Hutton Lake NWR is treasure hidden in plain sight

Hutton Lake NWR

Birders look for waterbirds as well as hawks and eagles in early June at Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Laramie, Wyoming.

Published June 22, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyoming refuge is a treasure hidden in plain sight.”

By Barb Gorges

In early June, Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge birds are busy reproducing. They barely notice birders.

The refuge is southwest of Laramie. It’s small by national refuge standards, just under 2,000 acres, and relatively unknown, compared to others in Wyoming like Seedskadee or the National Elk Refuge.

Hutton Lake has little to offer people: no visitor center, no restrooms, no picnic tables, no fishing, no hunting, no camping, no off-road vehicles, horses or dogs allowed anywhere, no trees, no dramatic landscape, and no decent road–until recently.

Instead, it caters to wildlife, attracting 29 mammal species, six amphibian and reptile species and 146 kinds of birds, including 60 species that have been known to nest there.

What do avian visitors find at Hutton Lake?

Five small lakes, including namesake Hutton, have a variety of wet habitats—shallow water for puddle ducks and wading birds, deeper water for diving ducks, muddy shores for shorebirds and thick reed beds for nesting. On land, there are greasewood thickets perfect for nesting songbirds like the sage thrashers. The short grass of the surrounding plains, as green as a golf course this spring, will have its share of bird nests on the ground—grassland species do without trees.

The comparatively flat (the Snowy Range glimmers in the distance) and nearly featureless topography of the Laramie River Valley does have a few rocky outcrops and ridges. The astute birder will find eagles and hawks perched on them, or soaring overhead.

Hutton is part of a complex

Ann Timberman is the project manager for the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Hutton Lake and two other small refuges nearby but which are closed to the public because of endangered species work. There’s also Pathfinder near Casper, and Arapaho, the main refuge, is where the complex’s headquarters are located, outside Walden, Colo.

In some ways, Ann’s job, which she’s had for 10 years now, is easy. The National Wildlife Refuge System doesn’t have to manage for multiple, and often conflicting, uses like the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. Its mission is to benefit wildlife. Hutton Lake was established in 1932 “to provide resting and breeding habitat.” Livestock grazing permits are available only in years when it’s been determined it will benefit wildlife.

Ann and I toured Hutton Lake together June 2 on a wonderfully windless day. Bringing along the spotting scope did not make for the most efficient interview—we kept losing our conversational focus while focusing on the differences in field marks for immature bald and golden eagles and other birdwatching matters.

Improvements welcomed

The tour was to show off improvements made last year, the biggest being the roadwork, tons of gravel filling the deep ruts I remembered from my last visit. The road improvement also extends to the two-track across state land, between Sand Creek Road, which is the closest county road, and the boundary of the refuge.

Even a small car with minimal clearance can navigate the single lane road, as we found when we saw one at the new gravel parking spot at the end of the road.

One improvement was unglamorous, but very expensive—replacing the infrastructure that regulates the flow of water from one of the lakes to another.

This summer, an interpretive trail and observation platform will be built at one of the lakes.

There’s a birdwatching blind now, too, built last year by an Eagle Scout candidate, with funding for materials provided by Laramie Audubon Society.

I went out again to Hutton five days later with some of the chapter members on a field trip. As much as they appreciate the improved road, they are a little sad to lose vehicle access to some of the roads that are now for pedestrians only. Tim Banks, trip leader, pointed out that some of their older chapter members are not going to be hiking in to regain closer views of the lakes.

Laramie Audubon members are just about the only regular visitors and the only interest group which keeps tabs on the refuge. They worked to have it designated as a Wyoming Important Bird Area.

Partnerships benefit wildlife

In fact, two bird lovers, Gere and Barbara Kruse, were responsible for the recent improvements. In their memory, their daughter, Babs, brought $42,000 to Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, asking for help finding an appropriate wildlife/public use habitat project in Albany County.

The Trust matched the donation. Laramie Rivers Conservation District’s Martin Curry, resource specialist, wrote the grant and oversaw most of the work. Other cooperators were the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the refuge, as well as its parent agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A total of $111,000 will have been spent when improvements are finished.

