Got a bucket list that’s long? Do you have some expensive items on it that seem impossible to do, like taking a hot air balloon ride? Learn the secret to the ultimate freebie in Snowmass, Colorado, from Optimism TravelingMom. Just plan to work a little for this travel bucket list experience.

Travel bucket list experience -- watching two hot air balloons soar over a golf course during Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado.

It was fun soaring over a golf course in Snowmass, Colorado, and peeking into neighborhood backyards. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/Optimism TravelingMom

What’s on your bucket list? Mine’s pretty long and includes things like:

  • See the Taj Mahal bathed in the light of a full moon.
  • Photograph the Northern Lights in Finland.
  • Drive Route 66 in a ’57 Thunderbird.

I add more items each year than I tick off. You too? And every time a new Powerball winner’s announced and it’s not me, I get annoyed because winning the lottery is my bucket list financing plan.

Hot Air Balloon Rides are Expensive

Taking a hot air balloon ride is a popular bucket list item, ranking #6 on a top ten list published in USA Today. Is it on your yours? The reason I haven’t taken a ride is because they are expensive. Where I live, an hourlong hot air balloon ride costs $199 per person. Like other moms, I have a hard time plunking down that kind of money on myself.

Expand the ride to include the family and that hot air balloon ride would cost as much as a vacation!

How to Get a Hot Air Balloon Ride for Free

What I didn’t know is that there’s a way to score a hot air balloon ride for free. The Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado depends upon a squad of volunteers to assist the balloon crews with the daily launches. If you volunteer for all three days of the festival, you receive a free ride with your pilot on the festival’s final day. And a souvenir tee-shirt!

Hot Air Balloon Crew – What’s it Like?

Arrive at the Launch Site Before the Sun Rises

The Snowmass Balloon Festival launches happen in the early morning. There’s a legit reason, according to balloon pilot Craig Pendleton. “At sunrise the winds are typically more calm and stable than later in the day. As the sun comes up and heats the ground it stirs the winds making them faster and more variable.”

If you’re not an early bird, you’ll want to get the coffee drip going pronto! Afraid that I would sleep through the alarm, I checked the time every hour and didn’t get a wink of sleep. I arrived on the field before the sun even thought about rising! Reporting for balloon duty, sir!

If riding in a hot air balloon is on your bucket list, check out these tips. You can score a ride for free at the Snowmass Balloon Festival. Here's how to achieve a dream bucket list experience.

Dress for Success – Hot Air Balloon Ride Tips

If you’re paying hundreds of dollars for your ride, feel free to dress however you desire. But if you’re volunteering with the crew, you’ll want to be in comfortable work clothes. And it’s important to layer. While you’re standing around waiting for the action to start, it can be chilly, even on a summer day. As you start to work, you’ll get warm. And, while you’re soaring, you’ll definitely want sunscreen. As for footwear, the ground was damp in the morning from the dew, so my waterproof, lightweight hiking boots were a better choice than sneakers.

As for balloon wear no-nos, Craig said he tries to watch out for long loose items like scarves, strings on jackets, and even long hair that’s not tied back. Why? “They can get sucked in by the inflation fan which can cause injuries to the person wearing them.” Ouch!

Watch the Balloons Come to Life

The launch field for the Snowmass festival is a softball field, partitioned into sections with hay bales. Each pilot gets a designated area for inflation. The balloon crews arrive in waves, set up and launch. The Snowmass Festival events include races and competitions. The highlight of the festival is the Saturday night Balloon Glow and concert.

As night became day, I wandered around snapping photos of the crews assembling their balloons. Many families, some in pajamas, huddled under blankets on a hilltop watching as the field inflated with color. I had the same sense of wonder I used to get as a kid when you turned the page in a pop-up book and something wonderful leaped off the pages!

Travel bucket list experience -- watching hot air balloons inflate during Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado..

Watching the hot air balloons come to life was almost as much fun as the ride…almost! Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/Optimism TravelingMom

Receive Your Pilot Assignment

Volunteers arriving in the dark check in and receive their balloon assignment. I was paired with Sprit in the Sky, owned by Craig Pendleton. According to the program, he and his mom Mae Bell have participated in the festival for 5 of its 42 years. I was relieved that I wasn’t flying with a newbie!

The Pendletons welcomed me and my husband to the crew with hugs. Craig and Mae Bell introduced us to Craig’s fiancee Jennie and his 14-year old twins, handed us gloves and started unloading the pickup truck they drove from New Mexico to Colorado.

For the Pendletons, ballooning is a family affair. Mae Bell’s mom introduced her to the hobby and Mae Bell owned and piloted several balloons while raising Craig. Jennie comes from a ballooning family too and the kids were enthusiastic helpers who seem destined to continue the tradition.

I asked if there’s a minimum age to work on a balloon crew. Craig said no. “There are simple tasks, like holding the fan used to inflate the balloon, that younger children can do.”

How Hard is it to Set Up a Hot Air Balloon?

My husband hadn’t signed up for crew duty because he had no desire to fly. He’s got a severe fear of heights. But he jumped right in to help. The first steps involve laying out the balloon – technically, it’s referred to as the envelope. Next, the crew attaches the basket or gondola to the envelope.

Travel bucket list experience -- volunteering as part of the hot air balloon crew like a bearded man holding a balloon at the Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado.

