The ups and downs of local ballooning over the years


One of the many benefits of springtime in Walla Walla is spotting hot air balloons in the sky first thing in the morning.

The Walla Walla Balloon Stampede is a family-friendly event with something for everyone. Held Mother’s Day weekend, the event started out nearly 40 years ago with just a few pilots in a field. Bill Lloyd and Nat Vale organized the first event.

The Stampede has been held in several locations since that formative field, and has grown to be one of our biggest local events.

When I was a child the Balloon Stampede was held at Walla Walla High School. The Nite Glow, though very crowded, was absolutely beautiful over the creek running through the school. The high school location made the event local and friendly, albeit with few booths and not many balloons.

Later, the Balloon Stamped moved to Howard Tietan Park. This was my favorite spot, for a few reasons. It felt like the perfect size — not crowded, but also cozily occupied. The trees kept everything shady, and the open space nearby made every aspect visible.

I may have a special place in my heart for the Tietan location because my Uncle Jerry and Aunt Elva Van Donge had a funnel cake booth at that time. We all helped out as we could; being part of the inner workings was really exciting.

I remember taking my younger brother, Daniel, when he was about three years old. He was mainly interested in the restored cars on display at the edge of the event, and the playground equipment in the middle of the festivities. This worked fine for me, since my main occupations are usually watching people and eating — two activities that work fine while supervising a little boy.

A few years later, the Balloon Stampede moved to its current location adjacent to the fairgrounds. I miss the familiarity and friendliness of Tietan Park, but the fairgrounds do allow for a more comprehensive event. Now, assorted musical groups, a huge variety of food and craft booths and even rides make the Balloon Stampede a destination for people from all over.

And of course, the balloons, the main reason for the event, are able to assemble in large groups.

My favorite part of the Balloon Stampede, by far, is taking my children to the Garrison Middle School field at 5 in the morning to see all the balloons lift off. Not only is it exciting to watch balloons inflate from close up, it’s breathtaking to see the sky fill with dozens of colorful balloons, with the occasional roar and flash of fire. And if you oversleep, you may have the luck to be woken by a balloon flying overhead; you will know by the sound of the burner releasing propane, a mysterious sound reminiscent of thunder.

Whether it’s for the music, the food or the balloons, I hope you have a chance to enjoy the Balloon Stampede this year.

Sara Van Donge is a Walla Walla native and middle school dual language teacher. She can be reached at


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