There are drawbacks to having a better road. Back in January, kids started a fire even though fires are not allowed, and it got out of control. Thankfully, the refuge is on local law enforcement’s beat and Albany County firefighters put it out. Ann decided to lock the gate for the winter, allowing only walk-in access.

With only 3.5 staff members for the whole Arapaho refuge complex, locals become Ann’s eyes and ears at Hutton Lake. There are few birds and few people on the windswept plains in winter. But, for instance, deciding when in spring to open the gate will depend on local birders apprising her of conditions. Visitors can also report suspicious or illegal activities–impossible to hide on the open plains.

For Ann, from a management perspective, making the refuge more accessible is a double-edged sword of sorts, allowing in vandals as well as visitors. But, she said, in the long run, it pays to make friends and develop partnerships. In this case, sharing Hutton Lake with people who appreciate it benefits the wildlife. And that fits the refuge’s mission.

If you go

The refuge is open to driving on established roads as conditions permit, and to hiking on roads and trails year round. Wildlife watching and photography are the recreational activities allowed. Spring, especially April, is a great time for birdwatching.

There is no drinking water and no restroom. Please pack out trash. Hunting, shooting, fishing, fires and camping are not permitted.

How to get there

From Laramie, drive south on U.S. 287. When the huge cement plant comes up on your right less than two miles south of I-80, aim for the plant’s front office using one of the crossroads, but instead of entering the plant, veer left (south) and you will be on Sand Creek Road. After about 8 miles you will see a brown sign for Hutton Lake pointing to the right. Turn and follow the gravel trail to the refuge entrance, which is marked by a large sign and a small parking area.

More information is available at

Cheyenne Big Day results for 2013

Scarlet Tanager

A Scarlet Tanager was the highlight of the 2013 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count. An eastern species, it very rarely visits Wyoming–less than a dozen reports ever–so it is considered a vagrant. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published June 9, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Spring migration surprise delights birdwatchers.”

2014 Update: Check the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society website for information on past and upcoming Big Day Bird Counts:

To see Big Day Bird Count results for several years, click big-day-bird-count-1999-2013.

By Barb Gorges

The highlight, and maybe rarest bird, was pretty flashy. A male scarlet tanager was spotted May 18 during the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s Big Day Bird Count.

If you’ve never seen one back East, think bright red bird with black wings. More than 20 people were able to see it at Wyoming Hereford Ranch as it perched on a low branch on the front of a bush–unlike other rare birds which would rather skulk behind.

Every year mid-May, members and friends of the chapter hope to encapsulate Cheyenne’s spring migration in one day, but with more people discussing the birds they see on the Wyobirds e-list before and after the chosen date, it’s apparent this year’s migration was not so tidy. For instance, white-crowned sparrows had nearly all moved on when the black-headed grosbeaks and some of the unusual warblers moved in.

We counted more species this year than last, 111, maybe because it was a nicer day. Last year’s 104, lowest number in the 21 years for which I can find records, were counted in rain and cold. But we still are nowhere near the 140-150 species I remember from the 1990s.

In all, 25 species recorded last year didn’t show up this year, including nine kinds of shorebirds. A look at the local reservoirs on May 18 showed that it was the fault of the previous month’s weather. All that snow melted and filled them, leaving no bare, sandy ground along the shoreline for the shorebirds.

Another group missing was the flycatchers, except for our most abundant species—eastern and western kingbirds and Say’s phoebe. The ones not seen, including the Western wood pewee, which should be somewhat common around Cheyenne, were running late.

But we more than made up for missing species with 32 that weren’t seen last year.

The warbler family was in fine fettle. Last year we had only six species; this year 11 (on the accompanying list they begin with northern waterthrush, going on through yellow-breasted chat).

In the 21 years I’ve been keeping track, we’ve had as few as six warbler species (2005 and 2012) and as many as 17 (2001 and 2002), averaging 11, with an overall total of 31. Many of these species “belong” back east.

In some ways, the Cheyenne Big Day is a game we play: How many species can we see in one day? The American Birding Association has rules for Big Days. If you have a team, all team members must see the same birds. Team Sapsucker, top birders from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, broke the North American Big Day record this spring with 294 species, by birding in Texas during the right 24 hours.