Why is this man smiling? He’s the holding on to the crown of the balloon as it inflates and assured me that it’s the best job in the world! Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/Optimism TravelingMom

Then comes the magic. Craig assigned my husband to handling the crown; it’s the top of the balloon. Mae Bell asked Craig’s daughter and me to hold open the narrow end of the envelope, the throat. Mae Bell showed me what lines to hold. I was a little nervous because I’m uncoordinated. Visions of me getting tangled in a rope and dangling in the sky flashed through my head. I voiced my concerns but Mae Bell told me simply to drop the lines if I got discombobulated.

Her grandson turned on a large fan and, slowly, Spirit in the Sky began to inflate. Just like blowing up a pool float, the process is slow. Craig, Mae Bell and Jennie dashed around, straightening the envelope, as the rest of us held on tight. It was a good upper body workout that I felt the next day!

When the envelope was inflated satisfactorily, Craig ignited the two burners and the balloon lifted off the ground!

Travel bucket list experience -- helping a hot air balloon crew assemble the gondola at the Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado.

The “Spirit in the Sky” crew assembles the gondola in preparation for the hot air balloon ride. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/Optimism TravelingMom

Getting over the Fear Factor

Working on the crew, I saw how professionally the Pendleton family went about the business of setting up the balloon. I was just the teeniest bit nervous about the actual flight, but they oozed competence. I did get a little overwhelmed when we ascended quickly to 7,000 feet. There was a seat in the gondola and simply sitting down for a minute or two helped me get over my wobbles quickly. A seat is a great feature and something you should inquire about before booking a ride.

Up, Up and Away!

The actual ride was amazing. We floated above the beautiful White River Valley, framed by Rocky Mountain peaks. It’s one of the Pendletons’ favorite places to fly. I expected the ride to be bumpy, kind of like gentle airplane turbulence. But it’s smooth as glass. You forget that you’re actually moving until you look around and notice the landscape’s changed.

Taking photos from above was really fun. Mae Bell encouraged me to take some shots of our shadow and a reflection of the balloon in a pond. I loved how it felt to be suspended in air and understood why Craig thinks “spiritual” is the best way to describe a hot air balloon ride.

The quiet of the ride is interrupted periodically by a whoosh. In order to adjust the balloon’s altitude, the burners need to be ignited. And we laughed quite a bit. Mae Bell, Craig’s co-pilot, spits over the side from time to time to gauge the wind currents below the balloon. On one trip she demonstrated this technique to some Girl Scouts on a ride. The young ladies thought this was terrific and practiced so much they could have earned merit badges!

How Do You Land That Thing?

Landing a hot air balloon takes a combination of luck and skill. And the assistance of the balloon crew. If you choose not to go up for a ride, like my husband, you work with the crew to chase the balloon. Communicating by walkie-talkie, Craig told Jennie where we’d likely end up landing and they followed our flight.

I braced myself for landing with knees bent, as Craig had instructed, but it was hardly necessary; we landed gently on a golf course. Then Craig lifted us slightly off the ground and the crew walked the balloon back over to the softball field. Crews walking in balloons looked like people taking dogs for a walk! An unexpected sight for sure!

Travel bucket list experience -- walking hot air balloons back to the launch field at the Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado.

Walking the hot air balloon back to the festival field is one of the crew responsibilities. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/Optimism TravelingMom

A Travel Bucket List Experience and the Final Work Assignment

Of course, what goes up must come down and get packed away. Hubby helped disassemble the gondola and I helped push the air out of the envelope and roll it up. I crawled around on the ground, so I was glad I wore an old pair of jeans.

The final step was stuffing the envelope into its waterproof travel bag. To do this, we employed the universal travel trick for closing an overstuffed suitcase – we sat on the bundle to get it to compress into the sack.

I prepared to say my goodbyes, but the Pendletons said I wasn’t finished yet. A first flight deserves a toast, so Craig cracked open champagne and recited The Balloonist’s Prayer. They also gave me souvenirs: a trading card featuring Spirit in the Sky, pins and a balloon made out of the champagne cork!

I’ve found that the things I’ve had to work for are the ones I really appreciate. So, working on a hot air balloon crew made my bucket list experience extra memorable. If you can’t get to Snowmass, check out balloon festivals near you. Craig said it’s fairly common for pilots to offer free rides to volunteer crew members, if the weather and schedule cooperate.

Snowmass Balloon Festival: If You Go…

Snowmass, Colorado, hosts the Balloon Festival every September. It’s near Aspen and about a 4-hour drive from the Denver Airport, depending on how many stops you make along the scenic highways. Volunteer information is available on the event website.

Most of the lodging choices in Snowmass are condominium rentals. If you prefer a full-service hotel, the Westin Snowmass Resort is a solid option. Choose a 2 Queen Beds Pinnacle room for a large room with great views. Plan to spend some time lounging in the large lobby that has an alpine chic vibe.

Rocky mountain view from the Westin Snowmass Resort, a convenient location for your travel bucket list experience at the Snowmass Balloon Festival in Colorado.

In summer, ski in/ski out rooms at the Westin Snowmass Resort give guests easy access to slopeside hiking trails. Photo: Cathy Bennett Kopf/Optimism TravelingMom

You can walk right out the Westin’s front door into the Snowmass Upper Mall. It’s full of great shops and terrific restaurants. I’m a fan of Fat Tire beer produced by New Belgium, so I loved hanging out at their Ranger Station brew pub. Transportation around Snowmass Village is free and excellent; you can ride a gondola down to the lower Village and buses operate between Snowmass and Aspen.

If you could do any travel bucket list experience for free, what would you do today?