Autumn Hot Air Ballooning Along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains

The shadow of a hot air balloon falls on a forest’s autumn colors. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

The pilot guides our hot air balloon toward a forest ablaze in autumn colors. She gently lowers the basket until it brushes the treetops, a maneuver she tells me is called contouring.

I’ve gone leaf peeping by car on scenic drives and on foot hiking through forests, but this is the first time I’ve seen the reds and golds of autumn from above. I lean over and grab a handful of leaves. Soon all five passengers on board are waving bouquets of bright fall foliage and grinning like school children.

Floating Over Autumn Foliage in a Hardwood Forest

Ballooning ranks as a soft adventure along this stretch the Appalachian Mountains running through Virginia. The quest for fall foliage makes October the busiest month for balloon companies operating outside Charlottesville near the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In Your Bucket Because . . .

  • You want to enjoy the fall foliage from a fresh perspective.
  • You’re looking for a soft outdoor adventure that’s thrilling, but not too physically taxing.
  • Good for couples or small groups of most ages and ability levels.

The Blue Ridge runs along the eastern edge of Appalachian Mountains. The Shenandoah Valley dips to the west and the Piedmont rolls along to the east. More than 100 types of trees grow in hardwood forests on a complex system of ridge lines and valleys where a blue haze hovers, giving the ridge it its name.

Inflating and almost ready for lift-off from a field near Charlottesville, Va. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

Hot air balloons lift off from the east side of the Blue Ridge near Charlottesville, Va., departing at sunrise—sometimes also at sunset if weather conditions are right. Any relatively flat terrain—a golf course, farm field or even a parking lot—is all that’s needed to lift off or land.  Boar’s Head Inn, west of Charlottesville, is a common starting point, but wind speed and direction are the determining factors at departure time.

Lifting Off

Unless you’re acrophobic, ballooning isn’t a scary activity. Because the balloon floats on the breeze, I don’t feel any motion or hear any wind. It’s quiet, except for the occasional blasts from the burner atop the basket. The quick bursts of flame heat the air to keep us airborne. Passengers don’t even break a sweat unless they pitch in to help inflate and deflate the balloon. As it inflates, they help hold the balloon open at the base where a gas-powered fan pushes air into the envelope as it lies on the ground. Once it begins to right itself, a propane gas flame continues to inflate the balloon.

With a signal from the ground crew telling us the balloon is ready to lift off, we scramble into the basket. The crew drops the ropes securing the balloon and with a few blasts of the burner we’re up, up and away. The sound causes a man on the ground to look up. He waves and we wave back.

Passengers help inflate the envelope. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

Several hot air balloon companies frequently launch from the same spot and the pilots keep in radio contact with each other, rising and lowering to ride the air currents together in a multicolored parade across the sky. I look to the horizon where the hazy Blue Ridge rises. Soon we’re over a forest and I see the shadow of the balloon slowly moving across a panorama of russet and amber treetops. As we float over a farm I see a horse running in a pasture and cylinders of hay strewn across a field.

Touching Down

Although the entire balloon outing takes about three hours, I’m in the air for just about an hour. Too soon, the basket touches down, gliding along the ground to a stop and I climb out. I choose to join the line of passengers helping to deflate the balloon. We tuck it under our arms squeezing the air out until the envelope is a long coil that the crew will pack up. The pilot pops open a bottle of champagne for a toast that’s become a traditional way to put a celebratory finish on our uplifting adventure.


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