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The 36th annual Great Reno Balloon Race is rapidly approaching Sept. 8-10; and lucky for local residents, it’s pretty hard to miss. With a hot-air giant Darth Vader and oversize piece of sushi hovering over Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, if you’re anywhere near downtown Reno, you’ll notice traffic slowing to a crawl to take it all in. Want a front-row seat of the action? We’ve got all the tips you need to be swept up, up and away.

Billed as the world’s largest free, hot-air ballooning event, this hugely popular September tradition now attracts more than 120,000 spectators — a mix of local fans and visitors — and will showcase nearly 100 balloons. Organizers are able to keep the event free with the help of sponsor support.

“There is something about waking up early, bundling up in blankets and staring up at these magnificent balloons,” said Pete Copeland, executive director of the event. “Every single year, much like the spectators, I am drawn in by the pure magic of the event — of the spectacular balloons and the memories that I know families and friends are making.”

And while there’s several ways and times to enjoy the event, we recommend taking it all in, at least once in your lifetime.


The 36th annual Great Balloon Race will be making its return this September, debuting news faces, and some fan favorites.

What to see

The Friday Super Glow show kicks it all off bright and early at 5 a.m. Sept. 8 featuring upward of 40 hot-air balloons twinkling and glowing across the field, serenaded by music. The Glow Show will repeat at 5 a.m. Saturday and Sunday Sept. 9-10, and while still spectacular, will feature eight balloons.

The Dawn Patrol takes flight just a wee bit after the Saturday and Sunday Glow Shows. At 5:15, a select and qualified group of balloons will illuminate the darkened sky, all choreographed to music.

Then, starting at 6:45 a.m. each day of the event, 90 balloons will launch from Rancho San Rafael Park in what’s known as “Mass Ascension.” After, a select group of pilots begin the competition portion of the race, using their skills and knowledge to compete for an $11,000 prize purse.

But it’s not just pilots having all the fun. After the Mass Ascension, the RE/MAX balloon will provide tethered rides for children, for the cost of a very worthy donation to the Children’s Miracle Network.

And check this out: There’s actually prizes for just rolling out of bed and getting there. On Saturday, Sept. 9, there will be a Star-Wars-themed pajama contest with the winner snagging the prize of a ride in the Darth Vader balloon on Sunday. The lucky winner will also win a viewing of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi” at Sparks IMAX Luxury + Galaxy Theatres. Preliminary judging starts at 7 a.m., with the finals at 7:30 a.m. Saturday.

Keep in mind that a huge part of enjoying this event is in the timing. Map out the distance and plan in advance where to park. There are a number of public parking options to choose from, depending on mobility. For $10 you can park at the Sierra Street/McCarran lot or the Coleman lot starting at 3:30 a.m. And the University of Nevada, Reno offers their north parking lot to the public for free before 10 a.m. RTC will also be offering rides from several spots around Reno and Sparks.

Insider tips

  • Dress in layered clothing to ensure you’re comfortable throughout the event. Dawn is the coldest part of the day, but as the sun rises, so does the temperature.
  • Bring folding chairs and blankets for the grass. Some use small wheelbarrows or wagons for transporting items.
  • Cameras and video recorders are permitted, but drones are not allowed due to FAA safety regulations.
  • You can BYOB (bring your own breakfast) or enjoy the vast amount of food and beverage vendors at the event, including French toast, hot chocolate and morning libations. Some vendors accept cards, but cash makes it easier.
  •  Although the park is illuminated by the balloons, it’s still dark, especially that early and on the foot paths leading to the main field. Light the way with headlamps and flashlights.
  • And last but not least, if you smoke, leave it at home — you don’t want to light up around the large amounts of propane in use.
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