Albuquerque’s autumn horizon is typically dotted with hot air balloons, and for the eight special days of the International Balloon Fiesta, it looks like an oversized gumball machine busted open in the sky. It's worth attending at least one Mass Ascension in your lifetime. Watching a field of deflated orbs slowly come to life and launch into the sunrise is an experience like nothing else on Earth.
Still, there are undeniable drawbacks to the pre-dawn ritual. There's simply no way to beat the equally spectacular Balloon Fiesta traffic no matter how early you get up. You also have to pay $10 to park a significant distance from the field, before shelling over more money for admission and getting swallowed by a sea of humanity. Sure, all of that is part of the experience. But when an exercise in large-scale human togetherness doesn't fit the mood of your morning, it's still possible to enjoy the balloons without the claustrophobia and Porta-Potty lines.
If you've already been to the Balloon Fiesta Park and want to observe takeoffs without the surrounding throngs of people, there are a few dwindling open spaces where you can watch for free. They're close enough to the main event that you can see groups of balloons take off before they disperse over the city. With a little planning, some favorable winds and a couple of lawn chairs, you can find a little piece of aviation heaven in one of these free spots. Wait patiently, and you might even have a balloon touch down right beside you.
Feeling that early autumn chill in the air? If you park on Eileen Road off Meadowlark facing due east, you can sit warm and cozy in your vehicle and not miss any of the excitement. The length of Meadowlark Road is well-elevated with plenty of beautiful overlooks of the river basin—which also makes it an ideal location for scoping the evening Balloon Glows™ and fireworks displays.
If you can see the roof of the Balloon Museum, then you'll be able to watch the inflations and takeoffs in the adjoining field. The stretch of Second Street near the city limits is close to the action but just on the fringe of bumper-to-bumper traffic. There's plenty of roadside parking (if they don't put signs up forbidding it—watch out for those). If parking is prohibited, just drive to the west side of the irrigation ditch. This is usually a quiet area with no one to hassle you for staking out a viewing spot if you're quiet and respectful of the surrounding private property.
You'll find other unobstructed vistas of the morning sky close to the Fiesta Park along the east side of I-25. However, securing a view on the Frontage Road from Paseo Del Norte north to Alameda can be a gamble with heavy traffic. Try picking up San Pedro off Paseo Del Norte, and head north to Florence, just past Alameda. Because of the high density of recent development in this area and the difficulty of finding parking on Tramway, this is probably the closest you can get without heading further east. But San Pedro is generally calm and not heavily traveled. There may be some low-lying buildings to peer around, but you should be able to get a clear visual of the horizon close to the balloons' takeoff point.
The next stop on our free-range viewing tour also offers the potential for crossing paths with a balloon crew. Located just south of Paseo Del Norte, Market Place at Journal Center has convenient access and skirts traffic if you use the Osuna entrance. If the breeze is in your favor, the balloons will drift south right over your head. An added bonus at this location are the many nearby early morning breakfast joints where you can grab a bagel or burrito. The parking lot is especially festive on Balloon Fiesta Saturday mornings when car enthusiasts gather to show off their autos and talk motors over hot coffee.
Make your way to El Pueblo near the Journal Center office park between Jefferson and Edith, and turn south when you see the Blue Sky Business Park sign. Follow the short jog to the end. There you'll find yourself in one of the few open spaces left in the area. This makes it a popular southern landing spot, directly in line with Balloon Fiesta Park. Pull on your mittens, set up your lawn chair and wait for the balloons to drift your way. This whole part of town has great viewing potential, but this peaceful little street puts you right in the path of balloons and provides a nice clear view.
Prefer a panorama with some greenery? Try the Rio Grande parking lot alongside the Paseo Del Norte overpass. If you've brought your bike along, you can pick up the scenic Bosque trail, and cruise along with balloons floating above you.