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Valley of the Gods • Whitewater rafting. Mountain biking. Hiking. Scenic drives.

Think you have experienced the natural beauty of southern Utah every conceivable way?

There's another — one that looks down on all the others.

"Being in a [hot-air] balloon is a unique experience. You are floating quietly over the landscape and it gives you a completely different perspective from that high up," said Steve Simpson, who helped create the annual Bluff International Balloon Festival. "People talk about how peaceful and unique the land looks from up there."

This method of discovering Utah's wonders actually becomes part of the scenery. The festival, held each year on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in January, is not just for those lucky enough to climb in a basket and go for a float.

People from southeastern Utah and across the country head for Bluff during the festival for stunning sights of 30 massive and colorful hot-air balloons floating over and among the redrock formations and landscape of San Juan County.

"We fly over some of the most gorgeous spots in the Southwest," said Diana Davidson, another organizer of the festival. "We may not be the biggest balloon festival, but we are one of the prettiest."

Pilots spend two days launching in Bluff, but they form a waiting list for the festival's final day.

An early-morning caravan of vehicles heads south from Bluff on U.S. 163 to Valley of the Gods, where the balloons rise under formations such as Setting Hen and Rooster buttes, Battleship Rock and Pyramid Peak.

It isn't long before balloonists are looking down on them. And, on clear, cool winter mornings, people can see similar formations in Monument Valley, roughly 20 miles away. Some say they can see all the way across the Navajo Nation and to the Four Corners area.

It is, however, hard to focus on distant landscapes when the other hot-air balloons are rising, dropping and drifting like bubbles in the breathtaking valley.

Debbie Fifer traveled from Glenwood Springs, Colo., for her first ballooning experience. Fifer, like other passengers at the festival, paid a sponsor fee to the pilot. The fee, which typically covers lodging and travel fees, gives her the opportunity for two rides in the balloon during the three-day festival.

Flying, of course, depends on safe weather conditions.

"It is so gentle, so peaceful," Fifer said after her first ride. "And such a stunning way to see the beautiful land of the Southwest. I'm absolutely going to do this again. That is what really drew me here ... being in the Valley of the Gods."

Hot-air ballooning is peaceful, but there are also plenty of loud blasts as flames are shot from the 16 million BTU burners.

Veteran balloonists suggest newbies not ponder the relationship between the fire and the delicate envelope above until they are back on the ground.

Another popular viewing event is the "glow in" on Saturday night. Several pilots are asked to secure their balloons to the ground close to one another. At dusk the show begins when pilots fire burners, making the colorful balloon envelopes glow in the dark. It's a visual wonder and particularly popular with kids.

Other evening and night activities during the festival focus on the Navajo culture. The Navajo Nation is not far from Bluff and many of the children in the Bluff school are Navajo.

Poster images for the balloon festival are selected from entries submitted by schoolchildren and a fundraiser Navajo taco dinner is held.

Students perform Navajo dances and sing traditional songs.

Between the early-morning flights and the night festivities is a great time to explore the canyons around Bluff.

"We are surrounded by prehistory. It is everywhere. Thousands and thousands of archaeological sites," said Vaughn Hadenfeldt, owner of Far Out Expeditions and a guide to archaeological sites in the Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch areas for more than three decades. "If you are in the town of Bluff for the festival, there are major sites right in town."

Pioneer history is also rich in and near the town of roughly 270 residents. The Hole in the Rock Expedition Trail is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Bluff Fort in town is a popular stop for those curious about the origins of the community and a history tour of the town is available.

Pilot Gary Godfrey, once a truck driver, prefers to see the landscape from higher vantage points these days.

Originally from Salt Lake City, Godfrey started ballooning as an "expensive hobby" and has stayed with it for the feeling it gives him and others as they soar.

"I have always loved eagles and wanted to be able to do what they do and see what they see," said Godfrey, who now owns the Sorren With Eagles balloon. "It is hard to describe how the area around Bluff looks. It is different every time with different formations and different colors standing out every trip."

He said Fifer's reaction as a first-time balloonist was typical and part of why he enjoys being a pilot. It was an experience he shared with his father.

"My dad was like, 'Why are you getting something like this?' " he said. "I got him up there and he turned to me and was all grin from ear to ear and said, 'Now I understand why you do this.' To me that is what it is all about. I didn't have to say anything else."

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman —

Experience hot air balloons in Utah

Aug. 8-9: The Sandy Hot Air Balloon Festival is being held at Storm Mountain Park, 11400 S. 1000 East. Events include launches at 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. both mornings and a balloon glow around 8 p.m. on Aug. 9 at Sandy City Hall, 10000 S. 173 West.

Aug. 15-17: The Ogden Valley Balloon Festival and Artist Festival is being held Aug. 15-17 in Eden. The festival includes balloon launches, tethered hot air balloons, art booths, live entertainment and family fun. The balloon glow is at dusk on Aug. 16. The festival is free with the exception of concessions and parking.

Sept. 19-21: The Autumn Aloft Hot Air Balloon Festival is being held at various locations in Park City. Main launches will be held from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. each morning at the North 40 Fields and a balloon glow will be held in Historic Park City from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 20.

Jan. 16-18, 2015: The Bluff International Balloon Festival will include morning launches in Bluff on the first two days and a final morning flight in Valley of the Gods. A balloon glow will also be scheduled. —

The Utah Bucket List

O Check out the bucket list's Facebook page — — or follow @UtahBucketList on Twitter and tell us what's on your list of things to do in this life. "Utah's Bucket List 2," a collaboration between The Salt Lake Tribune and KUED-Channel 7, will air Aug. 11 at 7 p.m.