Hot-air ballooning is extremely popular in the Southwest -- Albuquerque's annual balloon festival every October is the country's largest -- and there are plenty of operators vying for your business. Beautiful as all these desert landscapes are, the one that's most thrilling to soar over, to my mind, is the red-rock country around Sedona, Arizona, with its wind-sculpted buttes and outcroppings thrusting up from the desert scrub, the rock glowing as if on fire.
These excursions are always early-morning affairs -- you need still morning air to properly inflate the balloon and to ensure a stable takeoff. The entire outing may take as much as 3 hours, of which only an hour or so is actually in the air. But the kids will enjoy watching the limp silk billow into shape as burners inflate the balloon and, once you've settled back to earth, having a breakfast picnic in the desert while waiting for the "chase team" to arrive, deflate the balloon, and pack it back into its sack. Gondolas suspended below the balloons carry up to seven passengers at a time, and the ride is surprisingly steady -- instead of fighting wind currents, you're going with the flow. True, the pace is often slow and majestic rather than death defying. Still, you're high up and protected only by the wicker sides of the basket, which is thrilling enough.
Both Northern Light Balloon Expeditions (tel. 800/230-6222 or 928/282-2274; www.northernlightballoon.com) and Red Rock Balloon Adventures (tel. 800/258-3754 or 928/284-0040; www.redrockballoons.com) are licensed to fly over the spectacular Coconino National Forest. In flight, their pilots will chat with the kids about the landscape they're flying over and about the science and art of hot-air ballooning.
Nearest Airport: Phoenix Sky Harbor International, 116 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Best Western Plus Inn of Sedona, 1200 W. Hwy. 89A (tel. 800/292-6344 or 928/282-3072; www.innofsedona.com). $$$ Hilton Sedona Resort, 90 Ridge Trail Dr. (tel. 877/2REDROCK [273-3762] or 928/284-4040; www.hiltonsedona.com).