featured image showing the Great Ballon Race in Reno Nevada

Do The Great Reno Balloon Race Like a Local

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It’s almost time! It’s almost time! Hello, “WorkLivePlayRenoTahoe” friends! We’re more than ready for the return of the Great Reno Balloon Races just a few weeks from now.  We are feeling all in for the wonder and the magic and the memories that are this treasure of a festival in its 40th year in our city.  

Because this is such a popular event, we find it is ever so much more of a good time when you know how to do it.  Below I have compiled all of the best, most useful tips for having a blast at the annual Great Reno Balloon Race festival.  

Maybe you are new to town or maybe you are going to pop over for the weekend?  Rest easy! I have my own experiences, gathered those of friends and pretty much, I have now done much of the legwork for you to find your own balloon races groove that works for you. 

I have sifted them into several info-packed sections because wordy, novel-like posts?? Ain’t nobody got time for that. Here we go..

inline image showing Spectators Enjoying Mass Ascension at the Great Balloon Race in Reno, Nevada.
Spectators Enjoying Mass Ascension at the Great Balloon Race in Reno, Nevada.

The Balloon Basics

Where: 

Launch is just a few miles north of downtown Reno, Nevada at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park

When: 

The second weekend of September every year. 

This year: Friday, September 10 – Sunday, September 12, 2021

3:30 a.m.- Gates open

5:00 a.m.– Glow Show

5:30 a.m. – Dawn Patrol

7:00 a.m.– Mass Ascension Launch

11:00 a.m. – Event Ends for the day.

So what? 

This festival is the nation’s largest free-admission balloon competition!! It attracts more than 125,000 people and has 100 balloons taking flight. 

inline image showing The Great Balloon Race, early morning Glow Show
The Great Balloon Race – Early Morning Glow Show | Photo Credit: Annie N, Yelp

What to Know, What to Bring & What about Parking?!

What to Know

  1. If you plan on getting a spot on the launch field to watch the Glow Show or Dawn Patrol, aim to arrive between 3:30 and 4:30 am. *Leaving on the earlier side allows plenty of time to park, walk to Rancho San Rafael Park, and choose a coveted spot on the grassy lawn.
  2. Feel free to arrive a little more towards 4:30/4:45ish if you are bringing chairs and heading along the outside of the fence near the playground area, located closer to the Coleman St. side of the park.
  3. Dress in layers. It is usually cold for Dawn Patrol but warms up nicely after sunrise. (Most agree that while it’s always freezing when they arrive, they are down to a t-shirt (and hot even in that) when they leave.)
  4. You can easily go in PJs also, comfy is king.
  5. Parents, beware that sometimes they say no strollers/wagons on the field where the balloons are. 
  6. Festival organizers advise to please leave your pets at home.  
  7. Several Mom friends suggested packing your car to be ready to go the night before and putting kids to bed in the outfits they will wear to the balloon races to make the transition from bed to the car a little bit more seamless.
  8. If you can avoid the stretch of McCarran near Rancho San Rafael Park (roughly between Kings Row and Sutro St.) on the mornings you are not attending the festival, that is optimal. There are multiple car accidents in this stretch every year as people choose to keep their eyes on the balloons and not the road. No Bueno.

