Not Just Hot Air – Expect smiling faces for 7th annual Animas Valley Balloon Rally

By John Peel

 Summer/Fall 2022

Heed this warning should you attend the Animas Valley Balloon Rally: get too close, and you might catch the hot-air-balloon bug. The enthusiasm is extremely infectious.

The event in the wide valley north of Durango is celebrating its seventh year October 14-16. It’s small, with a maximum of 30 balloons taking to the skies, but it can make a big impression. If you wander around the open field, where balloonists are setting up next to the highway, many unexpected things could happen: you might find yourself making friends among the ebullient balloonists as you enjoy a crisp morning. You might find time has slipped away while you’re admiring the many oddly shaped and colorful flying devices as they rise from the fall golds and greens below to take their place against the brick red Hermosa Cliffs and the blue, cloud-dotted southwest Colorado sky.

If the fever really takes hold, you may find yourself working on a crew. Balloonists are always seeking volunteers to set up, hold tethers, ride in the chase truck, and help with myriad other tasks during this nonprofit event.

Feeling extra adventurous? C’mon and take a free ride!

The guy who spreads the most enthusiasm and good cheer for the festival is Doug Lenberg. He’s the so-called “balloon meister” – it says so on his official shirt – for this and several other balloon rallies in the Four Corners states. He first climbed into a balloon in 1986, and soon was addicted. He became a pilot. When he moved to Durango in 1998 Lenberg got involved with the Snowdown Balloon Rally and moved it from town to the more expansive Animas Valley.


“I found out I had a passion for sharing it,” Lenberg says during an interview in the cozy lobby of the General Palmer Hotel, one of the festival’s main sponsors. “It wasn’t about what I could do with a hot air balloon. … Sharing it with people and explaining how it works is what gives me the greatest joy.”

Another major festival sponsor is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The train’s owner, Allen Harper, unknowingly played a big role in getting the Animas Valley rally off the ground. One early February during Snowdown, Lenberg asked Harper if he would join them for the morning mass balloon ascension. Harper replied, “No, it’s too cold. Why don’t you do it when it’s nice out there?” Lenberg countered that if Harper was willing to help sponsor it, he’d put together a fall rally. Deal.

Before too long, Lenberg had used his goodwill to gather sponsors, convince hotels to kick in rooms for pilots, and involve other local businesses. The Cottonwoods Homeowners Association came through by providing access to 15 acres of open space off Hermosa Meadows Road. Lenberg rounded up community-minded pilot friends from around the country who were willing to provide free rides and share their love and knowledge of ballooning. The first rally in 2016 brought a thousand or more to Rio Grande land for the evening Downtown Durango Balloon Glow.

“We love it,” says Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District. The influx of people has made a once average business night a big one. “It was a hit from the get-go.” Kids love a chance to stand in a balloon basket and pull the burners to make the gas flames go shooting skyward.

The General Palmer Hotel was an inaugural sponsor and became the festival’s official host hotel. Moreover, it now hosts one of the country’s treasures, the “Western Spirit” balloon. Of twelve original hand-painted balloons, it is one of four still flying. Owned by Dave Eichhorn of Albuquerque, it’ll be at the General Palmer during the festival’s evening glows, when balloons are filled on a two-block stretch of south Main and shimmer like flickering light bulbs.

Imagining someone hand-painting this 90-foot-high nylon contraption is not far from envisioning Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel. In Western Spirit’s larger-than-life tableau, riders on horseback gallop across an intricately painted sagebrush landscape.

General Palmer owner Amy Jackson stops by as Lenberg discusses the rally. Asked why she got involved with the festival and agreed to host Western Spirit, she jabs a thumb toward Lenberg. “This man right here,” Jackson says, and commends the whole gang of balloonists. “You know what? That’s a really fantastic group of people. I figure any time people get to do what they love to do, it brings out the best in them.

Lenberg explained to Jackson when she originally signed on as sponsor that one of her perks was a balloon ride. “No way,” she responded, but finally relented about three years ago.  “I just fell in love with it,” Jackson says. “I started to understand how safe it is.”

Lenberg, unfortunately, had to give up piloting after a 2014 heart attack and ensuing surgeries left him with eight heart stents. But that enthusiasm hasn’t stopped flowing. The balloon meister involves any person or business that is at all interested in this community-minded event: “It’s my passion to bring people together and watch the smiling faces.”

The 2022 event promises to bring many more grins.


7th annual Animas Valley Balloon Rally

Events free to the public

Friday, Oct. 14: Media Day, evening balloon glow downtown

Saturday, Oct. 15: Morning mass ascension, evening balloon glow downtown (tentative)

Sunday, Oct. 16: Morning mass ascension

More info: Doug Lenberg, 505-947-1242,


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