If we could see all in one day the species recorded on our Cheyenne count over the last 21 years, we’d have 263.

But here in Cheyenne we are more egalitarian. We invite anyone willing to bird with us, or bird on their own, to contribute to our total, so our results might be influenced by the number of birders and their level of expertise as much as by the weather. This year we started at 6 a.m. with about 15 people and were helped out by a dozen more from Casper and Laramie who found birds we missed and in areas the main group didn’t get to.

Our results from as far back as 1994 have now been entered into, where they will be of use to scientists, so that our Big Day isn’t just a game or an excuse to indulge in our favorite hobby. But it would seem more like work if it wasn’t full of surprises like the scarlet tanager.

Book reviews: What the Robin Knows, Life Everlasting, Young Birder’s Guide to Birds

What the Robin Knows

What the Robin Knows

Published May 25, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: All three books are widely available.

By Barb Gorges

What the Robin Knows, by Jon Young, c. 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 241 pages, $22.

Includes science and audio editing by Dan Gardoqui and corresponding audio clips at

The subtitle of this book is “How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.”

Author Jon Young takes what native trackers, other human mentors, and birds have taught him and passes it on to others through workshops and his website, Now he’s reaching a wider audience with this book.

There’s a slight New Age ring to it—after all, he’s moved from his boyhood home in New Jersey where he roamed the woods, to life in California.

In a way, this is also a self-help book. Young contends if you learn to pay attention in nature, specifically, distinguishing different bird calls and songs to understand “what the robin knows” about what is going on around you outdoors, it will make a difference to you, spiritually.

But even if you only want to learn to puzzle out wildlife secrets, you’ll find reading Young’s advice is time well spent.

Life Everlasting

Life Everlasting

Life Everlasting, The Animal Way of Death, Bernd Heinrich, c. 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $25.

We all know about the food chain, but we don’t often want to think about how animals are recycled to become sustenance for future generations.

It is the request from a friend for a natural burial on author and scientist Bernd Heinrich’s land in Maine that causes him to examine the strategies of nature’s undertakers.

Heinrich’s in-depth look at how beetles, whales, ravens, vultures, salmon, among others, gracefully take part in the cycle of life contrasts sharply with what he shows us about human cultural practices that either use a huge amount of energy or poison extensive amounts of land with formaldehyde.

Heinrich is not only a scientist, but also a storyteller and a philosopher. If you enjoy this book, be sure to look up his others, including “Mind of the Raven” and “Why We Run.”


Young Birder's Guide

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America, by Bill Thompson III, c. 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 364 pages, softcover, $15.95.

As predictable as the spring migration of birds is the spring publication of a new bird field guide, especially one in the Peterson Field Guides series.

This one is for children old enough to read and is written by Bill Thompson III with help from his kids (whose mother, Julie Zickefoose, is one of the book’s illustrators) and Mrs. Huck’s fifth grade class.

If you buy this field guide for a child you know and hope to turn into a birdwatcher, even if you aren’t one, go ahead and read the introduction. You may find you want to buy a copy for yourself.

Only the book-wormiest kids will actually read the introductory chapter. The rest will go straight to the photos and the “Wow!” factoids—the surprising tidbits about each bird.

A generous 300 species of the 800 North American birds are included (200 of those can be expected in Cheyenne), but the volume’s dimensions still remain child-sized. My only quibble is with the range maps. You have to infer that during migration a species might be seen anywhere between the winter and summer ranges.

If this book sounds vaguely familiar, it is because Thompson and Zickefoose came out with “The Young Birder’s Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America” in the same format in 2008, which would be a better option for your grandchildren living east of the Mississippi, unless they are coming out to visit.

Cheyenne Big Day results for 2012

Great-tailed Grackle

The Great-tailed Grackle is becoming a less rare species in Cheyenne, Wyo. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 10, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird Count yields results labeled as ‘a crazy spring’.”

2014 Update: Check the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society website for information on past and upcoming Big Day Bird Counts:

To see Big Day Bird Count results for several years, click HERE.

By Barb Gorges

A successful Big Day Bird Count is all about knowing where to find the birds.

When it rains buckets during the first hour of the count, you have to know where the birdwatchers go, too. They went to Starbucks.