What to Bring

  1. Welcome to Reno where temps vary significantly from the dark of 3 am and the sun coming up a few short hours later. Again, I can’t stress enough: Dress in layers!
  2. Bring blankets and hats. Consider bringing one blanket to sit on, another to cover up and get cozy with to enjoy the show. Some families prefer to bring sleeping bags for this chillier part of the fun!
  3. Large Blankets: Many who prefer to sit on large blankets opt for the designated blanket area on the launch field. Camping Chairs: Those with chairs should intentionally avoid blocking the view of those with blankets on the launch field and often opt for the area outside of the fence near the playground, on Coleman St. side of park instead.
  4. Rancho San Rafael Park is at just over 4,700 ft. elevation.  Especially if you plan to walk around once the sun comes up, keep the high altitude in mind and make sure to pack sunscreen.
  5. If you’re going to be there early for Dawn Patrol, keep in mind that it will be dark. And when I say dark, I mean DARK. *Be prepared with a small flashlight, travel-sized camping lantern or even have someone in your group be the designated “cell phone light holder”.
  6. Wear tennis shoes (or closed-toed shoes you don’t mind getting dirty).  In locating your spot, it can be muddy and the grass can be wet. This will make the walk easier and your feet so much more comfortable through the show. *One friend also advised that they came across bees hiding in the grass one year, as further inspiration for following this suggestion.
  7. Pack a cooler with snacks and drinks. 
  8. Consider bringing juice, coffee and/or hot chocolate in a thermos or 2.  *Perhaps throw in some Champagne, which can now be purchased in an easily portable, non-glass can, and make some Mimosas!
  9. Take note that Reno’s favorite Doughboys Donuts’ Mae Anne & North McCarran location opens early for the balloon races at 4 am Friday and Sunday, 3:45 am on Saturday. Grab a few donuts along with a warmed Ham and Cheese Croissant or 2 and head over to San Rafael!
  10. Consider pulling a wagon for your gear and/or stroller for kids. Herding them to your spot when it is dark, and they are groggy and tired, calls for some intentionality and planning. 
  11. Though many of the vendors take credit cards, not all do so consider bringing cash to keep it simple.

Where to Park

No matter what mode of parking you choose, arrive early as there is limited parking at the event site. Some define “early” as 3:30 am, the festival’s official opening time. Mainly those who want a place on the field with the balloons.  Others, like me, aim for a 4:30/4:45 am arrival, as we are seeking the lowest maintenance version of the experience and always settle near the playground on the lawn outside the fence surrounding the field. A more spread out space not nearly as quickly filled up.

  1. My personal preference is parking on the West side off Coleman Street, finding a parking spot in that residential area.
  2. Some opt for the free UNR parking at the northern end of UNR (University of Nevada, Reno) in the university’s north lot.  It is important to remember that cars must be removed by 10 a.m. 
  3. Parking also will be available at the corner of N. Sierra St. and McCarran Blvd. and over on the other side of the park off Coleman St for a $20 donation to the event.
  4. Use RTC RIDE’s Park & Ride Program with pickup points at RSCVA Convention Center-Parking Lot B, Reed High School and Downtown Reno’s Citi Center. For more information call (775) 348-RIDE or go to their website www.rtcwashoe.com.

How to Enjoy the Races: Choose Your Own Adventure

inline image showing Mass Ascension Launch at the Great Balloon Race in Reno Nevada
Mass Ascension Launch at The Great Balloon Race

Scenario # 1: Rancho San Rafael Park Playground Area

Park on one of the streets on the West side of Coleman St. 

Walk-in past the playground on the path along the white fence. 

Pull wagon with chairs, blankets, cooler, etc.

If you have a younger child along, consider settling down close to the porta-potty bathroom area, as to not ruin your experience by not being able to get them there easily. Just sayin’…

Consider remaining seated a little while past the Mass Ascension so that the first big wave of people leaving has subsided.  

Scenario # 2: Balloon Launch Field Area

Park in the dirt lot just off McCarran and Sierra St or the North UNR Parking Lot just off Virginia St in the same area. 

Follow Sierra St that leads down to the park entrance right across from Archies Restaurant. 

*A reminder: The dirt lot costs a $20 donation to the event, while the UNR lot is free. You must be out of the UNR lot by 10 am. 

     Family Tip: Divide and Conquer

Some groups/families already know the general area they want to sit in and designate one adult to walk ahead. They can spread a big blanket or quilt to stake out a spot for your group. The person following can text the lead person when getting close and find them by a cell phone being held up or a flashlight being flashed off and on a few times to signal. 

Stay down on the field for Glow Show and Dawn Patrol and then make your way back to the car before the Mass Ascension and watch from the hill up top so you can get the whole sweeping view of the lift-off. 

