Greetings From a Hot Air Balloon, 4500 Feet Above Phoenix

You have a Bucket List, right? Most people do, and most people who have told me about their Bucket List have a hot air balloon ride on there somewhere.

Recently, one of my best friends planned our trip to Phoenix for my birthday and we gleefully marked this item off our list.

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Rainbow Ryders was founded in 1983 and has two other locations in Albuquerque and Colorado Springs.

They host top hot air balloon festivals around the nation including the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Balloon-A-Ween Glowfest in Mesa, Labor Day Lift-Off in Colorado Springs, and White Sands Balloon & Music Festival in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Rainbow Ryders have received multiple awards including the Tourism Hall of Fame award from the Tourism Association of America, aka the USTA.

Pilots are required to pass all accrediting requirements, to demonstrate a minimum of 500 flight hours, and are required to carry a valid 2nd Class Airman Medical Certificate.

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We checked in at Rainbow Ryders a little after 5 am and signed our waivers. Staff divided everyone up into smaller groups, loaded us into nice air-conditioned vans, and drove us out to our take off spot in the desert.

Departing and landing sites vary from day to day, and sometimes there are other competitor charters on site.

They all have a friendly rapport and communicate with each other on radios to ensure the safety of all guests, regardless of which company they are with.

One of the most magical moments of the whole experience was watching the sunrise over the Sonoran Desert. Cue starry eyes.

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We watched in amazement as staff members began inflating the balloons and assembling baskets.

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Some of these baskets hold up to two dozen people, with smaller ones designed to hold four.

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I had not even realized how enormous these balloons are until I saw people walking around inside them during inflation.

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We lucked out and were grouped together with an awesome couple that we struck a new friendship with. Seriously, we could not have asked for cooler trip mates.

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Our pilot has a few decades of experience under his belt, guiding one or more successful flights daily. We felt safe and assured by his credentials and sense of humour right away.

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He explained the process, rules, mechanics of balloon flight, and the “oh shit” plan to us thoroughly before we boarded, and he regaled us with cool tidbits along the way.

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Seeing the balloons get gassed up, lifting higher and higher with each pull of the red cord, and the multi-sensory sight/sound/smell of roaring flames was thrilling.

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Soon, we were all in flight.

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Pilots usually keep the balloons at varying heights to prevent them from clashing into one another. We hovered close to the ground as they gauged weather conditions and planned their routes.

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We eventually reached an altitude of 4,500 above Phoenix, which is already between 1-2,000 feet above sea level. The landscape kept changing and evolving, just seconds apart.

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We drifted over Lake Pleasant, a man-made lake on the border of Yavapai and Maricopa counties, far northwest of Phoenix.

The reservoir is fed by the Agua Fria River, first created by the Carl Pleasant Dam in 1927, expanded by the Central Arizona Project Aqueduct in 1973, and then by the completion of the New Waddell Dam in 1994.

Lake Pleasant has a reputation for a high number of deaths and, depending on who you ask, is terrorized by some slimy cryptid that dwells below the surface.

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We learned about wind and weather patterns as they pertain to basic operations of hot air balloons, and enjoyed long stretches of peaceful views.

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As we began to land, we could make out bunnies hopping around the desert. We also took in close-up views of giant Saguaro cacti, a rare treat to see them from above.

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Our landing was hysterical. We were told in advance to anticipate some turbulence, to turn our backs toward the direction of landing site, and to loop our arms through safety ropes.

As the bottom of our basket made contact with the ground, we bumped and bounced around a few times until a staff member caught us and laid us flat on our backs.

We were cackling, stacked two by two, our heads lying directly on the dirt, trying to turn over and crawl out of the basket like flipped turtles.

It may not be for everyone, but we all belly laughed so hard we could barely get to our feet. The ride would not have been as wonderful if we had an uneventful, subtle landing instead.

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Once we were all up and moving again, our hosts called for a traditional champagne celebration, and explained the history of the tradition which dates back to the 1780s.

Hot air balloons were first successful in France, much to the annoyance of local farmers who resented strange “dragons” landing in their fields.

Passengers brought bottles of champagne along as a peace offering after they landed, which left everyone in good spirits in the end.

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Our pilot recited the “Balloonist’s Prayer” which goes as follows:

“The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so well and so high, that God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back again into the loving arms of mother earth.”

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My friend and I walked around taking selfies with Saguaro cacti while wearing matching rompers, drinking mimosas in the desert, and picking rocks with our new pal. What a fantastic time!

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Flight duration was around an hour or so, and the entire experience lasted over three hours. After guests are returned to the headquarters, staff lays out a spread of breakfast, snacks, and drinks that are included in your flight ticket.

You can fill your belly and peruse the gift shop while you wait for your official certificate of flight completion. So fancy.

Lastly, but importantly, I want to note that I was not commissioned or paid to write about/mention Rainbow Ryders. My friend selected the company based on reputation, reviews, and ratings online, and they exceeded all of our expectations.

In the area for a while? Follow us to Desert Botanical Gardens, Tovrea Castle at Carraro Heights, and other sites around Phoenix!

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