A 14-minute drive from Rapid City, there's an iconic location that attracts outdoor explorers and history connoisseurs alike. The trail leading to this peaceful gorge offers an easy year-round hike, but also leads the way to a place where a world record was shattered, and history was made. It's called the Stratobowl, and it's the birthplace of the Space Age.
The Stratobowl transformed from a stunning scenic location into a historic launching pad in 1934 when the Army Air Corps and National Geographic Society chose it as the site to launch a manned balloon flight into the Stratosphere. The 400-feet-deep limestone walls of the Stratobowl provided the perfect shelter needed to inflate the largest gas balloon ever flown by humankind. In fact, it was four to five times larger than any other balloon previously flown. The balloon needed to be enormous to carry the load of over a ton in scientific instruments plus passengers into the stratosphere. However, Explorer I only reached 60,000 feet above the earth before experiencing a rip in the balloon's fabric, causing the crew to bail out as the balloon plummeted back down to earth and exploded. All three crew members and some of the scientific equipment were able to parachute to safety before the crash.
After a year of extensive interviews and adjustments made to Explorer I, the group was ready for a second try with Explorer II. On November 11, 1935, over 35,000 spectators hiked out to watch the launch of Explorer II. Floating up and out of the Stratobowl, Explorer II reached a new world record of 72,935 feet. The flight lasted 80 minutes, and the record would stand for 21 years.
This flight collected a significant amount of first-ever information regarding high-altitude atmospheric conditions. In fact, it was during this flight that they captured the first photo showing the curvature of the Earth.
Now, every year in September, ten to twelve experienced balloonists gather to celebrate the anniversary of that historic flight at an event called the Stratobowl Historic Hot Air Balloon Launch. Every morning for three days, weather permitting, spectators gather like they did almost 80 years ago to watch the Stratobowl transform back into an iconic launching pad. As you watch this event, you'll discover why this location served as the perfect spot for the historic launch. The canyon walls block the wind, allowing the balloons to effortlessly fill and float out of the canyon. As soon as the balloons break above the steep walls, the breeze sweeps them away over the pine trees of the Black Hills.
TIPS FOR ATTENDING THE STRATOBOWL EVENT:
- Monitor the event's Facebook page for any day-of updates. This is where you should watch for any updates, weather postponements or delays, on the day of the event.
- Head out early. The drive from Rapid City is about 14 minutes, but then you'll have to hike just under a mile on the Stratobowl Rim Trail (in the dark) to claim a spot situated above the launch location.
- Bring: flashlights, blankets, chairs, and wear layers since September mornings are cooler. If you bring snacks and drinks be sure to pack out what you brought in and leave no trace.
- This is a rustic event; there are no bathrooms and no vendors. It's just you, nature, and the soft whooshing of hot air balloons.
CATCH A FLIGHT OF YOUR OWN:
Can't make it for the event but still want to experience the magic of hot air balloons and floating above the Black Hills? You're in luck. From May 1st through October 31st, you can catch a ride with Black Hills Balloons. They fly daily at sunrise, weather dependent, and take you on one of the most memorable experiences floating over the beauty of our area. If your visit is outside of these dates, give them a call. You might be able to reserve a special winter flight.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BLACK HILLS AREA:
Want to dive deeper into the fascinating history of the Stratobowl? Visit The Journey Museum & Learning Center in Rapid City. Their Stratobowl exhibit showcases models of the Explorer along with more history on this iconic moment in the Black Hills. Not to mention, the museum covers millions of years of information on our area, including geology, paleontology, archeology, and more.
HIKE THE STRATOBOWL RIM TRAIL:
Year-round hiking can also be enjoyed at the Stratobowl Rim Trail! This easy hike is a 1.7-mile out-and-back trail located right off Highway 16, overlooking the beauty of this canyon.
Rapid City offers a wealth of unique events and experiences, from its rich history to its breathtaking natural wonders, ensuring an unforgettable adventure for every traveler. Explore the related content below to find more distinctive events you should be attending in the area, or sign up for our monthly newsletter and we will send upcoming event straight to you.