Postcards: Soar Like an Eagle

Flying the Colorado River

September 1, 2008

It’s mid-spring in northwestern Colorado and the Colorado River’s long journey has just begun. The river begins at 9,000 feet in the wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado’s largest. During the course of its travels, the river flows 1,450 miles touching five western states and, by the time the river enters the Grand Canyon at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, it will have dropped more than one mile since leaving home. The fifth-largest river in the United States, the Colorado is one of the great rivers of the world.

For pilots, following the Colorado River represents a challenge of skill and exploration, offering an eagle’s perspective of one of America’s greatest natural wonders as few will ever see it.

At the beginning

At first the river is an undefined trickle; melting snows and other forms of precipitation are pulled into streams and rivulets feeding Grand and Granby lakes. The mountain airports of Granby (GNB; elevation 8,203 feet) or Kremmling (20V; elevation 7,411 feet) are the closest airports to the head of the river and are challenging destinations from which to launch a flying adventure. Surrounded by high terrain and shifting winds, these airports are the domain of pilots with mountain experience. Picturesque, riverbank cattle ranches make postcard backdrops for wading fly-fisherman strung out along its shores waist deep in the drifting water.

Within a few miles the river starts to gather momentum. Gaining confidence, turgid and swelling with increased volume, the river rushes headlong, forever downward, through steep ravines and deep canyons as it makes its way via alpine towns such as Radium and Dotsero. At the confluence of the Roaring Fork River is Glenwood Springs, a quaint and historic mountain town where travelers soak in the world’s largest therapeutic, mineral pools and view the Glenwood Caverns.

Intimate Glenwood Springs Airport (GWS; elevation 5,916 feet) is located in an adjoining valley surrounded by mountains and is often susceptible to gusty winds. Just 19 miles west is the excellent, less challenging, Garfield County Regional (RIL; elevation 5,544 feet) near the town of Rifle. With 7,300 feet of runway and more open terrain, it is a frequent stop for corporate jets and charter air services.

As if the river can smell the rich, fruited plain below, it races downward, out of the mountains and onto the flat and fertile Lower Colorado River Valley. Here it is joined by the Gunnison River at eponymous Grand Junction below the eternal watch of the towering, sandstone monoliths of the Colorado National Monument.

Grand Junction airport (GJT; elevation 4,858 feet) makes an excellent stopover destination on this river odyssey with lots to explore, good accommodations, and an adequate choice of restaurants. The towered airport has excellent ground facilities.

Into Utah

On its way out of town the river slows and heads westward via the scenic Colorado town of Fruita. Fruita, as the name implies, was once the orchard capital of the state. Today it has built a reputation as a center for mountain-biking enthusiasts who gather to test their skills at nearby Kokopelli Trail.

As the river crosses into Utah, and through Westwater Canyon, the terrain changes dramatically as if ordered up by Disney imagineers. The river etches deep recesses into the landscape, and then makes a giant serpentine swing as arid mesas, steep cliffs, and fortress-like formations on red stone chimneys tower above. The flying is dramatic. The aircraft appears to be stopped as if swallowed up in a scale too big for its size, speed, and altitude. The nation has wisely allocated contiguous boundaries along the river to protect areas of awesome beauty: Dead Horse Point State Park; Arches National Park; Canyonlands National Park; Glen Canyon National Recreational Area; and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

As the river rushes southwest it assumes the centerpiece of this rugged, dramatic beauty: cerulean waters against red rock. Farther downstream the Colorado is invigorated as it is joined by the Green River. Together they mischievously collaborate to create some of the most ruthless whitewater in North America along Cataract Canyon—severe liquid turbulence below. Farther south, like two giant taps, the Colorado and San Juan rivers empty into Lake Powell. Around the sheer rock shoreline, bathtub-like stains show the alarming depletion of a once higher waterline. It has been estimated that these reservoirs now contain less than 50 percent of their full capacity. A 10-year drought and an increasing—some say irresponsible—demand for water in expanding cities in Nevada, Arizona, and California have made water rationing inevitable. Pilots flying low around this liquid vastness get a true perspective of the severity of the problem.

