In the skies above Reno, Nevada, Darth Vader soars through the sky—but not in his TIE Fighter. Instead, it’s just Vader’s iconic helmet, reincarnated as an 87 ft.-tall hot air balloon, with a comparatively small flame underneath to keep him afloat in the stratosphere. On the ground, below this inflatable shrine to the famed Sith Lord, a legion of loyal Stormtroopers—along with a breathing, life-sized version of Vader himself—salute along with other Star Wars fanatics.
This is just one of the scenes at the Great Reno Balloon Race, the world’s largest free hot air balloon event, taking place each September (9–11th this year) in Reno’s Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. What started as a small community balloon festival of just 20 balloons in 1981 has grown over the decades to include about 100 balloons. Now, 120,000 spectators convene in Reno to marvel at the miracle of wingless flight, as the bright colors of giant balloons fill the sky.
However, you’ll see much more than your standard run-of-the-mill inverted teardrop-shaped balloons. At the Great Reno Balloon Race, there are hot air cats, hot air birds, hot air armadillos, giant sloths, Looney Tunes characters, and a UFO — a spacecraft unassociated with the Stormtroopers down below.
The Stormtroopers, members of the 501st Legion cosplay collective, along with the Darth Vader balloon — piloted by fellow Belgian Star Wars fan Benoit Lambert — have inspired Star Wars themed activities and contests at the Great Reno Balloon Race. But you need not be a Star Wars fan to appreciate the festival. In fact, most of the event is not Star Wars-related, and there are plenty of family-friendly activities to do, provided you and the family wake up before the crack of dawn. That’s because favorable conditions to launch a hot air balloon are typically in the morning, just after sunrise. Preparations begin before first light.
The balloon race is a free public event so anyone can come to the park at 5am for what festival organizers call “Dawn Patrol.” There, families can watch the balloons rise up from the ground as they get inflated with flames and giant fans. In the nearby sky above is another daily scheduled event, the Super Glow Show, in which a handful of balloons perform a flashing light show set to music. Both of these experiences lead up to the Mass Ascension Launch at 7am, when the balloons rise up in the air to race in the general direction of where the winds take them.
However, the Great Reno Balloon Race is not about speed; it’s about navigational accuracy to different targets found in the region. Pilots and their teams maneuver their aircrafts to the targets by harnessing directional winds at different altitudes. Once they hover over a target, they either drop a beanbag to where an X marks the spot, or push a button on a GPS tracker to do it virtually.
As fun as all this seems, this part of the race is hardly a spectator sport as the balloons are already too far away to observe any of the bean bag drops. Instead, attendees of Reno’s balloon festival can simply be delighted at the color scene of the balloons of different shapes soaring through the sky.
However, if you or your family has balloon-riding envy, tethered rides from two balloons that remain in the park are offered for $5. From above, you’ll be able to see the landscape below with a bird’s eye view—or an armadillo’s, tiger’s, or Sith Lord’s eye, for that matter.