Travel: Getting high in Scottsdale, Arizona

Travel: Getting high in Scottsdale, Arizona

I was excited but nervous about how this bucket-list adventure might turn out during a recent five-day trip to Scottsdale, Arizona.

I’m used to modern air travel, watching clouds from an airplane window while safely buckled in a seat belt.

So, with some trepidation, I found myself standing, untethered, in a wicker basket, 1,830 meters above the ground, on my first hot air balloon flight.

I was excited but nervous about how this bucket-list adventure might turn out during a recent five-day trip to Scottsdale, Arizona.

Sure, I got an aerial view of the Saguaro cactus, its arms pointing skyward, saw houses that looked like monopoly board pieces, and watched a half-dozen colorful hot air balloons floating nearby over the Arizona desert.

It was a clear, sunny day and the unobstructed 360-degree view was amazing, but I was still nervous about how the hour-long ride, which began shortly after sunrise, would conclude. Especially after I was told that some baskets don’t fall upright.

And while I had faith in our pilot John Bagwell, 79, who has been flying hot air balloons for nearly 50 years (the last 12 with Phoenix-based Hot Air Expeditions), I couldn’t help but notice his landing instructions.

“There are two types of landings. Less than five miles per hour and more than five miles per hour,” he tells us before takeoff, while the balloon’s 914 meters of fireproof fabric inflate and its sphere begins to take shape.

“At less than five miles an hour we go down, pick a flat spot like this and settle on the ground, maybe it jumps a little bit or leans a little bit, but it basically stays upright. We deflate the balloon and let them out.”

A quick landing, more than five miles per hour, might not be as smooth, he warns.

“Everything above we never know where we are going to go until we get there. We will go down and glide at any wind speed. As soon as it hits the ground everything turns on its side, and that includes us. “We will glide until the air comes out of that envelope (of the balloon).”

The image of a dozen people, once standing shoulder to shoulder, now in the basket on their sides, does not calm me. And it doesn’t help that Bagwell adds that he once had to land at a speed of 30 miles per hour, which caused the basket to be dragged 110 meters.

“These things have a huge amount of power and a huge sail area.”

There is no turning back now, as I feel the warmth of the heat source aboard the balloon: large cylindrical tanks containing 36 kilograms of propane. The tanks are in the center of the balloon with Bagwell, while groups of three passengers are squeezed into the four small corner cubicles surrounding it.

Each time Bagwell opens one of the tank’s valves, orange flames are seen escaping into the balloon above and the basket begins to slowly rise. I also realize, in retrospect, that this wasn’t the best time to ask him where we’re headed and find out he doesn’t know. Yes, this flight will be unlike any he has ever known.

“We will go wherever the wind takes us. We can’t control these things, except for what the wind does,” Bagwell says.

He further explains that a pilot can only regulate the hot air balloon by going up and down in search of different wind layers. And its “high-tech wind indicator” spits out the side of the basket.

As we reach the halfway point of our highest elevation that morning, I can see that another balloon is not doing as well, as it is traveling close to the ground. It is in a different wind path.

“You have to add heat to go up and less to go down, and you have to add heat before you hit the ground, otherwise you will hit the ground with the speed of a parachute. We don’t want to do that,” he says.

After a few minutes at the top, I nervously pick up my iPhone to take photos, but I’m worried that a sudden bump could knock it loose and I’ll lose it forever.

Fortunately, our trip is smooth. And despite approaching a large cactus upon landing, Bagwell gets us back to the ground safely (thankfully, upright).

Later, as we enjoy a champagne toast and a small breakfast his “chase group” prepared for us on the ground (an empty field between a residential neighborhood and a shopping center), I ask Bagwell what has kept him flying hot air balloons since 1975. , when most people his age are enjoying retirement.

“Flights are always a challenge. It is never boring because they are always different and you meet new people every day,” says this septuagenarian who neither smokes nor drinks.

“I get high by going up in the air.”

Once on land, I continue my adventures in Scottsdale and make the healthy decision to head to the Sonoran Desert, which has long been a place to retreat and relax. I’ve booked two nights at the CIVANA Wellness Resort & Spa, located on 20 acres of wilderness near a small town appropriately named Carefree, about 15 miles from Scottsdale.

The resort is surrounded by beautiful succulents (there are over 100 large cacti on the property) and is the ideal place to enjoy incredible sunsets. In addition to having two outdoor pools and hot and cold pools in the spa, there is also a gym, a meditative labyrinth, a restaurant, and plenty of hiking trails on the property.

The resort owners understand that wellness means different things to different people, so the options are numerous to find what works for you at CIVANA. You can spend the entire time lounging by the pool or take free health and wellness classes such as mediation, sound healing, fung shui, and yoga classes. Some of the classes have a small fee, such as guided floating meditation, a cocktail class to learn how to make your own cocktails, and guided walks.

Also, a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West home and studio is not to be missed during your visit to Scottsdale. The house, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built by Wright and his apprentices (most of whom lived in tents on the property) in the 1930s. Wright lived there during the winters, until his He died in 1959 at age 91, and constantly expanded and modified the house, notable for how it integrates with its surroundings, as its structures are built with rocks and sand from the Sonoran Desert.

To get a sense of not only Arizona’s western history but also that of 18 other states that make up the American West, Western Canada, and Mexico, visit the Scottsdale Museum of the West, located in Old Town Scottsdale. The permanent exhibits are fascinating and show the transition from the Old West to the New West, and especially one of their current exhibits (now through August) called Inner Light: The Art of Tom Galleon. That exhibit showcases the artist’s 70-year painting career, from paintings he made for Walt Disney to Native American paintings and iconic Western landscapes made throughout his career. The museum was rightly named the number one Western Museum in the United States by True West Magazine in 2023.

And if you have kids or are a kid at heart, I recommend visiting the Arizona Boardwalk, which is an entertainment destination that features attractions like OdySea Aquarium, Butterfly Wonderland, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and UFO Experience: The Truth is Out. There in addition to providing multiple gastronomic and shopping experiences. As for attractions, I especially enjoyed the aquarium, which offers 45-minute private experiences with some of the aquarium’s residents, such as one of its two sloths or behind-the-scenes visiting penguins.

Where to stay

My first choice would be the CIVANA Wellness Resort & Spa due to its beautiful setting, countless activity options, restaurants, and on-site resort amenities.

However, if you want to stay directly in Scottsdale, a good option is the Valley Ho Hotel, opened in 1956 and recently restored to its mid-century modern splendor. It was once a hideout for Hollywood celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis and Zsa Zsa Gabor. It’s also conveniently within walking distance of Old Town Scottsdale, which is a fun place to explore. While I didn’t stay at the Valley Ho Hotel, I enjoyed visiting the hotel for a delicious rooftop dinner and toured some of the newly renovated rooms that are comfortable with touches from the 1950s and 1960s. Who wouldn’t like it? love a sunburst watch?

I stayed at the Spanish-style Scottsdale Resort & Spa located within McCormick Ranch, which features two 18-hole championship golf courses. My room overlooked one of the golf courses and although I don’t play golf. One of the resort’s newly renovated lounges has a golf simulator, where I could have tried it guilt-free, knowing I wasn’t slowly taking down any golfers on a real course. The lounge also features a pool table, shuffleboard and board games, and a secret speakeasy called The Madam that dates back to the 1920s.

Kim Pemberton was featured by Experience Scottsdale, which has not reviewed or approved this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.