With Tucson’s wide open spaces, dramatic mountain landscapes, unique vegetation and wildlife, and practically guaranteed sunshine, it is a fantastic place to fulfill your dream of taking a hot air balloon ride. Having never ridden in a balloon before, this was at the top of my to-do list in Tucson. My husband and I flew with Fleur de Tucson Balloon Rides, the oldest company operating in Tucson, run by balloonist Mike Fleury and his wife.
The balloon flies at dawn so it’s an early start to meet the crew at 5:30 and be ready to go by the 6:30 sunrise. They drive the balloon, passengers and crew to one of four different launch sites depending on the weather conditions and then begin setup. As a passenger you get to see the whole thing come together: basket off the truck, balloon unfurled, ties tied, fan going to start the inflation, etc. all in semi darkness.
Once the balloon is mostly filled, the crew holds it down while you hop aboard what seems at first an impossibly small basket. We were 4 passengers and Mike which felt very cozy (supposedly you could fit a sixth if you dared). And then the big moment: they just let go…. and you’re flying.
The most remarkable and beautiful thing about flying in a balloon is that it feels incredibly natural, not scary at all. Besides the intermittent sound of the burner it is absolutely silent and everything happens relatively slowly. Nothing to give you a shock or a sense of inertia at all. At the very first I could feel every shift in the basket, every movement of the other passengers, every creak in the lines, but about 5 minutes in as the landscape came to life in the rising sunshine, I found you start to feel as if you’ve been traveling in this balloon all your life. Leaning over the side to take pics and watch animals, looking up into the balloon, all suddenly becomes very normal despite being 2000 feet in the air with nothing but a wicker basket between you and the ground.
Our flight took us along Tucson’s northwest mountain range and almost the entire path was within Saguaro National Park. The winds were in our favor and we were able to get an up close and personal view of Sombrero Peak (Safford Peak). Every ride is different because of conditions so our ride was not necessarily typical. Mike said sometimes they never get anywhere near the peak.
From above we spotted TONS of Javelina running through the desert, as well as several hawks, a fox and several rabbits. It was awesome and beautiful to observe these animals in the wild with them fairly unaware of our human presence. Mike gave the guys aboard a chance to “fly” the balloon as we rounded the mountains and began our descent which they enjoyed. Landing, as you might imagine, is a bit of a game of chance. Our caravan of watchers kept track of us as we descended and landed beautifully on a dirt road in the midst of cotton fields.
Truly there is no better way to see this landscape. The views were stunning on our flight and we were able to spot wildlife that would never have shown itself were we on the ground. Our pilot was great and the whole experience felt safe and fun. So, if you’ve thought about taking a flight, do it! You won’t regret it!
Recommended Tucson Balloon Companies:
Tucson Balloon Rides – $235, up to 8 passengers
Foolish Pleasure Hot Air Balloon Rides – $200 and up, limited to 6 passengers
*Ballooning season in Tucson is October-April and reservations are absolutely required.