I don’t know how long Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society has been conducting the annual Cheyenne Big Day, probably 30 or 40 years. It’s a bit of an anomaly, since an official American Birding Association Big Day is something an individual birder or small team conducts to see how many species they can count in 24 hours in a specified area. All the team members have to see all the species.

Our count compiler, Greg Johnson, did his own Big Day for Laramie County on May 20, the day after the chapter’s count, and saw 93 species.

The chapter count, however, starts out as a large group enterprise, but by afternoon we are birding in smaller parties. Everyone’s results are pooled for a final tally. This year, it was 104 species, not much more than Greg’s, considering we had more than 20 people scouring the city and countryside. It’s the lowest number of species I can remember in the past 20 years.

I also don’t remember getting soaked on a count and having to track down half the participants to a downtown coffee shop. I don’t think we missed many birds during the rain—they were tucked away as well.

It stopped raining and we had an incredible fallout of goldfinches by the time we reached the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. The dandelions were finished, but a flock of 50-plus bright yellow males gobbling the seeds made one of the lawn areas look as though it were blooming again.

We hit another snafu at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. For the first time, our permit to walk the back road didn’t come through in time so we may have missed a few species—last year, we saw 10 there and nowhere else.

And then there was the spring itself, warmer than usual, with trees leafing out and plants blooming as many as three weeks ahead of schedule. Was that the reason we had only 104 species compared to a more normal 130-140? Had some migrating species already come and gone?

Greg Johnson is puzzled.

“My take is that this is a completely crazy spring—much lower numbers of both species and individuals.  I have been birding nearly every day since May 8,” Johnson said in an email. “I have seen six species of warblers all spring. To put that into perspective, I remember seeing 11 species of warblers once over a lunch hour at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch.”

He noted that on Cobirds, an elist serv for Colorado birders, showed that a banding station at Barr Lake had about 40 percent fewer birds banded than a year ago.

“So it seems to be a region-wide phenomenon,” Johnson said.

This year we missed 40 species we saw last year—but saw 20 we didn’t see a year ago. We’re always looking for the birds that “don’t read the maps,” such as those rarely seen eastern warblers. This year, common migrants apparently weren’t even reading the calendar.

Planning a serendipitous birding trip

Herring Gull

This Herring Gull at the Chatham Lighthouse beach in Massachusetts hopes visitors will read the sign. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 19, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Planning for serendipity makes for a satisfying birding trip.”

2014 Update: eBird now offers a better way to search for birding hotspots and find out what birds are currently being reported in an area.

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I are learning how to add birding opportunities to obligatory travel. A graduation, in the middle of spring migration, has to be the best excuse for a birding adventure.

Our younger son, Jeffrey, graduated mid-May from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts (mechanical engineering) so Mark and I studied the maps and in advance to determine where and what birds would be present.

Our first destination was Cape Cod, more for its national icon status than the birds. We stayed at a B & B in Yarmouth Port, in a house built in 1730. A chance encounter with the director of the Edward Gorey Museum next door led us down a path to a whole network of woodland trails and ponds.

Luckily, this deciduous forest was less than half leafed out. We were delighted to be able to see our first eastern birds of this trip—northern cardinal, tufted titmouse and black-capped chickadee—birds we don’t see at home.

At Cape Cod National Seashore, it was a bit past prime seabird migration. Things didn’t get birdy until we got to Plum Island, managed mostly by Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and located off the northeast shore of Massachusetts, by Newburyport.

We walked softly along the boardwalk on the Hellcat Interpretive Trail, looking for any signs of life and then, in one magic spot, warblers began to appear. Other birders told us the weather was driving migration inland, but we were satisfied with the total of 13 warbler species we found on our trip, half of which would be considered rare in southeast Wyoming.

Quite by chance our visit coincided with the regular Massachusetts Audubon (always abbreviated in print and speech as “Mass Audubon”) Wednesday morning field trip leaving from Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center, across from the refuge’s headquarters. Yes, it cost $15 per person, but we rode in Mass Audubon vans and the leaders showed us northern gannets and Caspian terns—birds we would have missed.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., attracts flocks of birders every spring. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Hearing we would be in Boston our last day, every one told us to go to Mt. Auburn Cemetery, which is actually in Cambridge. Three of our relatives were happy to join us.

