Ballooning the Rio Grande Gorge

Ballooning the Rio Grande Gorge

Vacation News » Great Destinations | By Steve Winston | May 24, 2013 8:52 AM ET

As I stand at the top of the Rio Grande Gorge outside Taos, New Mexico, I peer down into a 900-foot tunnel of sandstone-brown with a string of blue - the Rio Grande - at the bottom. It's taken millions of years for this spot to look this way, but only seconds for it to take my breath away.

And I'm about to fly into it, in a hot-air balloon.

I rarely go out West without ballooning. But standing there, on the edge of that cliff 900 feet up, I knew this ride was going to be special.

I was riding with Ed Smith, owner of Pueblo Balloon Company in Taos. Ed's a cowboy-hatted flyboy who's been going down into the Gorge for years. Yet, he still approaches it with the same sense of wonder as his clients.

He fires up the burner only a foot above our heads, into the cavernous red-and-blue balloon blotting out the sky above us. We lift off. As we drift up, his crew members below get smaller and smaller, until they're dots on a clash of horizons, bright-blue sky against sandstone gorge. And then they're invisible.

Ed pulls one rope, gives some slack to another, studies the wind currents, and adjusts the burner. He makes an obligatory New Mexico joke about keeping an eye out for "jackalopes"-the supposed offspring of a jackrabbit and an antelope. (Yes, he tells me, some people actually believe him.)

We don't see any "jackalopes." But we do see a couple of jackrabbits. They're somewhat surrealistic--three times the size of a regular rabbit, and strangely-reminiscent of those '50s horror movies with gigantic rabbits. And we see some eagles circling overhead, and some hawks.

One instant, your face is hot because of the flame leaping up from the burner just above you, and you hear a rippling noise as the heat roars into the giant nylon ball. And the next instant, the only sound you hear is a soft wind caressing your face.

Downward we drift, as the gorge narrows. The once-narrow blue ribbon at the bottom is no longer so narrow. One minute we're a few hundred feet from the bottom, and, then, suddenly, the water seems to rush up toward us. Ed advises me to hold on. And then we bounce right into it. As we skim along the surface for thirty or forty seconds, nearly a thousand feet deep inside this enormous crack in the Earth, I'm thinking that it doesn't get much better than this.

But it does. As Ed lifts us up out of the water, we notice an interested onlooker. It's a bobcat, eyeing us intently from a nearby ledge. As we glide up past him, I look directly into his fascinating eyes.

I feel the wind rushing about my face, and I luxuriate in the silence. The bobcat is now below us, still watching. As we slowly lift up, I can see clearly the lines of sandstone and sediment and rock.

Then we rise over the top of the gorge, into a whole different world. Now, I can see beyond into the thousands of square miles of high-desert and purple-haze mountains and black volcanic rock of New Mexico.

We find a suitable landing place, and began bringing the craft down, Ed playing with the ropes like a skilled musician.

I've ballooned many times since that day. And each time I do, it's a joy. But I don't think I'll ever have another ride quite like the one into the Rio Grande Gorge.

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Where to Stay:

The Hotel La Fonda, first opened in 1820, is in the historic heart and soul of Taos-the Plaza, where Taos was founded in 1615. This is an authentic Spanish Colonial Inn, with etched glass and ancient stucco and tile roofs and mahogany railings. And it's filled with wonderful artworks, among them the famous "Forbidden Art" collection of D. H. Lawrence, a frequent visitor.

At the Indian Hills Inn, Taos Plaza, there's a pool, and a fire-pit in the courtyard, where guests gather at sunset to barbecue or do some guitar-pickin'. It's just a few blocks from Taos Plaza, along with interesting shops, artists' studios, galleries, and Old Mexico-style restaurants.

If you're looking for an authentic Southwestern bed & breakfast, try the Hacienda Del Sol, where the owner is a gourmet cook, and the beautiful grounds are a favorite gathering place for late-afternoon cocktails as the sun sets over Taos Mountain. 

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