The guides of Adventures Out West—currently celebrating its 40th year of tours—have created scenic jaunts through Colorado and Arizona that deposit participants directly into the most beautiful parts of the local geography. Whether taking a segway tour or a jeep tour with knowledgeable guides, soaring over snowcapped mountains from the basket of a hot-air balloon or ziplining over lush forested cliffs, patrons get a chance to interact firsthand with all of nature's local sights, sounds, and whoopee-cushion gags.
Randy Long entered the working world as a travel agent, a vocation that whet his appetite for globetrotting, adventure, and haggling with airlines. When he became a father and husband, he passed a passion for thrill seeking on to his family, and their recent escapades include scuba diving in Barbados and dog sledding in Alaska. It was this thirst for exploration and a love of aviation that drove Randy to become an FAA-certified powered-parachute instructor and found Arizona Powerchutes.
Powered parachutes are comprised of two-seater, wheeled carts that float 20 feet beneath 40-foot parachutes. At sunrise—or sunset during the cooler months—Randy and a passenger climb aboard the cart, and Randy hits the throttle, gathering speed for about 100 feet before the parachute fully inflates and hoists the cart into the air. Randy adjusts the altitude to his patron's comfort level and steers crafts over the exotic plants and mountain silhouettes of the Sonoran Desert, averaging a speed of 26 miles per hour. After journeys, powered parachutes float to land safely, as they are inspected by the pilot prior to each flight and by an FAA-approved facility after every 100 hours of operation.
When Randy Long and his family recently went on spring break, they didn't laze around on a beach staring at the sea. Instead, they trekked around the world to China. The choice of destination isn't surprising given Randy's extraordinarily adventurous spirit—the former travel agent has trotted the globe a few times, dog sledding in Alaska and scuba diving in Bermuda along the way.
Despite his eagerness to explore, Randy probably surprised even himself when he was caught by an unexpected wave of inspiration during a 1986 Rotary Club meeting in Illinois. When hot air balloonist Harold Lovelace spoke to the club, Randy was so transfixed that he immediately offered to buy one of Harold's balloons. By the end of the year, Randy had his pilot's license, was flying in the world's largest hot air balloon event, and became a pro at photo-bombing the portraits of landscape artists. Within five years, he sold his travel agency and set up shop in Arizona as a full-time balloon pilot.
Since founding Arizona Balloon Safaris, Randy has maintained a perfect flight record, successfully piloting more than 2,000 flights for more than 20,000 passengers (including Shakira and J.W. Marriott). His colorful balloons ride the Sonoran Desert's breezes, gently carrying passengers as far as seven miles while maintaining a feeling of near motionlessness. From any corner of the balloons' sturdy wicker baskets, people can scan all 360 degrees of the desert panorama without a single visual interruption. Whether skimming the tops of cacti or reaching the flight's 5,000-foot apex, groups will likely spot—and sometimes hear—deer, coyote, and jackrabbits during the 45-minute ride. Passengers can bring a camera to take pictures of these sights along the way. Upon landing, the chase crew welcomes groups back to Earth with celebratory glasses of champagne.
Plenty of couples meet online, but Adventures 2000 ensures they can also meet over a moonlit hike or an afternoon skydive. Though not a matchmaking service, the network connects singles aged 21–55 throughout the Phoenix area with a range of professionally organized events. These informal happenings are conducted in a low-pressure atmosphere, making it easier for participants to make new friends or meet someone special to adopt a highway with. Adventures 2000's staff coordinates 30–35 of these activities and events each month, from horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and rock climbing to dinner parties and game nights. They also organize outings to live concerts and theatrical productions, and plan excursions as playful as themed treasure hunts or as elaborate as week-long travel packages. To ensure a safe and carefree attitude of the events, the staff extensively screens all new members.
Though a pilot mans each of Hot Air Expeditions balloon flights, the excursions are really guided by Mother Nature. The colorful balloons simply follow the wind, hovering above the cacti and coyote that call the Sonoran desert home before gently climbing breezes to give passengers a full view of the surrounding mountains and lakes. Groups can take morning flights year-round or afternoon flights from November through March, both of which offer spectacular photo opportunities, as well as time-sensitive challenges to any still-life painters on board.
The mutable nature of the flights mean they last anywhere from 45–90 minutes, after which, passengers will enjoy sparkling beverages and catered snacks, such as pastries. Each guest is awarded an official flight certificate as a memento of their aerial journey before boarding a courtesy van that returns them to the launch point. Though the actual flights last up to 90 minutes, groups should allow up to four hours for the entire trip.
Fire and wind: that’s all it takes to fly. Hot air ballooning’s sheer simplicity sparked pilot Scott Appelman’s interest in the sport 30 years ago. “In a lot of ways, it’s the exact opposite of the way the world is today,” says the Rainbow Ryders, Inc. founder. “And I think that gives it a certain degree of romance.”
Further evidence of ballooning’s inherent romance can be found in the number of proposals and weddings that have taken place aboard Rainbow Ryders’ fleet of 19 balloons, earning the company a spot on Yahoo’s list of top five places in the nation to pop the question. Even if engagement is not on passengers’ agendas, the crew still strives to ensure a memorable expedition. Guests can join the launch crew to help inflate the balloon before takeoff, and upon landing, pilot and passengers clink glasses in a champagne toast to celebrate another successful flight.
Though whimsy and romance may prove the biggest draw, Rainbow Ryders’ untarnished safety record is what ultimately keeps the balloons hovering. Since 1982, experienced pilots have safely floated 160,000 people over the Rio Grande Valley. Pilots not only helm top-tier equipment, but carefully monitor the region’s weather patterns to ensure smooth thermal drafts and minimize hitchhiking requests from migrating geese.