For more than 50 years, many of the country’s top balloon pilots have flocked to small-town Indianola for fiery competition, quirky antics and unreal summer views. Less than 30 minutes north, Des Moines delivers all the urban amenities.
national balloon classic indianola
Credit: Jacob Sternquist

From up here, Earth morphs into an animated terrarium. A turtle surfaces in a pond below me. Deer paths weave into a dewy tapestry of grass and thickets. Five horses trot out to pasture beside rows of corn—lined and spaced with surgical precision. And an army of balloons, each taller than a four-story building, floats silently toward its unassuming target.

Brad Luhrs, a crew driver for balloon pilots, has terms for all the obscure experiences and sights while cruising in a fire-powered wicker basket. "You do a little corn draggin'. Tree ticklin'. Marijuana plant spotting," he tells me while our tires crunch gravel on the backroads of Indianola, Iowa. We are racing to find the perfect launch site.

Just 20 minutes prior, presunrise, I had crammed shoulder to shoulder with pilots and crews inside a building resembling an airplane hangar. The teams scratched down coordinates for the day's targets. They checked last-minute wind reports. Then we burst out the doors, into trucks and vans, and down dusty roads.

Indianola National Balloon Classic
Credit: Blaine Moats

"This is the Indy 500 of ballooning," says Bill Clemons, balloon meister (aka race director) for Indianola's National Balloon Classic (July 28–August 5 in 2023). But it's not a race. More like high-stakes golf meets darts—in the sky. Pilots hurl weighted baggies with streamers at ground targets from a floating basket, while a flame roars overhead. To add some fun, an outhouse occasionally appears in the balloon field. First pilot to knock it overwith their balloon basketwins extra money.

Indianola became the U.S. epicenter for competitive ballooning in 1970, when it hosted the sport's premier event just south of Des Moines. The U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship stayed in Indianola for 17 years. When it began rotating to other states in 1989, the National Balloon Classic emerged.

More than 100 balloons show up each year, and thousands of spectators attend the nine-day event, with fair food and balloon rides. Most spread out lawn chairs, blankets and picnics to watch the horizon like it's the Fourth of July. Oohs and aahs start at sunrise some days with an announcer naming balloons and pilots as they pop into view. The party continues past golden hour when fire-filled balloons illuminate the festival grounds.

With Indianola less than 30 minutes from Des Moines, it's easy to turn the festival into a weekend trip, staying in the state capital while exploring the two cities. You get the best of both Iowa worlds, really: hip downtown and charming town square. And that's no hot air. 

john and mary pappajohn sculpture park
Credit: Blaine Moats

What to Do

More than 30 pieces dot the two-block John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines' Western Gateway Park. In the East Village, tropical plants thrive in the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Go for a tasting and tour at Summerset Winery on the north edge of Indianola, where goodness stems from locally grown grapes.

Where to Eat

The early bird gets the bread—and the pastries—at Savor The Rise on the square in Indianola. Also on the square, pizzas lay the food foundation for Brickhouse Tavern. The Brick (sausage, pepperoni and more) is a solid choice. In Des Moines, enjoy modern comfort food at Clyde's Fine Diner or sip cocktails like the aptly named Editor's Note at Hello, Marjorie in the old The Des Moines Register headquarters.

Where to Stay

Mid-mod decor meets Beaux Arts architecture at Surety Hotel in Des Moines. Nearby, the fully refurbished Hotel Fort Des Moines glistens like it did at its 1919 opening. (Its restaurant, Proudfoot and Bird, is one of downtown's top fine-dining spots.)