Mt. Auburn was developed in 1831 at the beginning of a movement to make cemeteries a place for the living to enjoy and not just rows of tombstones. The 175 acres of hills and dells had a reputation for birds before it was landscaped as an arboretum and cemetery.

Fine rain plagued our visit on and off, but the blooming dogwoods, azaleas and rhododendrons were spectacular, contrasting nicely with elaborate tombs and the Gothic chapel and tower.

Scattered along the paths and charmingly named lanes were other birders, some more outgoing than others. One woman went out of her way to see if she could re-find a special bird for us. Instead, we were all treated to a memorable performance of a wood thrush singing from a bare branch. It sounded better live than all the recordings I’ve heard.

Then we were down to our last afternoon and my sister’s request to really experience the Atlantic. Mark remembered an earlier visit we made to Marblehead. It is less than an hour from Boston and was very quiet before the summer season. I was happy to see once more common eiders, those sea ducks with fanciful, lime green bills.

After five trips to Massachusetts in four years, this will be the last one for awhile. We’re expected to show up in a couple years for our son’s next graduation, in Seattle. More new birding opportunities!

Pelicans in the city

American White Pelican

Three American White Pelicans gather at the edge of a small lake in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 5, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pelicans at Holliday Park: Why do they stop here?”

2014 Update: This last winter, the city decided to improve Lake Minnehaha, making it deeper to eliminate algae blooms caused by shallow water. They also removed the island to discourage goose nesting. Time will tell how these changes will affect the birds at the park. American White Pelicans also visit other small lakes in the area.

By Barb Gorges

The “American White Pelican,” with its fantastic orange bill, seems more akin to a unicorn than any bird. My first sighting, above a river on the dry plains of eastern Montana, seemed out of place. But to see a flock at Holliday Park, in the middle of Cheyenne, seems miraculous.

Last year I tracked my sightings of pelicans on Lake Minnehaha, in the park, and between April and July, on the three or four mornings a week I was there, I could almost always see a few.

I didn’t observe any of the courtship antics like the geese go through. The pelicans were either clumped together on the north side of the island, like a forgotten snow bank, ignoring the ruckus of nesting geese a few feet away, or they were out elegantly sailing on the water, dipping their bills in, and catching fish, or just loafing. A few times I saw them sail into thermals overhead, wing flapping hardly a necessity.

Why do we see pelicans at Holliday Park? In April, some may be migrating. They winter along the Gulf of Mexico and head for the western states, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and western Canada, to breed. Pelicans on the other side of the Continental Divide spend winter in coastal California.

They look for big lakes in isolated places that have islands for breeding safely, such as the Great Salt Lake. In Wyoming there are three colonies: Bamforth National Wildlife Refuge, Pathfinder Reservoir and Yellowstone Lake. Any disturbance will cause them to abandon their nests.

Each breeding pair looks for a sub colony where everyone else is at about the same stage in the breeding cycle. The nest is whatever a sitting pelican can pull up around itself with its bill. A parent keeps the two eggs warm underfoot and every day or two, for 30 days, swaps places with its mate and goes out as far as 30 miles to forage.

Three weeks after hatching, the chicks are all out of their nests and huddle at night in a group called a crech. Ten weeks after hatching, they are in the air, exploring everywhere until it’s time to head south. By September, most pelicans have left Wyoming.

It takes three years before pelicans are old enough to breed so these immature birds spend their summers hanging out. Apparently, Holliday Park, with its shallow water is perfect, despite the burgeoning flock of domestic and Canada geese and all the people walking dogs.

I sometimes wonder what the uninformed observer thinks pelicans are. Mutant swans or domestic white geese? At 16 pounds, they are much bigger than most geese and a little smaller than trumpeter swans. But at 108 inches, or nine feet, their wingspan is much longer than a swan’s.

The brown pelican found on the coasts dives for fish, but the white pelican merely dips its pouched bill while swimming. These are the pelicans that are famous for synchronicity, forming a line and forcing small fish into the shallows of rivers, lakes or marshes where they can be scooped up. They also fish at night, by feel, rather than by sight.

