If you go
What: 29th annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo
When: Launch field opens to the public at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, balloons inflate at 6:30 a.m. and launch at 7 a.m.; balloons stay in the air until about 9 a.m., weather depending
Where: Bald Eagle Lake, off U.S. Highway 40 south of Steamboat Springs; free parking is available at the Meadows Lot at Pine Grove and Mount Werner roads. No parking is available at Bald Eagle Lake.
Steamboat Springs Balloonmeister Joe August has been fascinated with being lighter than air for the 29 years the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo has been flying over Steamboat Springs and for a good chunk of time before that.
As August prepared for his first year overseeing race events, safe landing sites, spectator participation and other logistical pieces at the Balloon Rodeo - which takes off at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday from Bald Eagle Lake - he remembered studying climatology as a high school 4-H member.
"My first experiment was, we put together a papier-mÃ•che balloon, and then we filled it with smoke from a fire, and the whole concept of lighter than air flight just fascinated me," August said.
After volunteering at the 1982 Balloon Rodeo, August returned the next year with a commercial ballooning license to compete in the rodeo races. He spent 25 years in the commercial balloon business and has been involved with the Steamboat rodeo since that summer of 1982. August will use his expertise to make sure everything runs smoothly this weekend, as 32 balloons and pilots from across the country set off from the Steamboat launch site in a multi-task race.
The Bald Eagle Lake launch field for this year's rodeo opens at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, with balloons inflating at 6:30 a.m. and taking off at about 7 a.m. Once in the air, pilots will attempt to "slash and dash" across the lake, touching the balloon basket to a target in the water, August said. From there, they'll head to River Creek Park, where pilots will attempt to throw a beanbag closer to the center of an "X" than other competitors. The race ends back at Bald Eagle, where contestants will drop a marker and then try to grab one of three small helium balloons; each balloon represents a prize.
Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association spokesperson Molly Killien said spectators are encouraged to bike to the event or to use free parking and shuttles available at the Meadows Lot at the intersection of Pine Grove and Mount Werner roads. There is no parking for cars at Bald Eagle Lake, but there will be bike lockups at the launch site.
Spectators are welcome to walk around and talk to pilots before balloons launch, watching them inflate and interacting with the event, which Killien described as "absolute eye candy." Balloons likely will be in the air until about 9 a.m., but weather plays a significant role in how the morning goes, Killien said.
"Ballooning is extremely weather-dependent, so how the winds blow and the temperature really affect not only how long the balloon is in the air, but where the balloon goes and if it's able to come back to the launch site," she said. "Last year for example, (on Saturday) all the balloons were grounded by 9 (a.m.), but on Sunday, balloons were still up in the air at 9 (a.m.)."
On Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service forecast predicted mostly cloudy conditions and a high in the lower 80s for Saturday, with possible wind gusts as high as 25 mph and a 20 percent chance of thunderstorms after noon. The forecast for Sunday was partly cloudy with a high in the mid-80s and a 20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after noon.
The Balloon Rodeo is sponsored by Bank of the West and is a signature summer event for the Chamber.