Hot Air Balloons

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the balloon and wine festival held yearly in southern Riverside County. Over the decades I’d seen the balloons in the distance a handful of times while driving nearby, but had never gone to the festival. Three weeks before this year’s event, I rode down to the site at the Lake Skinner Recreation Area slightly north of the San Diego County border to scout it out.

Parking the bike beside the guard shack near the park entrance, I stood up and began removing my gloves. An attractive blonde woman in a green and tan Ranger uniform walked toward me from the open doorway.
“Thanks for delivering my bike.” She said, grinning. “I was wondering when it would get here.”
“Well, I hope I’m not too late.” I deadpanned. “I hit some traffic in Sun City.”
She giggled, and stopped on the left side of the bike, caressing its red-and-cream paint job with her eyes for a moment before raising them to me. “What can I do for you?”
“I need some information about the balloon festival.”

A few minutes later I had festival and recreation area brochures tucked away in my saddlebag and the event information I needed. The balloons would launch sometime after 6:00am from the area between the large dirt parking lot and Lake Skinner. I wouldn’t have to pay the $22 entrance fee, just $5 for parking, since I would be able to photograph the balloons from the parking lot.

I rode down to the parking lot and looked at the surrounding scenery. In all directions it would make a good backdrop for photographing the hot air balloons. There were no subdivisions or industrial areas in sight, just the nearby hills circled by the ridges of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

On the first morning of the two-and-a-half day festival, I left my driveway at 5:00am, rode fifty miles to the parking lot, then put the kickstand down a few minutes after 6:00. A slow wind was coming from the south-southwest under an overcast sky with scattered blue holes where sunlight poked through.

There were five balloons in what I thought would be the launch area between the parking lot and the lake. They were slowly taking shape as they filled with hot air. I wandered around the edges of the festival area with my camera, drinking coffee from my thermos, looking for a good vantage point for photographs, and killing time until the launchings would begin. A two-foot berm running along the edge of the parking area seemed promising. I would stand on it and shoot over the heads of the people wandering around the grounds when the balloons started taking off.

After forty minutes, it became obvious that the launches would not happen where I thought, since the three balloons were tethered to the ground. They periodically lifted to fifty feet or so with their baskets full of passengers, then slowly fell back to the ground. They were giving rides to the crowd, and no other balloons were making ready to fill and rise for longer flights.
Due to the light wind coming up from the south, the majority of the balloons had launched from the area of the wineries outside of Temecula, and were now drifting slowly toward Lake Skinner.

Over the next two and a half hours, approximately twenty-five balloons rose above the hills to the south. A handful landed near the festival and in the nearby fields. The remainder finally descended behind the hills to the south.I wondered if the web advertising was way off the mark.

Though it had promised “up to fifty” balloons, three was technically in that category, and wouldn’t be false advertising. I walked over to the berm and stood on it, scanning the cloud formations to the south. I gazed at the clouds and the ridges below them on the horizon for a minute, wishing there were more breaks for sunlight, which would help make a good long-distance landscape photo, then noticed the thin edge of something round rising behind the nearest hill.

(Note: Some of these photos will show the larger version when you click on them. Some will not. This appears to be a random effect. I’ve tried to correct it multiple times, but have been unsuccessful.)