Lake Havasu Balloon Festival
Everything you need to know about attending the Lake Havasu Balloon Festival.
After more than 230 years of flight, hot air balloons still retain their romantic luster…they are both captivating and exhilarating. The sheer size, colors and shapes of hot air balloons can be mesmerizing, especially en mass. I recently attended the fifth annual Havasu Balloon Fest, which is located in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. There were more than seventy balloons participating in the festivities, along with several aerial attractions for spectators to enjoy, such as bi-plane fly-byes, ski-divers, kites and more. This was my first visit to Lake Havasu and I found the city to be an ideal host for a large balloon festival…it encompasses many factors one could want; good weather, wonderful aerial scenery, and, the space necessary to host an influx of visitors.
If you’re interested in attending the Havasu Balloon Festival in 2016, I would suggest making your lodging reservations early as accommodations book up quickly. I was able to snag a room at the Hampton Inn, but only for two of the three nights during the festival. The hotel is within walking distance to the famed London Bridge and just a few miles from the festival grounds. One of the first things we did when arriving to town was take a cruise on the lake to get our bearings. We walked from our hotel to the boardwalk near the London Bridge, where we boarded a tour boat by Sunset Boat Tours. We soon left the waterway channel and entered the main body of the lake where the captain provided us with some interesting Lake Havasu history. For starters, Lake Havasu City was created by a man named, Robert P. McCulloch, who flew over the area in the early 60s in search of a place in which he could test his outboard motors he manufactured. If he had flown over just 30 years earlier, he would have deemed the area unfit for motor testing, as the lake had not yet been formed. It was the construction of Parker Dam in the 30s that created the Lake Havasu we know today.
After purchasing land and setting up shop, Mr. McCulloch figured the area would make a nice place for people to live, but in order to attract folks to the area, he needed an attraction. There was an article in the paper talking about how the City of London was selling its famed London Bridge, which was built in 1831 and was in need of major repairs. Mr. McCulloch read the story and thought the bridge would make a great tourist attraction, and draw people to Lake Havasu. By 1971 the bridge had been dismantled in London, shipped and reassembled in Lake Havasu. At the time, the bridge was built on dry land and went over a shallow ravine. Once the bridge was assembled, the ravine was dredged, allowing lake water to flow through, thus creating an island. This island is home to several hotels, camping sites and a municipal golf course where the site of the balloon festival is hosted.
Mr. McCulloch was involved in a number of businesses and was highly successful, but one thing he seemed to know something about was building and attracting people to destinations. In addition to Lake Havasu City, Mr. McCulloch is also responsible for the building of the world’s tallest fountain in Fountain Hills, Arizona…the city I currently reside in.
After our boat tour and Lake Havasu history lesson, we headed to Rotary Park to catch the afternoon mass ascension…this park is a fantastic viewing area as the balloons drift east from the launch area on the island. We later learned that there are several launch sites around town and a lot of people view the sky-filled spectacle from the London Bridge. Of course, being on the launch field itself is also a cool vantage area. Being my first time to the Havasu Balloon Festival, it was hard to know where to go for the best photo/video opportunities. Throughout the festival we hit many sites for both the sunrise and afternoon ascensions, which I think was the best approach. I will provide some recommendations/suggestions below.
After the mass ascension, we drove to the main part of town for dinner. On McCulloch Boulevard in the heart of town is a hip restaurant called the, “Red Onion.” A transformed bank building is now home of the Red Onion, where the owner replaced the bank vault with a custom sliding glass door system, providing a wonderful open air dining experience. The decor is rugged-modern with lots of metal work, exposed ducts and an open floor plan with full view of the kitchen. Next door to the Red Onion is the RO Bar, a sister property providing a neighborhood feel for locals and visitors to relax and mingle in comfort. Nestled in between the two properties is a shared spacious patio, complete with heat lamps in the winter and misters in the summer. During our visit there must have been a T.V. show being filmed as two diners enjoyed the Red Onion offerings. It reminded me of my days filming the “Best of the Road” show for the Travel Channel, where in a single month I ate at 97 restaurants and tried nearly 400 meals…being filmed the entire time.
The cuisine at the Red Onion can probably be best described as refined comfort bar food, presented in a casual, yet lively and comforting atmosphere. Some of the items we tried were the Baja Fish Tacos, the French Dip and the signature Red Onion Spinach Salad. The run-away winner however, were the Santa Fe Egg Rolls, which were washed down nicely with a cold glass of locally brewed Hefeweizen, accented with a fresh slice of orange.
After dinner, we headed back to the festival grounds where we had hoped to catch the balloon glow and flicker, however it had just concluded upon our arrival. One thing we noticed during the festival is that the schedule is very lose…many things don’t start on time, or, end sooner than you might expect. The flicker and glow on this particular evening must have started promptly at 6:30, but ended by 7 pm. We did get to catch the evening lighting spectacle the next night and it was truly magical. Seeing so many balloons clustered together, each illuminating their respective balloons at the same time is quite a sight. After the balloon glow period, we headed over to the stage and enjoyed some live music.
The next morning we were up bright and early to catch the sunrise mass ascension, we drove around a while trying to figure out where the best vantage point would be before deciding on Rotary Park. It was quite busy by the time we got there, but were able to find a good spot toward the southern end of the park. The balloons we learned don’t really get in the air until about 8:30 am, an hour later than the schedule lists. Once up though, it was quite a sight. We were at the lake’s edge watching balloons kiss the water as boats speckled the lake taking plenty of close-up photos.
The Havasu Balloon Festival is segmented into a number of sections…the epicenter is the balloon launch field, surrounding it are carnival rides, vendors, arts/crafts and the fair food with a live music stage. The next day we spent most of it at the festival grounds, taking in the various sights, smells, tastes and sounds of the festival. It’s really a fun time for the entire family. We even felt like kids again as we entered the bowels of an inflated balloon on the ground. The top of the balloon was pointed directly at the sun and really illuminated the colors of the fabric, which made for some fun photos.
If you’ve never been up in a balloon before, I highly recommend it! It’s one of those activities that will surely exceed your expectations. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t let that stop you…ballooning is something everyone should do once in their life. And, dare I say, regardless of your fear of heights, I can almost assure you you’ll have no troubles with the accession of a hot air balloon—at least this is what I’ve heard from a number of folks admitting their fear of heights and expressing how safe they felt in a balloon. The sensation can most closely be described as floating on a magic carpet. The sensation is almost surreal and quite soothing.
As a spectator, the Havasu Balloon Festival provides a lot of amazing sights—with its shimmering lake nestled among surrounding buttes and mountains, to the iconic landmark of the London Bridge…it’s a fun event you’ll want to return to year after year.
Suggestions when attending the Lake Havasu Balloon Festival
- Reserve lodging and/or campsites early.
- Plan on spending 3-5 days in Lake Havasu City. Festival runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
- Don’t spend all of your time at the main launch field, many great vantage areas.
- Best places to view balloons outside of the launch filed are: Rotary Park, the parking lot north of the London Bridge above the boardwalk, and, the London Bridge itself.
- Bring your patience…the line to park at the festival grounds is often quite long…can take up to half an hour to park.
- Don’t leave the festival right after the Glow & Flicker…you’ll be in gridlock. Instead, grab some fair food and enjoy the live entertainment for an hour or two.
- If you’re sensitive to dust, be aware it can be heavy at times, especially after the Glow & Flicker event. It would be nice if festival organizers put down a dust abatement product.
If you’ve ever been to the Havasu Balloon Festival, please leave additional tips and comments below. Click here if you’d like to see more of my photos from the Havasu Balloon Festival.