Last Updated on September 21, 2023
Last Updated on September 21, 2023
Carolina BalloonFest is the second-oldest hot air balloon festival in the world and been running for nearly 50 years. The Statesville-based festival brings in close to 40,000 people to Statesville from all over the country. Balloons fly all weekend and it is certainly a sight to see.
But what has made North Carolina, specifically Statesville, such a booming place for ballooning?
We share all of that including updated info for 2023 in this guide! Here’s how we’ve organized things:
- History of Ballooning in Statesville
- Carolina BalloonFest Background
- 2023 Carolina BalloonFest Info
- Our Balloon Ride Experience
Read More: 30+ Awesome Things to Do in Statesville
Carolina BalloonFest in Statesville
Special thanks to Visit Statesville for sending us up in a balloon and for introducing us to the folks who manage Carolina Balloonfest. All opinions within this article are our own.
History of Ballooning in Statesville
Much of this article’s information came from an interview with Carolina BalloonFest board member and balloon meister Daniel Sasser. He joined us for NC Travel Chat. You can listen to the interview here or anywhere podcasts are available.
The answer to “why Statesville” is simple really—manufacturing. Balloon Works, also known as Firefly Balloons, opened in Statesville in 1969 and was one of the country’s original manufacturers of hot air balloons.
Started by Tracy Barnes, Balloon Works set up in Love Valley in Iredell County and capitalized on the craftsmen of the area. Every part of a hot air balloon needs specific and specialized design, so this led to Statesville being the main area for pilots to buy and service their balloons.
In addition to Balloon Works opening to manufacture and sell balloons, Statesville native Bill Meadows established a flight training and promotion company to train pilots.
Not only was Statesville where balloons were manufactured and pilots trained, but the weather and geography of North Carolina’s Piedmont is perfect for hot air ballooning. Tracy Barnes chose Statesville specifically because of those factors.
The proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina provided some shelter from extreme weather so flying could be less challenging. Add in the fact that Statesville is centrally located because of I-77 and I-40, pilots and balloonists are able to reach Statesville easily.
Carolina BalloonFest Background and 2023 Info
All of this is what contributed to the first Carolina BalloonFest in 1974, when it was originally known as the National Balloon Rally.
Pilot training would take place at the factory and many balloonists would come back to Statesville to fly together. It became a homecoming and a way for people across the country to come together who share the same love for hot air balloons.
Balloon Works planned to invite past customers as well as potential customers to enjoy a week of fellowship, and the atmosphere of comradery lives on today.
2023 Carolina BalloonFest Info
The festival remains volunteer-led and returns for the third weekend of October 2023. Tickets for October 20, 21, and 22 can be purchased here. Kids 6 and under receive FREE admission.
The cost of admission goes back to the community through nonprofits that help provide volunteers for the events.
If you are in Statesville during that weekend, make sure to look up at the sky, smile, and snap a picture.
Things to do at the Carolina BalloonFest
The Carolina BalloonFest is an excellent event for the whole family! We recommend bringing chairs or picnic blankets and making it a whole-day affair!
There are plenty of activities for kids- including inflatables and a ninja course. The staff at the inflatables are incredibly kind and helpful! They make sure there aren’t too many children in at a time, keeping everyone safe.
Is it even a festival without some local North Carolina beer and wine? Pay for a tasting wristband and talk to the local brewers and winemakers while you drink your way through North Carolina. We found it to be an incredible value! If that isn’t your speed, then draft domestics are also available at the festival.
Tethered balloon rides are also available for those who aren’t ready to take the plunge for a full hot-air balloon ride. These tethered rides are based on a first-come-first-serve basis.
The rides last approximately 3-5 minutes but provide a great overview of the festival and a taste of what it would be like to ride in a hot air balloon! Note that these rides are dependent on ideal conditions. If it is windy, the rides and balloons might not be operating.
Our Experience Riding in a Hot Air Balloon
Even when Carolina BalloonFest isn’t happening, you can still fly high in the sky. Private balloon rides take place in Statesville throughout much of the year and are honestly an incredible experience.
The Basics (Plus Weather Factors)
Each balloon holds two people (and a pilot. You aren’t on your own!) and rides last for an hour to an hour and a half.
We flew with Charles and Kristie of Big oh! Balloons and had a wonderful experience. They didn’t pay me anything to say that.
But there are some things you should know before you go up in a hot air balloon. Flights typically happen either at sunrise or just before sunset.
Why? Because this is the time of day where the air is the most stable.
Your flight is dependent on the weather, so being flexible and understanding that the pilots are thinking about your safety first is critical to an enjoyable experience.
Before inflating the balloon (we don’t say blow up, because that could be bad!) you will sit down and go over a waiver and safety protocols. If you are lucky, you can help your pilot inflate the balloon and even step inside of it before it is turned upright!
Once inside the balloon, you are ready for take-off. The pilot will turn up the flame to fill the balloon with hot air to lift you and your companion off the ground.
I won’t lie. This was the scariest part of the entire trip for me.
I held on to the wicker basket very tight for at least 15 minutes after we were off the ground until I started to loosen up and feel secure.
While in the air, you are floating effortlessly over farmland and trees. Charles asked us to put our hands out and grab a leave from a passing tree.
Looking as far as you can from 400 feet above the ground with the silence surrounding you is something that really can’t be described beyond a magical feeling.
On a clear day, you can see Pilot Mountain and even the Charlotte skyline. Time goes both slow and fast while you are up in the balloon because before you know it you are making your way for landing in what is hopefully a large field.
I was so worried about taking off that I didn’t even think about landing!
Landing is unpredictable. Ideally, you land in a large open field that is easily accessible via a secondary road, because the chase car is going to want easy access to fold up the balloon and basket.
Our landing was a little bit of both. We landed in a large open field, but realized that we were enclosed by a fence where the truck could not access.
To make things more challenging for Charles, the pilot, there was also a power line that he needed to hop over. We ascended and made it over the power line, hoping to land in the road but we missed it and kept going.
Once the balloon was deflated, we helped to roll and fold it back up so that it would fit back nicely into the trailer of the chase car. This process can be easy or take a little longer depending on where you land.
And that’s part of the fun—every balloon ride is going to be different!
While talking to Charles during the flight, I learned that there really isn’t a bad time of year to fly a hot air balloon. The only time that might not be ideal is during the really hot days of summer.
The heat combined with the heat coming off of the flame isn’t going to be enjoyable.
Ready for Carolina BalloonFest and Beyond in Statesville?
From Statesville’s interesting history of ballooning to the iconic Carolina BalloonFest, we think there are plenty of reasons you should keep tabs on this part of our state.
Riding in a hot air balloon was definitely a NC bucket list-worthy item for me, and I’m so grateful that have had such a wonderful experience in Statesville!
Have you ever flown in a hot air balloon? How about over Statesville or elsewhere in North Carolina? And for bonus points, have you ever attended Carolina BalloonFest?
We’d love to know either way and look forward to hearing about your experiences!
More Things to Do in Statesville (Beyond Carolina BalloonFest)
Beyond Carolina BalloonFest, there are some fun things to do in Statesville. We don’t want to take away from this awesome event, but thought we’d mention it.
Here are some North Carolina Travel Guides that cover this awesome city and its surroundings.