Andrea Wilkinson/Nevada Sagebrush. Balloons begin to land in the early morning after flying for the 36th annual Great Reno Balloon Race on Saturday, Sept. 8.

Since 1982, Reno has been bringing together its “biggest little” community by putting on the largest free hot-air ballooning event in the world, the Great Reno Balloon Race. Local and international attendees have come from all over to witness the magic that unfolds against a vivid sunset backdrop, as dozens of hot-air balloons light up and float like giant colorful lanterns into the sky.

This weekend marked the 36th year the race has occurred, as huge crowds trudged into Rancho San Rafael Regional Park each morning at 3:30 a.m. with sleep still lingering on their faces and in their minds. From Sept. 7 to 9, the smell of freshly-made food wafted up into the park air to create a delicious aroma that was difficult to ignore. Families, students, couples and friends huddled together in tightly-wrapped blankets to keep the cold away. Children chased one another in the grass as the balloon pilots prepared for their greatest show. Yet a hush always befell the crowd at 5:15 a.m., as the miraculous “Glow Show” began and each balloon lit up with spectacular radiance.

Two of the pilots in attendance this year were father and son duo Allen Anderson Sr. and Allen Anderson Jr. Both have been around hot-air balloons for a large portion of their lives — Anderson Jr. even grew up around them as a child, thanks to his father. The two work together on the multi-colored balloon known as “Imagine”, with Anderson Sr. as the pilot and his son as part of the crew.

Anderson Sr. has been flying balloons for 37 years, and was the winner of last year’s race in 2017. He first got involved in flying during a hot-air balloon encounter while on a skydiving vacation.

“I was sleeping in my tent early in the morning [and was woken up] by a loud noise that seemed very close,” he said. “I stuck my head outside to find a balloon a few feet above my tent. I asked what they were doing [and was told] having the time of their lives. The next morning I was up skydiving out of that very same balloon. I had so much fun the rest is history.”

Although Anderson Jr. has been flying balloons for a year and a half, he’s been participating in the balloon race every year as a part of his father’s crew. Along with a number of other balloon pilots, Anderson Jr. has also created a Facebook page called Hot Air Balloons 101, which allows people to ask pilots questions about balloons, post pictures or experiences with balloons and get to know local balloon pilots. The page also promotes education about balloon flying and landing, which Anderson Jr. says is a frequently misunderstood topic of discussion.

“For us [pilots], what is a normal day may be perceived to those on the ground as dangerous or that we’re in distress,” he said, “when in actuality it’s business as usual. Our aim is to bring joy to all around us, and if people don’t have to worry about whether we are landing emergently or falling too fast, the public can then enjoy it for what it is.”

Another balloon pilot in attendance this year was Sheldon Grauberger, with his balloon, “Kaleidoscope”. Grauberger has not only been a balloon pilot for 15 years, but he’s also been flying for UNR for the past five years. Yet perhaps the most impressive aspect of Grauberger’s career is the fact that he’s the only balloon pilot in the world who launches and lands balloons on a boat in Lake Tahoe, for a company called Lake Tahoe Balloons. Each morning from May to October — and when the winds allow it — Grauberger is out above the lake, sailing through the air while others sail through the water below him.

“To me it’s the purest form of aviation,” he said about balloon flying. “You are just floating. It’s the only form of flight where you’re not being powered through the air … a balloon, you just lift off and you become the wind.”

Grauberger also believes that all Reno locals should try to witness the Great Reno Balloon Race at least once in their life.

“It’s something that people of Reno all love to see. Even if they’re not balloon-loving people, just seeing the big bubbles of colorful bags of air … they just love it.”

He’s right about one thing — those who have been to the balloon race tend to enjoy it, despite the early trek to the park and brisk morning air. A few University of Nevada, Reno, students who attended the race this year had only positive things to say about their experiences.

“What I like about the balloon races is the sense of community it draws, even from spectators from out of town,” said Austin Rodriguez, UNR senior. “Everyone gets really into the glow show and you can sense the joy that the event brings everyone.”

Another senior, Charis Nixon, said, “It’s so sweet to see families with little kids experiencing the magic of the hot air balloons.”

Senior student Bridget Karlsson said she enjoyed “being with my friends, all wrapped up in blankets and watching the hot air balloons in the sky as the sun rises!”

Jenny Cen, a senior who’s been attending the balloon race for the past two years, says the race was one way she was able to feel more connected to Reno.

“I remember coming up to Reno for school in my freshman year thinking how lackluster the city was,” she said. “But these events really changed my perspective … The Great Balloon Race is one of the many things I love, and I’m proud to call the Biggest Little City my ‘second home’. I really recommend attending this event at least once.”

Carla Suggs can be reached for inquiry at, or on Twitter @c_swayzy.