Down around the Mississippi Delta, they are the bane of aquaculture, feeding at fish farms, but out here they eat the rough fish and are generally not in competition for sport fish.

In the early 20th century their populations decreased, but in the 1960s they began to make a comeback. So your chances of seeing a pelican, compared to a unicorn, are pretty good, especially if you stop by Holliday Park on summer mornings.

Balloon Fiesta dazzles amateur photographers

Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, ascent, and patrol. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 20, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Balloon Fiesta dazzles amateur photographers.”

2014 Update: Get information for the next Balloon Fiesta:

By Barb Gorges

Ever been inside a Kodak moment? That’s where I was recently, at the 38th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, looking for the quintessential photo op of bright colors on a cloudless blue sky.

Albuquerque, a 550-mile drive from Cheyenne, is a drive I’ve done often over the last 30 years, but this was my first Balloon Fiesta.

Hot air balloonists are attracted by the “Albuquerque Box,” a phenomenon in which winds in the valley blow in opposite directions at different elevations, making it possible to return close to the starting point.

The event is held for nine days over the first two weekends in October. Each day, Balloon Fiesta Park opens at 4:30 a.m. At 5:45 a.m., the Dawn Patrol, a dozen balloons launching in the dark, go up to “prove the wind.”

At least one other event is held at sunrise each day and additional events at dusk on the weekends, weather permitting.

Be sure to plan to be in town more than one day and attend the first good day. This year the final Mass Ascension had to be cancelled due to wind over 12 mph—which we Cheyenne folks consider a faint breeze.

In the dark the day we went, we saw a row of nylon envelopes stretched out on the grass, being inflated for balloon rides. Visitors were milling around, keeping out of the way of crews hauling on ropes as the balloons began to stand up.


Hot air balloons

The Special Shapes Rodeo is one of the events at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Photo by Barb Gorges.

A Special Shapes Rodeo, one of two held at the end of the week, was inflating on the other side of the field. Various cartoon animals were becoming airborne one limb at a time: squirrels, bees, pigs, penguins, along with buildings, trains, trees and other objects. Each time one of the over 80 balloons floated off, the surrounding crowd cheered.

Then the field was quickly cleared by polite “zebras,” volunteers wearing black and white (some in zebra costumes), and the Albuquerque Police Department’s horse patrol mounted on Percherons.

From a launch site a mile away, the regular-shaped balloons began to appear, aiming for the field where they could take part in two competitions. One is to drop a flagged marker on a target, and the other is to grab for a prize envelope atop a pole. The crowd got a close look at many of the 600 balloons registered for the fiesta, 82 from 17 other countries, as they sailed down the field.

By about 9 a.m., the last balloon straggled by, and it was time to peruse the vendors and grab a breakfast burrito.

Except for Monday through Wednesday, each evening at 5:45 p.m. there is a Balloon Glow or Special Shapes Glowdeo, when tethered balloons are inflated and the burners fired up, creating a stain-glass effect.

When the balloons aren’t flying, there is the Albuquerque International Balloon Museum, a fun hands-on experience any time of year, plus all of the other local attractions: other museums, Old Town, trails along the Rio Grande River (where you might see balloons “splash and dash”) and the tram to the top of Sandia Crest and numerous hiking trails in the open space below.

Although there are package ticket deals available, and shuttle options, our family drove to the park, crept along in a line of cars for about 30 minutes, paid the $10 parking fee and the $6 per person entrance fee.


hot air balloons

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Free “Survival Guide” brochures are handed out, but the $6, 108-page, full-color program is a worthwhile investment. It gives a lot of hot air balloon and gas balloon (there’s a special competition for them the first weekend) information and a photo directory of all the registered balloons.

A folding chair might be a good idea. And warm clothes. Make sure you work out how to regroup because any party over one person in size will want to go in different directions, looking for the best balloon and the best light.

Everyone has a camera in hand. Fiesta officials say it is the most photographed event in the world. Luckily, extra batteries, memory cards and disposable cameras are available everywhere at the park. Each opportunity to photograph a balloon is as ephemeral, and as colorful, as a butterfly.


Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, 4401 Alameda Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87113, toll-free 1-888-422-7277,,

Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum (on the park grounds), 9201 Balloon Museum Dr. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87113, 505-880-0500,