By Joe David Rice | Photographs courtesy of the Harrison Chamber of Commerce
Nicely situated about 35 miles south of Branson, Missouri, and 45 miles east of Eureka Springs, Harrison is often given short shrift by travelers on their way to these more established tourist destinations. And that’s a shame, because this Boone County community of nearly 14,000 residents has a lot going for it —including two of my very favorite restaurants: DeVito’s and Neighbor’s Mill. It’s also the headquarters city for one of Arkansas’ iconic treasures, the Buffalo National River. And during the peak foliage season, the brilliant crimson and orange leaves in Maplewood Cemetery are definitely worth even a long drive.
Right now, though, we’ll concentrate on one of Harrison’s upcoming attractions: The Annual Arkansas Hot Air Balloon Festival. This colorful and exciting event, soon to celebrate its 23rd edition, will take place Sept. 7 – 9, 2018, at several locations across town.
The festival kicks off Friday afternoon, Sept. 7, at the Boone County Regional Airport (turn south from U.S. Highway 62/412 onto Airport Road about ½ mile west of Walmart). One of the most popular activities, and especially appealing for photographers, is the evening’s balloon glow. Vendors will offer an assortment of food and beverages (including wine and beer, now that Boone County voted to go “wet” a couple of years ago). Plus, there’ll be a moving 9/11 tribute followed by a free concert.
Saturday, Sept. 8, features a full schedule at the airport, beginning with a 5K run and a 1K run for kids. Food, beverage and craft vendors will be on-site, along with a static display of airplanes, helicopters and vintage cars and motorcycles. For those eager to knock off some big items on their bucket lists, sign up for a helicopter tour, a tethered balloon ride or – for the truly adventurous – a skydiving experience. I’m told that women vastly outnumbered men in last year’s opportunity to leap from perfectly good airplanes.
One of the top attractions is the “Hare and Hound” race. One balloon (the Hare) lifts off, lands later at a suitable site, and its crew stretches out a large fabric X (about 50 feet in diameter) on the ground.
The remaining balloons (Hounds) then launch at predetermined times to track the Hare. Their objective is to drop their markers as close to the center of the X as possible – with the closest winning the competition.
Mike Mills of Ponca has participated in over a dozen of these races over the years, always scoring well and claiming victory on one occasion. “This is the Arkansas State Championship,” he says. “It attracts balloonists from four or five states, and it’s really an honor to win.”
The festival will shift locations Saturday afternoon with activities beginning at 4 p.m., at the Anstaff Soccer Complex (take 65B to Arkansas 7; turn south for about two miles; then turn left onto Old Stonewall Road). Tethered balloon rides will again be available for only $5 a head. A petting zoo, face-painting, pony rides and inflatables will keep the kids occupied. Food and craft vendors will also be present.
Sunday evening’s festivities will include additional balloon flights and the “Key Grab.” Balloon pilots compete to see who can navigate close enough to a 20-foot pole to remove a detachable ring and win the prize.
Those travelers heading up US 65 to Harrison have a couple of interesting options for side trips along the way. The highway crosses the Buffalo River at a historic spot known as Grinder’s Ferry, site of a classic swimming hole and a big gravel bar – perfect for picnicking. A short distance beyond the bridge are two highly recommended stops: Ferguson’s Country Store for what some foodies consider the best cinnamon rolls in the South and Coursey’s Smoked Meats with its tasty hams, bacon, turkey and cheeses.
For last-minute details on the 23rd Annual Arkansas Hot Air Balloon Festival, check out arkansasballoonfest.com. Patty Methvin, executive director of the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, offers this final bit of advice: “Bring your kids, your cameras and your lawn chairs for some great family fun!”
Looking for more weekend fun? Read AY Publisher Heather Baker’s Weekend Plans here.