Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Canyonlands By Cherokee

Learning the Utah backcountry

In 2007 I had been going to Moab, Utah, for four years—hiking, running and sightseeing—and I was 20 years a pilot with my own Cherokee 140. A fellow at Canyonlands Airport (CNY) suggested flying to Hidden Splendor, a backcountry airstrip on the San Rafael Reef near Hanksville (HVE). Though I had landed at 336 airports, flying the backcountry was a fantasy for me, like fighter jets or ironman triathlons or racing Bugattis and Porsches.

Maybe I could make this fantasy real. So I called Canyonlands and was referred to LaVar Wells, a seasoned, savvy instructor of Utah’s backcountry. I decided the worst he could do was laugh at me for thinking I could fly a Cherokee in and out of these places.

LaVar didn’t laugh at all. He invited me to meet him at HVE on a Thursday morning at 8 a.m. We met, we talked a bit, we climbed into my Cherokee, and he had me make a short-field landing on the dirt runway. It was one of my best landings ever (don’t tell LaVar that), and it earned me the incredible flying we did the rest of that Thursday.

Our first stop was Hidden Splendor, 15 nm up Muddy Creek from HVE. Landing on the uphill runway 34 means flying an approach in Muddy Creek canyon with rocks on both sides: a full 180-degree turn left, nearly 180 degrees right, a quick left hugging the wall, and the 1,900-foot dirt airstrip appearing on the right. LaVar flew the first approach and talked me through a few more approaches, all to full-stop landings.

It’s a beautiful place for walking around, running a few miles or camping via airplane. You have to see this region’s geology to believe it, and it’s ever so much more beautiful from the air. One wag said you should see Utah with one eye closed so it only looks half as strange. The wonder is amplified by the challenge of flying here, and further by LaVar’s experience and love of the area. Fly with an instructor who loves to fly, and fly the backcountry with somebody who loves to fly the backcountry.

Mexican Mountain (UT75) was airstrip number two. It’s along the San Rafael River behind Mexican Mountain. Go around Mexican Mountain making left turns over slot canyons, fly north past the trees, turn sharply left and see the 1,900-foot airstrip on short final. The first 500 feet is overgrown and not suitable for airplanes. LaVar and I got out of my airplane and enjoyed the scenery for a few minutes. Fourteen hundred feet of dirt runway requires a short-field takeoff, and my airplane used all of it.

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