Soaring above Tahoe’s peaks on a hot air balloon

The hot air balloon “Sriracha” over Lake Tahoe. | Sheldon Grauberger

It’s 5 a.m. at the Tahoe Keys Marina and birds are chirping along Lake Tahoe’s waters. In the receding darkness, a small colorful, hot air balloon acts as signage for Lake Tahoe Balloons.

Check off BUCKET LIST #93 on our Ultimate Tahoe Summer Bucket List

Inside the office Shelby Grauberger enthusiastically greets me and points to a U.S. map dotted with pins, asking me to add one from where I came from. Next to a table of waivers, her dad Sheldon Grauberger is on his computer, continuously checking the morning’s weather while chatting with the other arriving guests. In the next half hour or so, the waiting room fills up with people from all over the country: Michigan, Texas and Utah.

Just before dawn, Shelby leads us to a dock, where a custom-made pontoon boat called the “Tahoe Flyer” awaits. On boarding, we are treated to coffee and breakfast pastries as we go through a safety briefing and are introduced to the crew. Motoring out into the lake, we try to stay warm as we watch the sun rise over the eastern mountain peaks.

View of Lake Tahoe from “Sriracha.” | Kayla Anderson


On the top deck of the barge, Captain Greg Collard releases a yellow, biodegradable, helium-filled balloon to help determine which direction we will drift when the 16 of us lift off into the air. One thousand feet of cold, dense air is optimal for flying. The yellow balloon goes straight up, maybe fading a bit toward Zephyr Cove, indicating that the balloon flight is still a go.

With the group gathered on top of the boat, we watch “Sriracha” (more commonly known as the tulip balloon) fill up with hot air courtesy of three propane tanks that could easily heat a 40-degree F three-story house to 70 degrees in three seconds. In about 10 minutes, Sriracha is filled with 315,000 cubic feet of air. With the towering yellow balloon above us, we all walk into the wicker basket.

“This is the first and only four-door basket that can take people up without having to climb in. We can take kids as young as 7 years old up to people who are 100 years old or older in good health. As long as they can walk, we can get them in the basket,” pilot Sheldon says.

The balloon launches and lands on “Tahoe Flyer.” | Kayla Anderson

Our combined weight is evenly distributed in four quadrants with Sheldon in the middle as we smoothly lift off to the tune of the “Top Gun Anthem.”

We lightly drift over the lake, at one point lightly touching the water in a “splash ‘n’ dash” before peacefully floating next to and eventually above Mount Tallac at 12,000 feet listening to Creed’s “Higher.”

“Can you take me higher?” Scott Stapp croons.

“Why, yes I can,” Sheldon replies.

For the next 45 minutes or so, Sheldon points out Emerald Bay, Cascade Lake, the snowy peaks of Yosemite, the haze over Sacramento and a hint of Mount Shasta to the north. We rise 700 feet per minute in tranquility as Big Blue gets smaller and smaller. Sheldon shares stories of some of the standout passengers and commercial flights he’s piloted in Las Vegas. He says several times that Tahoe is his favorite place to fly because it is the only commercial hot air balloon operation in the world that launches and lands from a boat. Sheldon reiterates that is precisely what Lake Tahoe Balloons’ claim to fame is: that it provides the softest landings in the world — no bump ‘n’ drag.

Drifting over the lake toward Nevada, Sheldon pulls out a bag of popcorn and passes it around. When he gives the signal, we all throw the popcorn up in the air at the same time and watch it float surreally around us as we quietly descend at 167 feet per minute. In a few more minutes, we gently land back on the boat thanks.

“He’s the key to the whole operation; he has to match my speed and the direction we’re going. I’d be lost without him,” says Sheldon.

After the soft landing, the crew folds up the balloon and we all celebrate with a champagne toast. A flight with Lake Tahoe Balloons is an unforgettable experience that should be at the top of every bucket list or Tahoe vacation. Be sure to visit between May and October, book your spot early and be flexible; allow at least a week’s window in case the weather won’t cooperate. |