Hit one of Reno/Spark’s many awesome breakfast places like Squeeze In,  Pegs Glorified Ham N Eggs, Stonehouse Café or Two Chicks (to name a few). 

Head home for a nap because you’ve been up since 3 am to get there early for the Glow Show! 

Scenario # 3: Late Balloon Boulevard

Choose a version of Scenario #1 or #2 one morning and then do Balloon Boulevard another morning. 

The balloons are up by 7:30 am and then people can enter the field with kids for amazing photos and balloon experience.  Let the masses do their thing while you sleep in! 

In this out-of-the-box scenario, show up one of the mornings you are NOT coming early for the balloon launch and show up around 9:30/10 am to check out the vendors at Balloon Boulevard and go on the field to mingle with the balloons and their pilots.

Scenario # 4: Balloon Crew Trading Cards

When you have chosen #1 or #2, you may be ready to check out Balloon Boulevard, either just after launch or as #3 suggests, late morning on a day you are not doing Dawn Patrol and such. 

The vendors at Balloon Boulevard? They don’t play. They are out there kicking things off while it is still dark with food, drinks, and souvenir vendor booths.  But did you know about Balloon Crew Trading Cards?

Make your way over to the field and let the kids go around and collect the trading cards! Each pilot/team is given trading cards to pass out and the kids can go collect them. The cards have a photo of the balloon, the balloon’s name, and info about the balloon/team and the Great Reno Balloon Races. 

It’s a fun way to remember their favorite balloons. Be mindful of when it is a good time to approach the team and to be safe close up.  Great opportunity to strike up some cool conversations with the crews.  The later you come, the less busy.

Even if you go on the field around 7:30 am when all balloons have just launched, you can go around as soon as they start lifting (after they launch the USA flag). 

Scenario # 5: A Mimosa Mass Ascension

While you can pack your drinks along with any scenario, one friend shared that they park at Archie’s restaurant just across Sierra St. from the park. They get there EARLY between 2 and 3 am, walk over to the park when it opens for the Glow Show and Dawn Patrol, and then walk BACK to Archie’s. 

From Archie’s patio, they watch the Mass Ascension of the balloons with a mimosa or a bloody mary while having a nice, relaxed breakfast with a view.

You can, of course, park in one of the other areas and choose to wind up for the Mass Ascension at Archie’s patio too. Choose your own adventure means you put your experience together based on what sounds like the most fun to you and your crew!

The Great Reno Balloon Races started with just 20 balloons back in 1982 and has been a place where memories are made for locals and visitors alike ever since.  For some of us, one of the saddest on the list of 2020 event cancellations was missing this event.  There is something so comforting about knowing it is back. 

For those, like me, who tend to be crowd weary, it is wisest to be intentional about what day you choose to go.  Saturday and Sunday are the busier days, so if you can swing making it there on Friday, it is a less crowded day to attend, yet still just as awesome as the weekend!

Despite our best-laid plans, it is good to keep in mind that, as a rule, hot air balloon pilots will not ascend with winds over 15 miles an hour. But hey, no matter whether each morning’s schedule goes off without a hitch or not, it is something to behold. Go check it out! (Your sleep sacrifice will not be in vain!)

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Lexi King is a wife and a mom of 2 teens and a new Marine.  She has been Executive Assistant to a Reno area CEO for almost a decade and is the writer/creator of the lifestyle blog, Rhythm&Rubbish: One wise-ish mom to another: Finding joy in the tension between the daily routines we embrace (the rhythms) and the unexpected nonsense we endure (the rubbish).  Her dream is to travel, to share stories, to write, and to make a living doing all 3.

Follow along with us each month for Lexi’s special “Tips from a Local” review – featured exclusively on WorkLivePlayRenoTahoe.com

1 thought on “Do The Great Reno Balloon Race Like a Local”

  1. Great advice in one place! It’s always been a little daunting figuring out the logistics. Happy the balloons are back for 2021!!!

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