Ever since moving to Reno with my family, I have been on a continuous search for events and activities in Northern Nevada to create family traditions. Reno certainly has no shortage of tradition worthy events.
Today I’m sharing my review and favorite tips for taking the kids to our family tradition, the Great Reno Balloon Races!
The first time I ever experienced the Reno hot air balloon races, just so happened to be the same year I decided that THIS event would be our first official tradition as a family. It also happened to be on a weekend that my husband was working at the fire station and I had all three kids solo.
Let me tell you, every ounce of pre-packing, early rising, and tiny human whining was worth it.
Glow Show and Dawn Patrol
The Great Reno Balloon Race is typically hosted around the second weekend in September from Friday through Sunday. Before the sun comes up, each day begins with a glow show and dawn patrol. I cannot stress enough how MAGICAL this is!
As you lay on your blankets, eyes up towards the sky, the balloons begin to light up, synchronized through music and cues from the announcer. It truly is breathtaking and is worth getting there early to experience.
The rest of the morning is filled with the mass ascension of balloons, various dress-up competitions, and shopping along the balloon boulevard.
As an overview, here is what the morning looks like:
3:30 a.m.- Gates open 5:00 a.m.– Glow Show 5:30 a.m. – Dawn Patrol 7:00 a.m.– Mass Ascension Launch
Now I know that the thought of purposefully waking up your tiny little humans earlier than their normal morning routine probably makes you want to laugh and then stare at me dumbfounded. But trust me, it’s worth it.
If you plan on going to the glow show or dawn patrol, I would recommend arriving between 3:30 and 4:30 am. Make sure to allow plenty of time to park, walk to San Rafael, and choose a coveted spot on the grassy lawn to camp.
I had my entire car packed and ready to go the night before. I also put my kids to bed in the outfits they would wear to the balloon races to make the transition from bed to the car a little bit easier.
This is where following my last tip about arriving early will make sense. Traffic and parking, even at 3 am is absolutely crazy. So plan accordingly. My best tip for avoiding chaos and frustration would be to:
Map out your route
Choose your parking ahead of time
The Great Reno Balloon Race is located at Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno. Keep in mind that parking along McCarran Boulevard is NOT prohibited but here are some other alternatives:
Pay $20 to Park On-Site (cash only)
Park on-site at San Rafael, located at the corner of Sierra Street and McCarran Boulevard. Lots open at 3:30 am. This is my personal recommendation if you have kids, as it puts you CLOSE!
Once again, get there EARLY! We arrived at 3 am last year and there was already a very long line waiting to get in, but once the lots opened, things moved quickly and our walk was not too bad
Park for free at the University of Nevada, Reno’s north lot and walk to the park. Keep in mind again that it will be very dark and you will be crossing busy streets with lots of traffic.
Also, cars must be out of UNR by 10 am, so if you are planning to stick around to view, take photos, and do more shopping, you might cut it close!
Catch one of the free shuttles that will bring you to and from San Rafael.
Shuttle rides begin at 4 am, with rides leaving every 30 minutes. While convenient, this may be difficult if you are traveling with a stroller or wagon. For a full list of pickup and drop-off locations, click the link below.
View the Balloon Race from Afar
If you are not into crowds or don’t mind skipping dawn patrol, many viewers park on higher streets and view the balloons as they set off into the sky.
Now here is where it gets tricky. Remember in that movie Bird Box where Sandra Bullock is basically blindfolded and fumbling her way around in the pitch-black darkness? You know, aimlessly throwing her hands around her for safety?
Yeah, that’s kind of what you’re going to look like.
If you’re going to be there early for dawn patrol, keep in mind that it will be dark. And when I say dark, I mean DARK. If you park in the main paid lot, it is a little trek through the dirt, and up and down the hills.
Be prepared! small flashlight travel-sized camping lantern or even have someone in your group be the designated “cell phone light holder”.
In addition to my stroller (where I had my two littles tightly strapped), I also packed our wagon to the brim and carried a backpack.
Essentials to Bring
Thick, heavy blankets. You sit on the grass for the entire event. Plus, in September it can get very chilly in the early morning hours, so you want to be warm.
Flashlights. Again, it is dark when you arrive and are walking in.
Wagon/stroller. for littles, chairs, blankets, etc.
Folding chairs may be more comfortable but they are harder to carry if you have little ones. Mine didn’t mind sitting on the grass, but they are nice to have. They have folding ones that are like a backpack, which are worth it!
If your kids are babies/young toddlers a baby carrier or carrying backpack may come in handy. Especially for the walk into the park and walking around!
Warm clothes. It is very chilly at dawn! Put everyone in layers that can easily be taken off as the sun rises and it gets warmer. Mittens and beanies helped us stay warm when we first got there.
Snacks & Hot Chocolate. There are tons of vendors at the park during the event, but you do have to consider crowds. I brought bags of cereal, granola bars, apple sauce packets, and bananas, and Jeena brought a thermos of hot chocolate. Don’t forget the thermos of coffee for you!
Camera, even if it’s just the one on your phone. Many web and Instagram sites have great Reno Balloon Race amateur photo contests, so be prepared.
If you decide to venture to the vendors up top have your card or cash handy! There are vendors to shop, hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls to purchase, and last year there was even face painting for the kids.
A Few More Tips
The bathroom situation is also a porta-potty situation. We picked the perfect spot last year for the balloon launch and then when my 5-year old told me he had to pee, I realized we were about 100 yards from the toilets.
Again, think pitch black dark and tons of people. Keep that in mind if you’re bringing the kids and you don’t think they will make it all the way through the event.
Except for VIP, everything is pretty much open seating in the designated blanket area around the balloons.
It may help to have your spouse or significant other walk ahead of you. That way they can use a big blanket to stake out a spot for you and the kids. You’ll see exactly where that is as soon as you walk onto the field
The More the Merrier
Bring friends! Everything’s better when you have people to share it with. My kids seemed to forget that I woke them up at 2 am as soon as they saw their besties
The Great Reno Balloon Race pilots let you get very close to their balloons! Now that my kids are 4, 6, and 14, I plan on walking them down to the launch area to get a better view or sitting closer to the launch area.
There are VIP packages that you can purchase called “Cloud 9”. Click here to find out more information.
What Day To Go
Saturday and Sunday are the busiest days, so if you can swing it, Friday is a less crowded day to attend, but still just as magical as the weekend!
Up, Up, Up, and Away!
The Great Reno Balloon Race was our first official family tradition since moving to Reno and so far, it is also my favorite.
The mornings may be early, the kids may be tired, and you may wonder if it’s worth it, but the second the first magical balloon lights up, everything melts away and you realize you are surely in for an amazing sight!
We’ve asked some parents to share their tips which you can see here! What are your tips for the Reno Balloon Races? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to tag us in your festivities so we can share!
Megan Rix is a former at-risk high school English teacher turned stay at home mama, lifestyle blogger, and entrepreneur. After leaving the classroom to focus on being a mama, she needed a place to document the life of her very strong-willed child and what she realized along the way were all the things in her life that “anchored” her. A love for food, beauty, family, and giving back to others helped shape the blog as it looks today.