Balloon Fiesta!

Sandhill Cranes at Monte Vista NWR
A large weather system was stuck over much of the Rocky Mountain region when we left Crested Butte, so we decided to minimize the impact by heading south to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

On the way, we stopped by the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge to check out the birds while we ate lunch. We ended up seeing a few early bird Sandhill Cranes there. The Monte Vista NWR is special to us, as it's one of the first places we visited in our bird-watching hobby starting in the spring of 2010. And we still love Sandhill Cranes!

We arrived in Albuquerque Wednesday evening ahead of the storm and it was still sunny and mild. At Papa Nachos, a dubiously named but highly reviewed family restaurant, we had a good meal, topped off with homemade sopaipillas for just 99 cents.

Thursday the winds picked up, causing all Balloon Fiesta events to be cancelled, so we visited the wonderful Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum (AAAIBM). Late in the day we drove up to Sandia Crest where the high winds mercilessly hurled clouds up at us from the valley below. We braved the cold until dark, fascinated by the proximity and whirling shapes of the clouds at sunset.

Sunset rays over Albuquerque; viewed from Sandia Crest

Mike in raingear with tie-dyed fractal ballooon
Friday we had high hopes for improved weather, but in spite of the optimistic forecast, the day was mostly a rainout. In the morning a few balloons were inflated and a couple took off, but the evening session was cancelled altogether. We spent the afternoon napping, as we did every day to catch up on sleep missed by waking up at 4:30AM to beat the crowds.

No worries though -- the weekend brought calm sunny days and we were able to see a "dawn patrol", two mass ascensions and one evening "glow," plus an evening's fireworks display. Strolling around the park amongst hundreds of balloonists preparing to launch, their balloons slowly swelling up, eventually towering overhead before they lift off high into the sky, is an experience not to be missed. It was definitely worth fighting the traffic. And the crowds, usually an issue for us, were not so bad in this open air venue where everyone walked around wearing contagious smiles.

Hot inflation for Dawn Patrol

Mass ascension in the morning

Evening glow

End of day fireworks

On Sunday Kirtland AFB had its first visit from the USAF Thunderbirds since 2006. Reluctantly saying goodbye to the balloons, that afternoon we drove out to the base along with what seemed like thousands of other folks for this overdue air show. As always, the Thunderbirds put on an exciting, crowd-pleasing demonstration.

US Air Force Thunderbirds

Tarantula at the Whiterock overlook
We headed for home Monday on the highly scenic Route 14, dawdling here and there to explore. Skirting Bandelier, which was still largely closed because of summer wildfires, we stopped at a wonderful lookout point east of Whiterock. A local suggested Hill Diner in Los Alamos, and after a tasty lunch, we drove straight home, making for one very loooong day.

Overlook at Whiterock, NM

Click here for more pictures from the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and USAF Thunderbirds.

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