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Northern Light Balloon Expeditions
The only people driving Sedona’s state routes at 4:45 a.m. are garbage collectors and those bleary-eyed souls preparing for hot air balloon tours. The latter group gathered in a West Sedona parking lot as guides from Northern Light Balloon Expeditions, which has been in business in Sedona for more than 35 years, collected passengers for the quick drive to the launch site on Lower Red Rock Loop Road. We gathered around as crews stretched out five enormous green-and-yellow balloons and used gas-powered fans to inflate each one. When the balloons, or envelopes, have enough air inside, giant burners are lit, forcing the balloons into vertical positions. In the soft dawn light, the balloons glow beautifully thanks to the blue-and-orange flames. Finally, it’s time to board. Six of us plus our pilot, Blair Preston, (each balloon has a maximum capacity of seven) hop into the wicker basket, and we gently lift off the ground.
Ever so slowly, we float above prickly pear cactuses and juniper trees. Rabbits scurry below. Soon we are climbing at 700 feet per minute with all of Sedona, most of its residents still fast asleep, stretched out in front of us. When we reach an altitude of 2,000 feet, Oak Creek and then the San Francisco Peaks come into view. For the next 90 minutes, we drift with the air currents, the only sound coming from the occasional burst of flame into the envelope. The ride is – surprisingly – peaceful and smooth. Once Blair learned he was piloting a balloon full of wildlife enthusiasts, he sought out a herd of elk grazing in a rocky wash. We also spotted mule deer, an owl and even a wide-eyed black cat that quickly slinked into a storm drain. The spotty traffic along SR 89A honked and waved as we drifted above their morning commutes. From the air, we were able to explore Dry Creek Canyon, a beautiful red rock amphitheater that seemed to be accessibly via balloon only.
So, why the early morning wakeup call for balloon tours? Blair explains that the winds at sunrise in Sedona are generally calm, and it’s the coolest part of the day. Our flight ended when we gently landed among the cactuses and lava rock west of Sedona and just south of SR 89A, and our chase crew was waiting to help us out of the gondola and pack the balloon. It took only minutes, and then we drove a short distance down a dirt road to meet the morning’s other balloonists. Everyone gathered around for a Champagne toast and a picnic breakfast of sweet rolls and strawberries. We were back at our cars by 8 a.m. It would be difficult to think of a more pleasant way to begin the day.
Northern Light Balloon Expeditions
Rates: $195 per person
Tips: Year-round, you will need to wear long pants and sturdy shoes (no sandals or flip-flops). Layer your clothing on top and wear a hat to protect your head from radiant heat from the balloon’s burners. You might also want to bring a bottle of water.
Red Rock Biplane
In all honesty, my stomach was in knots as I boarded a biplane for the second time in my life, contorting my body to squeeze under the wing and sit inside the tiny cockpit. My first flight several years ago was full of turbulence, and I was dizzy for hours after it was finished. But I soon found out what a difference a wind-free day makes.
Red Rock Biplane has been giving adventure seekers the flight of a lifetime for 17 years, says James Barron (yes, that’s his real last name), our pilot. The company flies WACO (Weaver Aircraft Company) planes that were originally designed in the mid-1930s. Our plane was built in 1997 to the same type of certifications as the originals. While the plane is equipped to perform aerobatics, the pilots at Red Rock Biplane aren’t likely to do any 360-degree turns in midair. “This is about pleasant sightseeing,” James says.