Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Festival: Helen, Georgia

Where: Helen, Georgia

Trip Date: 6/1/17

Last Thursday marked the beginning of the 44th annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race and Festival in Helen, Georgia. This is an event that has been occurring for as long as (and even longer than) I have been living in the North Georgia area. I can remember many years ago getting up early to come watch the hot air balloons take off (and getting to miss the first hour of my elementary school classes, how fun).

Dawn Balloon

A balloon taking flight against the morning light.

Before last week, it had been several years since I had been able to come to the event. But last Thursday, I was up bright and early at 5:00am to come watch the balloons take off (and I am not at all a morning person, so that is impressive for me).

Helen Skyline

The first sight of the buildings of Helen over the trees.

The festival kicks off every year with somewhere between 20 and 30 balloons taking flight over the rooftops of Helen. A handful of these balloons and their crews participate in the race to the Atlantic, apparently the United States’ only long distance hot air balloon competition. The race lasts approximately two days, and the first balloon to cross I-95, a minimum of 225 miles flight distance, is declared the winner. Of course, this is quite a feat considering that they are subject entirely to the direction and speed of the wind (I remember hearing that there was no winner a few years ago because the wind never actually blew towards the east coast).

The balloons that are not participating in the race hang around Helen for the next couple of days giving rides to festival-goers.

Hot Air Balloon

A colorful balloon from below.

I arrived at the field on Thursday morning at around 6:30. There was already a large crowd standing around the edges, sitting in law chairs, and sitting in the backs of pickup trucks. The first couple of balloon crews had already pulled in, and more were coming in every few minutes.

Watching the crews prepare the balloons was absolutely fascinating. They unloaded the large baskets from their vans and spread out what looks like a huge tarp on the ground that would eventually be the balloon. Then they begin pumping air inside with large fans. As it is inflating it looks almost like it is growing out of the ground, remaining sideways until they are ready to stand it up.

Balloon Set Up

A crew inflating their balloon (and my terrible stick figures).

Once they get to that point, they pump hot air into it with large propane fueled burners. From there it is only a few seconds until the balloon is standing and gliding gently off the ground. The whole process only took about fifteen minutes once the vans were unloaded, and this was happening every few minutes as a new crew arrived to set up. The balloons were so large, every time a balloon lifted off the ground it revealed several more behind it that were still inflating.

Three Balloons

A group of balloons preparing to take off.

After watching the last of the balloons set up, I drove a few miles out of Helen, following them for a short way. It was a beautiful sight seeing them drift peacefully over the Nacoochee Valley.

Balloons over skyline

Balloons over the Helen rooftops.

Balloons over the Valley

Balloons over the Nacoochee Valley.

As one of only a handful of hot air balloon festivals in the United States, Helen to the Atlantic is definitely worth a visit, both for the striking balloons and the beautiful scenery.

Tulip Balloon

One of many brightly patterned hot air balloons attending the festival.

If you want to know more about the event, or about hot air balloons in general, you can visit the Festival’s web page.

I enjoyed working on the sketches for this post. Not that I don’t always enjoy sketching, but this one gave me an opportunity to paint some wonderful landscapes (which is a subject I have not done often). This, in turn, allowed me to work with some new wet-on-wet techniques and color combinations. This post is a little image heavy, as you can tell; I may have gotten carried away, but in order to convey the sheer scope and beauty of the event I felt I had to do more images. (I can’t promise to always have this many sketches in every post—I do have to sleep sometime.)

Next Week:

Stay tuned for many more interesting posts. Next week I am taking off on a road trip around the coasts of Michigan, including a two-week stint as a lighthouse keeper. So if you like lighthouses, this blog is for you.

Road Trip Map

My approximate route through Michigan.

By | 2017-06-09T00:16:43+00:00 June 9th, 2017|Event, Georgia, Travel|4 Comments

About the Author:

James is an artist and illustrator currently working in Georgia.


  1. Pattie Johnson Cousins Haidsiak June 9, 2017 at 12:22 am - Reply

    Loved your sketches!

    • James McInvale June 9, 2017 at 11:06 am - Reply

      Thank you!

  2. Margaret Rahn June 30, 2017 at 9:22 pm - Reply

    Love Helen ! Thanks

    • James McInvale July 1, 2017 at 9:28 am - Reply

      Thank you!

Leave A Comment