A Family Adventure


Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

First flight into the Utah backcountry: Angel Point, Hidden Splendor, and Eagle City

June 11, 2019
Emilie Phillips updated July 11, 2019

This is the fourth day of our flying trip to Utah. Check out the other posts

Into the backcountry

Three days after we left home, we were finally about to fly into the Utah backcountry. What airstrips would be within Tyson’s and my abilities? Which ones would the airplane be able to do? What should we try first?

I asked Tyson what it would take to consider this trip a success. He said Angel Point, to get a replacement desktop photo with our Bearhawk instead of Pat Fagan’s, and Hidden Splendor because everyone else has an awesome video of flying down the canyon. Angel Point was a good starting strip because it is long, up on a plateau with easy approaches, and reportedly well maintained. We planned to record our takeoff and landing distances to calibrate our limitations.

Our taxi driver that morning from the hotel to the airport also shuttles other outdoor folks. He said that until a week ago, it had been unseasonably cold and rainy. Just last week, the Colorado River had swollen to levels not seen since the 1990’s.

I flew from Moab to Angel Point. Tyson and I planned to alternate who was pilot vs passenger. On the way to Angel Point, we checked out other airports on our list:

  • Mineral Canyon wasn’t flooded. It was a possible campsite. I was surprised by the giant cliff hemming in the approach from the south. It looked scary to land there.
  • Keg Knoll, a hiking spot, had good approaches, but the runway was covered with large sagebrush bushes. Too rough, we thought.
  • Horseshoe Canyon had clear approaches, smooth surface, and no ruts. But there’s nothing interesting to do there.

Angel Point

Angel Point

I landed at Angel Point without any real issues. The hill in the middle surprised me. Much more of a hill than at the grass strips near home. I taxied out to the north end of runway 2 for the photo. According to Hanselman, the northern end of the runway is “marginally usable by well equipped, high-clearance backcountry aircraft”. Our 31″ tires didn’t have any trouble clearing the sage brush.

I parked the Bearhawk as close to the edge of Robbers Roost Canyon as I though prudent. Then we hiked out to a neighboring point to take the photo. We also found a lizard and a prickly pear cactus in bloom. It was unusually late in the year for the prickly pear cactuses to still be blooming. The unseasonable cold and wet must have extended their season.

Tyson eyeballed the departure up runway 20 from where we were parked. He decided to try it despite the sage brush. He paced off a couple reference distances. By my guess, the wheels left the ground at around 700′. The density altitude was 7,000′. Runway 20 goes clear to the south side of the plateau. There, the ground drops into No Mans Canyon. It wasn’t until we got back home a week and a half later, that we discovered Pat had taken his photo from the No Mans Canyon end, not the Robbers Roost Canyon end where we took ours. Guess we’ll have to go back.

Hidden Splendor

Approaching Hidden Splendor

I watched out the window while Tyson flew from Angel Point to Hidden Splendor. The scenery was gorgeous. In the 28 miles between the two airstrips, I saw towers, smoothed multi-colored layers, deep canyons, and uplifted long ridges. Hidden Splendor was tucked behind the long ridge. Tyson flew a first pass high over the ridge to consider the airstrip.

While I had been watching out the window, Tyson was watching the oil temperature. When we flew over the ridge, the oil temperature headed up towards red line, 240F. The runway and approach looked doable, so Tyson descended, hopefully letting the oil cool. The canyon approach worked just as Tyson expected. The dog leg at the southern end of the runway didn’t make sense until we were on short final. Then, as we flew out of the canyon at an angle towards the runway, Tyson said “that’s why the dog leg.” The landing was 700′ long, density altitude 7,300′, with 10kts quartering headwind. We got video footage.

Once on the ground, Tyson opened the cowling and tied the panels up so the wind could blow through the engine compartment. We hiked down to Muddy Creek for a cooler spot to eat lunch. On the way down the river, we watched a dust devil spin up and then dissipate.

Over lunch we mulled our options. The oil temperature was a real problem. It seemed we would need to spend more time hiking and less flying. Hidden Splendor didn’t have any hiking options. Eagle City, 31 nautical miles away had good hikes. It had a slot canyon, hoodoos, mining ruins, and a few tributary canyons to explore. We could stay there for two days and enjoy Utah without endangering the engine.

