For two months now, we have been planning a flying trip out west. The last few weeks, Tyson even stayed up past midnight every evening. This trip is the first time either Tyson or I have flown west of the Mississippi. Our goal was to do some real backcountry flying, just like in the youtube videos.
Not interested in the plan? Skip to the stories.
Also, check out the detailed planning map.
Where to go?
The best places for backcountry flying in the US are Alaska, Idaho, and Utah. Alaska is still on our wish list for someday, but was too far for this trip. We debated back and forth between Utah and Idaho. We bought Hanselman’s Fly Idaho and Fly Utah guidebooks to the back country strips in both states. We joined the Utah Backcountry Pilots Association and the Idaho Aviation Association and asked questions on their forum. I contacted other lady pilots on the Ladies Love Taildraggers page and got suggestions. Here’s what we found
- People fly in Utah October through May. They go to Idaho June through September because it’s too hot in Utah.
- SuperCub.org’s annual fly in at Johnson Creek would be the middle weekend of our trip. I thought this was a plus because we could tag along with other folks. Tyson thought it was a minus because we would be stuck in an 80 plane traffic jam and hoping for no mid-air collisions.
- People advised us of several heat related issues in Utah: higher density altitude would mean longer takeoffs and landings and less horsepower; some people reported their engines overheating in the higher temperatures; and some folks said they themselves overheat. We later learned that Utah is windiest in the summer.
- Utah has a reputation for great hiking. We’ve been to Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Arches National Parks and enjoyed the scenery. Idaho doesn’t have the same reputation for great hiking.
First we settled on Utah. Then we learned that several of our friends would be going to different parts of Idaho around the same time as us, so we switched to coordinating with them. Not one week after we decided on Idaho, one friend cancelled because of engine troubles, another got injured, and a third canceled because of work. So we switched back to Utah. We planned to deal with the heat by flying early morning, then hiking down into canyons with shade and water.
It would have been easier to plan a pure flying trip, but we wanted to hike too. We got our list of potential air strips from Fly Utah, UtahBackcountryPilots.org, and Shortfield.com. We found nearby hikes in the Kelsey guidebooks and in random blog posts from google searches. We tried Strava heat map and open street maps, but apparently too few people hike out there to generate crowd source data. We traced out everything we found onto a custom CalTopo map and printed out the most interesting areas.
Some of the Utah airstrips are well maintained, but many are described as rough and suitable only for a “big tire, Cub type”. We put 31″ tires on the Bearhawk, but it and four people’s gear for a week is a lot heavier than a Super Cub. Could we land there? We wrote down a whole list of air strips and planned to adjust to what we found. We packed all the guidebooks too.
We also needed to plan the trip out and back — 3 days if the weather cooperated. I didn’t know it before this trip, but large bush wheels wear out quickly on asphalt. We wanted airports with a grass runway, a restaurant, and a hotel. We combed through online databases for a single source. No luck. We would have to guess at plausible airports during our flight and check amenities with Google and phone calls. For the first night’s stop, I got lucky and found a host through the LLT B&B . Michelle offered to host us in Glenndale Indiana.
We practiced high density altitude takeoffs. We attended the AOPA Peaks to Pavement seminar. I bought the new “Mountain Canyon and Backcountry Flying” book and read it on the commute to and from work. I made it to page 180 of 300 before we left. One of those pages said to get the airplane thoroughly looked over before heading into the backcountry. I took the Bearhawk to Manchester the week before we left for an oil change and to check a rattle in the new wheels. We didn’t get the static system fixed or Tyson’s instrument currency check done. This trip would be VFR — at the mercy of the weather. Tyson ordered an angle of attack sensor, ADSB out, and a new tail spring, but none of those arrived in time.
We kept checking the recent condition reports on the Utah Back Country Pilots site. The last one I remember was a report for Mexican Mountain
Beautiful, dry, so green and so many flowers. The river is running strong. The gnats are plentiful too. Try not to breath too many ?
We made up a sheet summarizing the airports. “E####” means the elevation in feet. “L###” is the length in feet.
The best places for camping and hiking.
- Mexican Mountain : E4461, L1800 : camp, water, petroglyphs, canyons, arches
- Keg Knoll : E5244, L2000 : camp, arches, canyons, hike to water
- Eagle City : E6250, L1973 : camp, canyons, slot canyon, water
- Fry Canyon : E5372, L2350 : camp, canyons, slot canyon, water, ruins
- Sand Wash : E5402, L3200 : camp, canyon, hike to water
- Boulder : E6787, L1875 : camp, hike BMT
Airstrips that you see on Youtube. They looks like great flying fun, but not much else to do.
- Angel Point : E5209, L2700 : canyon, maybe arch and slot
- Hidden Splendor : E4819, L1800 : camping, water, canyon approach
- Mineral Canyon : E3946, L2000 : camping, water, toilet, boat ramp, floods
- Dirty Devil : E4153, L1200 : camping, hike to water
- Horseshoe Canyon : E5209, L2500 : Hike to canyon rim
- Happy Canyon : E4941, L1380 : Old stuff
High Elevation Group
For extra challenge, if everything is going well, we could add a few extremely high elevation strips.
- P R Springs : E8272, L2800 : a bit narrow
- Steer Ridge : E8257, L2800 : uphill 80 ft to south
- Moon Ridge : E7916, L2900 : uphill 50 ft to south
- Seep Ridge : E7880, L2400 : uphill 50 ft to south
- Willow Flats : E7580, L3000 : uphill 70 ft to SSE
- Cedar Mountain : E7538, L2000 : uphill 18 ft to south
- Sage Brush Flat : E7214, L3000 : uphill 18 ft to SW
- Dolores Point CO : E7154, L3300 : uphill 60 ft to SE
- Winter Ridge : E7000, L3800 : uphill 70 ft to south