Great Reno Hot Air Balloon Races
Updated: Feb 26, 2021
The world's largest free hot air balloon race! A spectacular event, but here is what to expect and some helpful tips for experiencing this magical show.
About the Event: First off, this event is first thing in the morning with gates opening at 3:am, and the event kicking off daily at 4:30am. Most people are snug in their beds while balloons assemble for flight and kick off a light show in the early morning hours before the sun hasn't even begun to shine a glow on the ridge of the eastern mountains. While I'm definitely not a morning person, getting up in the middle of the night to get there, is by far rewarded by this experience. Watching 80 balloons ascend as splashes of color in the Reno sky felt truly magical, and something I would gladly roll out of bed at 2:am for again.
How the races work: You've probably heard that a hot air balloon has no way of steering, and have asked how 80 balloons with no steering capability can participate in a race. As it turns out, it is more competition of accuracy and luck than speed, though Great Reno Hot Air Balloon Lucky Toss, doesn't really roll off the tongue. The "race" is set up with four "X" markings painted on the ground in different zones. This allows the balloons to ascend and drift in different directions in hopes of passing over one of these spots. The goal is to drop their bean bag as close to the center of the "X" as possible. There's some strategy to where you set up on the field, the direction of the wind, and controlling your speed by choosing your elevation, but mostly for fun, and with a bit of luck, any balloon could win.
Best Camera Locations: There will be people packed tightly on the grounds of the seating area. You can take your pick between getting a front-row lawn area where your view of the ballons is unobstructed by people, or get a little higher on the hill to get a wider view. You can't really go wrong with either perspective, it's really a matter of choice, and changing your location each day. The balloons move fast once they begin to ascend, so trying to rush through a crowd of people to get that perfect shot will probably leave you with no shot at all, but I would expect to move about some. Some of my favorite photos were actually taken from outside of the event from up on the hillside. You're essentially hanging out on the edge of a neighborhood on the hill above the grounds, and there's not a lot of parking. But the birds-eye view did make a nice perspective and it was quite entertaining to watch balloons landing all over the city while their balloon chasers(trucks) chased after their balloon in flight.
What To Do: There's plenty to do in Reno after the races wrap up each day at noon. Take time to visit vendor booths with crafts, bounce houses, food trucks, and alcohol caterers serving beer, mimosas, & bloody marys. It felt a little strange ordering alcohol at 10:am, but having been awake for 8 hours already, it really seemed like the afternoon by then. Outside of the event, you may need a nap before hitting up Reno or taking a day trip to Lake Tahoe, but you won't run out of things to do during the day.
Lodging and Traffic: Book your lodging early on. It's nice to have the option to be closer to the venue for easy access. Especially over the weekend as the traffic gets much worse. We expected the traffic to be bad, so Friday we showed up at 3:am and were only amongst a dozen others ready to get in when the gates opened. People didn't start filing in for another hour after we arrived and we mostly sat around wishing we'd slept a couple more hours. Saturday we rolled in much later and were stuck in traffic for a solid 90 minutes. So, get there a bit later on Friday, and super early on Saturday and Sunday.
Arrive early, especially on Saturday & Sunday
Bring plenty of layers. It will be very cold in the early morning hours and very warm by the time you leave.
Bring extra cash for shopping the vendors
Bring a good camera and be ready to switch from night-shots, to day-shots with the sun position rapidly changing