When we returned to the airplane after lunch, the oil had cooled enough to attempt another flight. It was my turn to take off. This takeoff didn’t go so well. On the ground, the nose of the Bearhawk blocks my view straight ahead. On a skinny runway, like Hidden Splendor, it blocks the entire runway. Out east, I watch the trees on either side of the runway. The joke with high nosed airplanes is that you know you are on the runway if you can’t see it. I started rolling and made sure I couldn’t see the runway. We were 400 feet down the runway when Tyson yells “Stop!” I couldn’t see the runway on my side, so it must be on his side. I swerved right and stopped. Just ahead, the ground on my side dropped off.

Note to self: sage brush doesn’t outline a runway in the same way as trees to out east.

On the next takeoff attempt, I opened the window and stuck my head out where I could see the runway. That worked much better.

To manage the oil temperature, I throttled back as soon as I could after taking off. I even circled in some lift. Once over the ridge, I descended to 5,500′ for the flight to Eagle City. The denser air at lower elevations should cool the engine better. It seemed to be working. The oil temperature stabilized a bit below red line. Maybe 230F? Unfortunately, Eagle City is at 6,250 feet. When I climbed back up, the oil temperature climbed. Tyson and I were both getting worried about the oil. I let that distract me too much, and had to abort my first landing and go around. That sent the oil temperature up to 250F. I got the plane on the ground the second try. 700′ landing, 5.8% uphill with 10kt tailwind, 8,800′ density altitude.

We had learned a lot about the airplane performance in these first few stops

  • takeoff and landing performance wasn’t an issue.
  • the big tires seemed to handle most surfaces.
  • engine cooling was a much bigger problem than we had anticipated.

Keep reading below the GPS track for our afternoon hike.

GPS Track from Flights

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Eagle City

Eagle City was pretty: the snow capped Henry Mountains to the west, lots of cactus flowers, and green grass.

But it had bugs.

Tiny little bitting flies that crawled through the bug nets we put on, and scoffed at our bug spray. They incapacitated Isaac. All he could do was flail his arms and wail, “buggies.” I bet the bugs were thriving because of the recent rains. We grabbed what we could for a short hike, and left the airplane.

It was hot up on the ridge. The hike from the airstrip over to Lecleed Spring Canyon wasn’t any fun. Finally when we got down into the canyon, the bugs dissipated. We splashed ourselves with water from the stream and cooled off under the cottonwood trees. Once we recovered, we headed downstream to explore the slot canyon. The guidebook said to hike in the stream itself. Maybe on a drier year, or later in the year, that’s possible, but today, the stream was too high and too fast.

Eagle City wasn’t turning out as well as we had hoped. The airstrip wasn’t a nice place to camp because of the bugs. The stream was too high to hike the canyon. And hiking overland to the hoodoos would be miserable in the heat. We sat down under the cottonwood trees to think. We decided to return to the airplane to get our camping gear, then hike downhill in hopes of finding a flatter camping spot in the lower canyon, and hopefully away from the bugs. We got lucky and found both.

GPS Track from hike

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All Photos

Details I want to remember

Monday evening, we picked through our stuff and tried to find anything that we could send back home to lighten the airplane. We took pictures of pages from the hiking guidebooks. We counted headset batteries and decided we didn’t need the chargers. We kept most of our cold weather gear, just in case we went to Idaho or something. All told, we shipped back 12.8lbs of stuff. Not nearly as much as we had hoped. Departing Canyonlands Airport in the morning, the Bearhawk weighed 2459lb with a CG of 17.17 inches.

We asked the taxi driver about food storage. He hadn’t heard of bear activity in the areas we planned to camp. So he thought we would be OK leaving the food on the ground in a rodent-proof container. In more popular areas, we would have needed a bear canister.

On my first landing at Angel Point, I tried to remember everything from the canyon flying book. I anticipated downdrafts over No Mans Canyon, but there wasn’t any.

The sparse sage brush and no trees made the ground look a lot farther away than it actually was. After a few days we got used to it.

At Eagle City, I learned that I needed to pack our camping gear differently from how I would for a backpacking trip. What we really needed was easy access to one day’s worth of overnight gear, not seven days at a time. Unfortunately I learned this by having to re-pack while being attacked by bugs.