This Colorado Hot Air Balloon Festival Is the Best Way to Watch the Sunrise

See another side of Colorado at Moffat County Balloon Festival.

Courtesy of Visit Moffat County
Courtesy of Visit Moffat County
Courtesy of Visit Moffat County

Nestled amidst the grandeur of Colorado’s breathtaking landscapes lies a hidden gem that beckons the adventurous soul-who’s also looking for fun off the beaten path. Craig, a charming town of just under 9,000 residents, stands apart from Colorado’s larger cities and tourist towns with its quiet splendor and surprising amount of regular, crowd-pulling events.

Welcome to the beating heart of Moffat County, where each year, the skies come alive with the vibrant colors of the Moffat County Balloon Festival. A spectacle of hot air balloons from Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming will gracefully ascend over the horizon as the sun rises, with balloons launching for the festival’s 13th year at 6:30 am on Friday, August 4, Saturday, August 5, and Sunday, August 6.

And, waiting on the ground for the balloons’ return is plenty of activity, from live entertainment-including a Journey tribute band-to the Colorado Cruisers Car Show to games for all ages. Saturday is a particularly action-packed day, with a Flying Colors 5k run/walk, tons of food and craft vendors to check out (11 and 24, respectively), a beer garden, draft horse wagon rides, a cardboard boat regatta, and live music from sunup to sundown. The night will end (weather permitting) with a balloon glow or candlelight ceremony, and everyone will be off to rest up for the final Sunday balloon launch.

Our recommendation is to soak up the opportunities for fun in northwestern Colorado by arriving Thursday night, experiencing each day’s balloon launch, and exploring all the activity, history, and beauty that the festival and Moffat County have to offer.

Courtesy of Visit Moffat County
Courtesy of Visit Moffat County
Courtesy of Visit Moffat County

Drive time:

4 hours from Denver
4 hours from Cheyenne, WY
5 hours Salt Lake City, UT

More things to do in Moffat County:

While the balloon festival will keep you plenty busy, you’ll probably have some downtime; Craig has a number of attractions for all interests and age levels in-between balloon launches and bedtime. Visit the Wyman Living History Museum or the Museum of Northwest Colorado, where history buffs can catch a glimpse of the region’s pioneer days. If you’re strolling about downtown, there are several parks to stop for a sunny picnic lunch, and bookworms should be sure to pop into Downtown Books to pick up a new read and get their caffeine fix.

About an hour west of Craig is the Sand Wash Basin on public Bureau Land Management (BLM land), where you can camp or just hang out and hope to spot a herd of Colorado wild horses. For those heading back home to Utah, checking out Dinosaur National Monument to see dinosaur fossils is a worthy pit stop. Or, for an even quieter activity, cast your fishing line into the tranquil waters of the Yampa River, known for its exceptional trout fishing.

Where to stay in Moffat County:

There’s an array of standard hotels in downtown Craig if you decide camping under the stars outside of the town’s limits isn’t for you. But Wild Skies Cabins provide a comfier camping alternative in log cabins just on the outskirts of town and are the perfect base camp for the outdoor adventurer. And, the Elk Run Inn offers a homey place to rest your head for a night or two, cook your own meals in the kitchenette found in every room, and feel well cared for by the hospitable staff.

You could stay somewhere bougier in Steamboat Springs-like the Steamboat Grand or Gravity Haus-if you’re not bothered by the 45 minute drive, but what you gain in luxury you likely lose in fun and authenticity that is the northwestern Colorado experience.

Where to eat in Moffat County:

Craig may be small, but her food and drink options are mighty. Start your day off right with coffee and breakfast at Prodigal Son’s Coffee House & Eatery, or just swing by the Mudd Shack for an on-the-go cup of really good espresso.

Take your pick for lunch or dinner at Warehouse Food Hall, from the fluffy specialty pizzas of Super Slice to Double Dubs’ wings, tater tots, and more (which earned a stop from Diners, Drive-ins and Dives host Guy Fieri). Located inside Yampa Valley Brewing Co.’s taproom, The Local is your place for big, juicy burgers piled high with melted cheese, crispy bacon, and all the fixin’s. But you also can’t go wrong at either Vallarta’s or Fiesta Jalisco when it comes to quality Mexican food.

Other local favorites include The Sizzling Pickle, which has pretty much everything you can think of whether you’re feeling corn dogs, quesadillas, or chicken wings, or J.W. Snack’s Gulf Coast Bar & Grill, where you can settle into its cozy, small-town eatery atmosphere and enjoy comfort foods like barbecue spare ribs, fish and chips, and po’boys.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Erica Buehler is a Denver-based freelance writer. Follow her @e_buehleron Instagram and @e_buehler_on Twitter for more updates on Denver food and other Mile High shenanigans.


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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