Bluff Balloon Festival sets skies aglow

If you have ever been curious about hot-air balloons, then Bluff, Utah, was the place to be Jan. 15-18 for the sixth annual Bluff International Balloon Festival. It was an event not to be missed.

The festival draws pilots from as nearby as Farmington and as far away as England. About 30 balloons arrive each year to fly over the magnificent red rock canyons of southeastern Utah.

The event not only brings business to the small town of Bluff during the slow winter season, but also raises money for the Bluff Elementary School. Hot-air balloons are magical to many people and thus the event draws folks from all over the Four Corners region. People come to see the brightly colored crafts float through the lapis sky surrounded by the cream and terracotta of the desert — a truly breathtaking sight.

The festival was the brainchild of a local group, the Business Owners of Bluff. BOB has been around for seven years and consists of 25 members representing 27 businesses in the area.

According to Marcia Hadenfeldt, BOB chairperson, they were trying to come up with ways to draw visitors, and business to their town in the off-season. Bluff is busy in the summer with river-rafters, hikers, archaeologists and visitors to Indian and canyon country. The winter is much slower yet still incredibly beautiful. After some discussion with a pilot from Gallup who liked to fly in the area, BOB decided that the balloon festival would be an ideal way to show off the town. The festival not only brings commerce to local hotels, restaurants and shops, it also raises money for the elementary school in town. (The middle and high schools are in Blanding).

The first day of the festival, Thursday, the pilots begin at the school, lifting off for all the children to see. There is also an essay contest, the winners of which get to ride in a balloon. Unfortunately this year, the weather did not cooperate; the town woke to a blanket of snow and it was still snowing at launch time. Although this put a damper on flying that morning, snow is an unusual event in Bluff, so the children still received a treat. The pilots, instead of flying, spoke to the children in the classrooms about weather and flying balloons.

The essay-contest winners’ rides were postponed until Friday morning. There was a reception for the pilots that evening.

Friday morning the weather was better and the balloons flew through mottled clouds. The traditional glow-in was that evening. A glow –in is where the balloons stay on the ground, their fires lit so that they appear to be glowing in every color of the rainbow. Three different balloons provided tethered rides for the kids, something that is always a hit. The sixth-grade class had a Navajo taco stand which raised $800 towards their graduation events. There were local storytellers and also a performance by the elementary school’s Song and Dance Team.

According to Hadenfeldt, the performance was “everything that kids dancing in traditional dress should be!”

Saturday dawned gorgeous and the balloons took off from the community center just after the sun came over the horizon. As a visitor, one can walk around the balloons as they are preparing to launch, feeling a part of a mysterious and magical world. Then, suddenly, the balloons lift off all around you and you are left on the ground, minuscule, and in awe. Saturday afternoon, the community center hosted the artists’ show with 20 booths displaying pottery, jewelry, photography and many more crafts. There was also a benefit auction with all proceeds benefiting the Bluff Community Fund.

Traditionally, Sunday’s events are the most visually spectacular and this year was no different; the balloons lifted off at the Valley of the Gods just west of Bluff – a mystical place and one perfect for the display of color that the balloons provide.

This year there was some initial concern over mud but the roads were good and they had a “magnificent flight,” Hadenfeldt said When asked about concerns over possible damage to the land in the Valley of the Gods, Hadenfeldt responded that the BOB “works closely with the BLM (which manages the area), by providing portable toilets, hosting a clean-up day and remaining on the roads.

As a matter of fact, one balloon that flew off course this year was walked out of the backcountry instead of a truck going in to get it.” She said the BLM “has always been wonderful and supportive.”

The festival ended after the Valley of the Gods flight and thus concluded another successful year of the tradition. This event is one of the little-known gems of the Four Corners and is very intimate, especially compared to the bigger balloon festivals such as Albuquerque. It is a great thing to come out of such a tiny community.

Hadenfeldt commented, “I am most impressed by a very small group, in a very small town, getting together to put on a really big event that everyone loves.” For more information visit the website

From February 2004.