forest for rock climbing, ropes courses, mountain biking trails, and an alpine coaster ride along a 5,700-foot track with a 400-foot drop. It’s adventure mixed with nature and at only $49 for a day pass, you can experience views and a thrilling experience unique to Snowmass.
Why Ski at Snowmass?
Snowmass is the ideal pandemic getaway. Colorado and other outdoor vacation hotspots have been attracting more visitors than ever before. Joe Tonak, assistant manager at the Four Mountain Sports Bike Rental Shop has noticed an increase in numbers since the pandemic started.
Snowmass is that Perfect Place!
“Business has been better this summer because people are looking for places where they can get away, and Snowmass is that perfect place,” said Tonak. “We sold out all of our bikes on Saturday.”
The Snowmass Balloon Festival was a breathtaking experience that should be on everyone’s bucket lists. Due to the beautiful scenery of Aspen, the secluded atmosphere, and the miraculous events that took place all weekend, this is the perfect excuse to book an end of summer vacation for an incredible experience packed with fun, adventure, nature, and scenic backdrops.
Paulina Colwell is a freelance writer, travel blogger, and journalist based in Boulder, Colorado. As a Colorado native, she has skied every ski resort in Colorado and enjoys summer in the mountains just as much as winter. She has visited Snowmass for the past two years to experience the balloon festival, both different experiences due to the pandemic.