Hot Air Ballooning Across the Nevada/California State Line

We seem to be big on birthday trips here in the Kilt and Camera household. For Brian’s 49th I planned a week in Lake Tahoe so he could see a bit of my own youth. I lived in Reno, NV for seventeen years and spent a nice chunk of my summers catching sun on the boulders on the lake, and a nice chunk of my winters catching air on my snowboard in the mountains. Brian lived in the States for several years before I met him, but had never left Texas, so I wanted to make sure he got a better idea of some of the beauty our big country has.

He was not disappointed.

Lake Tahoe balloon in the sky

Balloon over Lake Tahoe

We were lucky to have some family connections which allowed us to stay in a friend’s condo for the week for the low cost of $100 for the cleaning lady to tidy up after us. I love it when we get unexpected breaks in our expenses! That leaves us more of the budget for fun stuff. I tend to be the tight fisted thrifty traveler, which Brian is a very good sport about.

Since we had this unexpected wiggle room in our budget, I decided to splurge on his gift. We have a mutual agreement that neither one of us wants “things” for Christmas or birthdays. We’re much happier with experiences. I had an idea for a good one.

He knew he was getting a surprise, but had no idea what kind and I had my cover story all set. All he knew was that on Wednesday we had to get up at the ungodly hour of 3:30am so we could drive for a while to get somewhere. He didn’t realize that we only had to drive a short distance, and that the real reason for the early call was so that we would be on the boat already as the sun came up over the mountains.

Oh, yes. On a boat. Lake Tahoe is home to the one and only registered “aircraft carrier” in the world which launches and retrieves a hot air balloon directly from the deck out on the water. How cool is that?

I was so excited to surprise him, and I knew he would love it. I couldn’t wait to see his face as we walked on the boat and he realized what we were about to do. We had talked about hot air ballooning during some of our travels and I knew it was something he always wanted to do.

On Sunday morning we checked in to our condo (which is part of a resort community with a front desk and free continental breakfast). As we picked up our key and headed to the elevator, what did he see? That huge rack of brochures filled with information on local attractions. There were hundreds of them and he stopped to browse. I tried to hurry him along so he wouldn’t see the very colorful balloon brochure which was smack dab in the middle of the rack, but he’s too quick for me. It was the only one he picked up. He got that excited look in his eyes, handed me the brochure and said, “We have to do this while we’re here! Here, take my phone and call them right now. I don’t want to miss our chance if they still have an opening this week. Take it! Call them!”

“I can’t call them to book it.”

I got the crooked eyebrow, wrinkled nose look of confusion.

He misunderstood and thought I was going to argue about spending too much money and he started to get all insistent about it being his birthday, and the condo being almost free, yada, yada.


The gig was up. I had to tell him.

“I can’t call them to book it because I have already booked it. Happy birthday! You just killed your surprise.

I got the crooked eyebrow, wrinkled nose of confusion look again, only this time it quickly transformed into a happy and speechless grin. It is not often my opinionated Scotsman is speechless, so I was feeling pretty self satisfied that I still managed to surprise him completely with something he wanted so badly even though it wasn’t revealed the way I had planned.


Three days later we set our early morning wake up call, got dressed and ready only to receive a phone call as we headed out the door. The flight was cancelled due to moderate winds which make for unsafe conditions. We were able to reschedule for two days later, only one day before we were scheduled to leave. We crossed all our fingers and toes, and sent out thoughts to the weather gods to stay calm that day.

Friday morning we set our early morning wake up call again, but this time called them before we started to get dressed and ready. We got the green light. Game on!

A short ten minute drive in the dark put us in the marina parking lot where we chatted with a couple of our fellow travelers.

Lake Tahoe Balloon - New friends

Meeting new friends in the parking lot

Before we knew it we were on the boat enjoying the continental breakfast and coffee while we watched the sun start to rise.

Lake Tahoe Balloon - Breakfast


Have you seen the sunrise over the Sierra Mountains across the lake? It’s fantastic, as you can imagine.

Lake Tahoe Balloon - Sunrise over the lake

Sun through the mist

The odd double decker green boat motored out of the harbor as we watched the birds come to life for the day.

Lake Tahoe Balloon - Hunting hawk

Hawk on the hunt

Before long we were out in the sun, cruising through water that is so clear you can see nearly 100 feet to the bottom before it gets profoundly deep. The pilots told us that because of the air currents, we would be stopping near the southern shore of the lake and the balloon would launch from there. They broke us up into two groups for two separate flights and we watched them unfurl the massive amounts of fabric and start filling it with air. The giant fans they use for this were quick. It was only a matter of minutes before it was full, then they cranked on the blast furnace.

Lake Tahoe balloon flight - Flames inside the balloon

Flames inside the balloon

This balloon is huge, and the heat coming off that flame radiates for quite a distance around. We all had to wear a hat of some kind to protect our heads from the heat. Brian was smart enough to bring his own hat, but I hadn’t even thought of it. Isn’t my borrowed hat lovely?

Lake Tahoe Balloon - Nice hat

Nice hat

We were loaded on with the first group. There was one man who had a bit of an anxiety attack and couldn’t make his feet carry him to the basket. The crew was great with him and let him swap out with another rider from the second group so he could try to get his fear under control while he watched our flight. We hoped he would be able to calm down and ride the second flight because he really wanted to go. Unfortunately he just couldn’t do it. He got some good shots of his family lifting off though.

Also among us on our flight was a recently widowed woman who was 70 years old and traveling alone. She had decided that she wasn’t going to waste the rest of her life sitting at home waiting to die. She was methodically and happily crossing things off her bucket list, and this hot air balloon ride was one of her big ones. We loved her! She was so fun and adventurous, full of humor and a great sparkle in her eyes.

Lake Tahoe balloon flight - Checking it off her bucket list

Checking it off her bucket list

Once in the basket we were given brief instructions, such as keep your hands out of the flames and don’t lean too far over the edge of the basket (duh) and then the pilot blasted the furnace one more time and we were up, up and away.

It was just as amazing as we thought it would be. Flying in a balloon is nearly silent. There is no wind because you are drifting along with it, so it was such a peaceful experience. The pilot was clearly very experienced, riding the different layers of air currents to take the balloon in different directions. We dropped low over a nearby meadow valley and saw wildlife among the brush, we rose high over the lake and saw mile after mile of two different states. We waved at tiny waterskiers on the water and wondered how on earth we were going to land on that tiny postage stamp sized boat way down there, two thousand feet below us.

We did, with the most gentle landing imaginable. Between the balloon pilot and the boat pilot they maneuvered perfectly and we set down on the deck without a sound.

Happy birthday, my heart. May I always be as lucky as I was that day to see your face while you enjoyed the ride of a lifetime.

Take a look at more photos in the gallery:

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About akil3655

A Scotsman and his American photographer wife traveling the world and writing about it. Tales, reviews, photos, interviews and crazy goings on. Because you never know what's going to happen.

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