Experience the stunning landscape throughout Sonoma County from the basket of a hot-air balloon. It's up, up, and away for a bird's-eye view of the tapestry of rolling hills, mountain peaks, vineyards, and ocean views laid out below.
Most balloons launch in the early morning hours, because that time of the day is almost always cool and tends to have light winds, factors that make it easy to launch and land. Later in the day, warmth can create vertical air currents called thermals.
Most people are surprised by how quiet a hot air balloon is—except, of course, when the propane burners are fired up, filling the balloon with hot air. Way up high, floating above the world, you’ll feel like a bird. And just like a bird you’ll be able to spot the movement of wildlife below. Drift over vineyards, fields planted with crops, and streams and creeks. Sometimes you’ll feel that you can reach out and touch the top of a nearby mountain (better not, though).
Here are four Sonoma County balloon companies that would love to get you high:
A Balloon Over Sonoma (109 Wikiup Meadows Drive, Santa Rosa, 707-546-3360) was founded on Sept. 19, 1993—210 years from the date of the first-ever balloon flight in history by the Montgolfier Brothers in Annonay, France. Airline pilot and company founder Chuck Arreola, known to ballooners as Captain Chuck, has flown balloons for more than 17 years, with 1,300-plus hours of balloon flight time.
For your balloon adventure you’ll meet Captain Chuck on Aviation Boulevard in Santa Rosa and be transported, along with the balloon equipment, to the launching point, which will depend on wind and weather. The entire experience lasts from three to four hours, with 45 minutes to 1.5 hours of actual flight time. That's followed by a complimentary champagne brunch. Prices are $245 a person, $195 for kids 6-12, and a special Romance Flight goes for $665.
Sonoma Valley Balloons (269 Aviation Blvd., Santa Rosa, 707-861-6006) flies seven days a week, weather permitting, using highly trained professional pilots with more than 30 years of balloon flight experience. Float gently over the rolling vineyards and view the exquisite landscape on the "ocean side" of the wine growing regions in Sonoma and Hidden valleys.
You'll meet at the Starbucks located just north of Santa Rosa and be transported to the launch site. The price per person is $360 (plus 9 percent tax and fees) for a three- to four-hour personalized hot air ballooning experience, celebrated at the end with a toast of champagne with your pilot.
Up & Away Ballooning (2200 Airport Blvd., Santa Rosa, 800-711-2998) offers rides for 2-16 guests, and has been sharing Sonoma's spectacular wine country views for more than 20 years. Pilots David Dunrud, Armand Oconnor, Daniel Clauden, and Russ James have all been hot air ballooning for decades, and Up & Away is Sonoma County’s largest balloon operation.
You’ll meet at the Healdsburg SHED (arrive early for coffee and pastries), then be taken to the launch site. Depending on flight conditions, from the highest altitudes you may glimpse the Pacific Ocean or see buildings in San Francisco. At lower elevations you’ll cruise above the grapevines and be able to spot wildlife. The flight itself is an hour or more.
Prices are $239 a person, or $2,200 for a private flight for two. Fares include a post-flight farm-to-table breakfast from The SHED, with a mimosa or a glass of sparkling wine. Wedding flight pricing available upon request, and the Balloons, Bikes & Brews package ($353 per person) combines a hot air balloon flight with a guided bicycling tour on an easy 14-mile round trip to renowned craft breweries.
Wine Country Balloons (397 Aviation Blvd., Santa Rosa, 800-759-5638) uses the skills of three highly-experienced balloon pilots. Chief Pilot Scott van der Horst has flown balloons since 1972 and flies most of the company’s adventures. He has more than 5,000 hours of balloon flight behind him, and is also a hot air balloon instructor. John Wright has been a single and multi-engine pilot since 1961, and became the county’s very first hot air balloon pilot. The third pilot is the ubiquitous Chuck Arreola (owner of A Balloon Over Sonoma).
You’ll meet your pilot on Aviation Boulevard in Santa Rosa and be transported to the Sonoma County launch site, which could be in Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, or Sonoma Valley. Prices are $225/person ($10 discount for seniors, $30 discount for children 6-12). For private flights—available in two-, four- or eight-passenger size balloons—a $350 surcharge is levied in addition to the per-passenger rates. Amenities such as a DVD of your flight or a wedding service by a pilot-minister are available for additional fees.