Dylan Anderson: Rabbit Ears is pretty good, but a balloon is best way to view Yampa Valley (with video, photo gallery)
The first time I drove over Rabbit Ears Pass — that climactic moment when you get to see the beautiful Yampa Valley floor — it wasn’t much of a payoff.
Not the valley’s fault — dawdling led to a nighttime arrival, and all you could see coming down the pass were the lights from Steamboat Springs. Cool, but not really the same.
I got my first real look the next morning and — as many of you know — it was pretty great. The sun was peeking over Mount Werner behind me, casting a morning glow on the golden-leaved aspens on Emerald Mountain and highlighting a brightly colored hot air balloon hovering over the Yampa River.
Soon after that I started at Steamboat Pilot & Today and learned about the annual Balloon Rodeo presented by the newspaper. Our Publisher Logan Molen even hinted there might be an opportunity to go up in a balloon. The only question was: Would I?
The first time I flew on a plane I was 18. I don’t think I really have a fear of heights but also have not really been in those situations. I wasn’t sure.
So I asked my grandma about it, and without hesitation, she said she would definitely go up in a hot air balloon if the opportunity presented itself. At the age of none of your business, my grandma had total confidence.
I consulted with more people, but my mind had been made up. If my grandma would jump at the opportunity, so would I.
That opportunity arrived Thursday morning, and while I was confident in my decision, I had this weird queasy feeling. I thought I was fine, but part of me was afraid the anxiety would takeover or I would bow out at the last second.
I arrived at the launch point at Steamboat Christian Center bright and early and met pilot Tim Taylor, co-pilot Shelena Shamo, one-liner master Brad Hadley, and the one seemingly in charge, Daren Taylor.
Tim and Shamo were glued to their iPads with five different weather-monitoring apps, flipping between radars to monitor the early morning clouds coming over Steamboat and dropping some virga, which is rain that does not reach the ground.
But Tim was the definition of confident. He explained what he was seeing in the sky, how that compared to the radar and then why you would want to wait to fly when there is potential for rain. You want to wait, because if the balloon gets wet, it can mildew in a matter of hours if not properly dried, which would ruin the roughly $60,000 balloon.
With clouds all around us, Tim pointed and explained what each one was going to do in the passing minutes, never once making it seem like there was a chance we were not going to fly.
The clouds passed, and the standing around turned into action. The crew quickly rolled out a tarp so the balloon wouldn’t touch the ground and started setting up. They start with cold air to get the balloon to take shape before adding the heat to stand it up.
There was no time for nerves anymore, as my colleague Shelby Reardon and I hopped in the basket. Tim gave a presentation about the emergency exits (over the side), asked us to get our seat backs and tray tables in an upright position and we were off.
We went up through various layers of air that Tim and Shamo used to steer the balloon, because the only control they directly have over the balloon is up or down. They rode these waves of air to bring us over the river and then we went higher to grab a different air current bringing us farther north.
Eventually we spiraled back down, landing just yards from where we took off.
There are a myriad of words I could use to describe the views. Of the adjectives on a blog entry I found titled “30 nature words to describe the beauty of earth,” including breathtaking, idyllic and picturesque, pretty much all of them fit — except for crisp because it actually got quite warm in the basket.
The views were great, the experience was like nothing else I have ever done, but I think most of all, it was yet another way to look at the Yampa Valley.
I have since driven down Rabbit Ears and taken in the view of the valley floor, and it is great. It might have to settle for second place to a balloon ride though.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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The National Weather Service in Grand Junction has issued a winter storm warning for much of the West Slope ahead of a major weather system expected in the area starting Thursday.