Spectators can watch hot air balloons take off and soar over southeast Utah at the 21st annual Bluff International Balloon Festival on Jan. 18-20.

“Sailing over Valley of the Gods where you have the color of the balloons against the deep red monoliths is stunning and eye-popping,” festival co-organizer Steve Simpson said.  “We call it the Bluff International Balloon Festival because we typically have at least one pilot from the United Kingdom.”

Sponsored by the Business Owners of Bluff, the weekend festivities begin on Friday, Jan. 18 and end on Sunday, Jan. 20 with daily balloon launches and community events.

The annual event began 21 years ago, when one Albuquerque balloonist came to Bluff at the invitation of then-resident Howard Brundage. Word spread through balloonists about the spectacular scenery and the festival grew to be an annual event averaging about 25 balloonists.

In addition to the balloon pilot, and at least one support person, spectators come from around the region, including Albuquerque, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, Simpson said. Sometimes there will be a spectator from as far as Vermont or California.

Twenty-three balloons piloted by hobbyists and enthusiasts from across the country will take flight each morning of the festival just after sunrise. The launches will begin around 7:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday from the Bluff Community Center. On Sunday, a caravan will depart from the community center and travel south to Valley of the Gods where the balloons will launch, flying over the rock formations found there.

There will be an artists market this year, held at the Bluff Community Center on Saturday, from noon to 5 p.m. Local and regional artists will be selling a wide range of handcrafted items, including Native American artwork.

Though spectators won’t be riding in the balloons — unless you’re a sponsor, then you do get to board a balloon — visitors will have a chance for a closeup view of the basket during Saturday night’s “glow-in” when, in front of the community center, the balloons will be tethered to the ground with burners lit up, illuminating the night sky.

“It’s spectacular and fun,” as five or six balloons are gathered together in a circle, co-organizer Marcia Hadenfeldt said.

At the community center on Friday, Bluff Elementary School will begin serving a “Navajo Taco Supper” at 5 p.m.

There are dinner options on Saturday as well, with business owners of Bluff offering a chili and ice cream social from 4 to 6:30 p.m. The chili and ice cream fundraiser is to benefit BOB, which serves as a sort of chamber of commerce, Simpson said. A bowl of chili will be $5, while ice cream will be for sale for $3.

“We do festivals like this to generate money, then we do community projects like the nice flagstone signs on each end of town,” Simpson said.

“It’s a fun way to enjoy food while watching the glow-in and shopping the market,” Hadenfeldt said.

“Visitors should plan on coming out to Bluff and enjoying the whole day,” said Natalie Randall, director of San Juan County Economic Development and Visitor Services. “The balloon festival is a great excuse to explore Bluff and the beautiful region around it.”

“We have a loyal balloon following, and a sponsorship following,” Simpson said. “We have a high number of return pilots.”

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