For pilots who want to experience life at ground- or water-level, there are opportunities to stop along the way at airports such as Canyonlands (CNY; elevation 4,555 feet) at Moab, Cal Black (U96; elevation 4,388 feet), Bullfrog Basin (U07; elevation 4,167 feet) and at Page (PGA; elevation 4,215 feet) for a tour of nearby Glen Canyon Dam.

The river at work

The Colorado now enters its most dramatic phase. Below the dam the river flexes its muscles as it picks up speed through Marble Canyon and turns abruptly west as it prepares for center stage immured in the Grand Canyon. This is one of nature’s longest-running performances. For more than 2 billion years the Colorado has slowly been carving rock and carrying away sediment on a grand scale; a mile deep, and in some places, up to 18 miles wide. On its journey the river plays many roles including providing sustenance for five American Indian tribes and hundreds of species of indigenous fish, wildlife, and native flora. In the land of the Havasupai, at Havasu Falls, three spectacular waterfalls blend their warm, blue-green waters with the Colorado. Uninterrupted by this bounty the river pushes onward to the vast expanse of Lake Mead and the mighty Hoover Dam, which contains it. The drama of the Grand Canyon is not to be seen elsewhere.

Navigating the river over the Grand Canyon requires close attention. Pilots should not attempt the trip without first scrutinizing the Grand Canyon VFR aeronautical chart for general aviation. The overlaying and surrounding airspace is a veritable checkerboard of special flight rules areas, restricted altitudes, and designated VFR corridors. The main airports on the Canyon offer easy access: Grand Canyon National Park (GCN; elevation 6,606 feet); and the recently improved Grand Canyon West (1G4; elevation 4,775 feet). (See “ Postcards: Walking in the Sky,” July 2007 AOPA Pilot.)

Three great deserts meet at Lake Mead—the Sonora, the Mojave, and the Great Basin. Once below the Hoover Dam’s 726-foot wall, the Colorado must now knife its way through desert terrain on its quest for the ocean. In the spring the river is a brush painting a foreboding landscape with yellow blossoms of the Palo Verde tree and the bright red and white of the Ocotillo and the cactus. As the river moves farther south its flow is slowed by more manmade obstructions: the Parker, Davis, and the Imperial dams. These marvels of engineering not only store water, but also control flooding and re-regulate water releases while generating clean and efficient hydropower. As water becomes scarce, agriculture competes with the insatiable urban needs of the surrounding states.

Irrigation ditches and water canals siphon off more and more of the river as it moves ever onward. Expanding recreational communities such as Laughlin, Bullhead, and Lake Havasu all dip in for their share. By the time the Colorado flows under the historic, transplanted London Bridge more and more demands are being made on this precious resource. The river gets a reprieve south of Blyth, a heavily farmed region of southeastern California, when the protective shores of the Cibola and Imperial national wildlife refuges welcome it. No roads, farms, or development disrupt the natural flow of the river as it meanders peacefully through harsh desert lands. Parts of the river here are accessible only by boat, but from the air it’s reminiscent of how the river once looked. But not for long. One last American city plays host to the river before it glides under the U.S.-Mexico border.

The end of the river

Yuma holds the record as the sunniest place on Earth. With a year-round dry, warm climate the city is a mecca for retirees and snowbirds. Where the river flows, steamships once plied these waters. In the 1870s the river acted as a natural sea lane from the Sea of Cortez allowing trade and settlement to move inland. Today the 82-mile All American Canal, and Mexican agriculture south of the border, take what is left of the Colorado as it heads for the sea. Only in rare years of heavy rains does it ever make it.

There’s a lot to see and do for pilots flying the lower Colorado. Fly into Bullhead City-Laughlin (IFP; elevation 695 feet) in Arizona and take the free water taxi across the river to the casinos at Laughlin on the Nevada shore. Or visit Davis Dam, two miles north of the airport. Fly south to Lake Havasu City (HII; elevation 783 feet). The city has a lively downtown and the London Bridge elegantly spans a manmade waterway. The bridge, originally built across the River Thames in 1831, was purchased by Robert McCulloch for $2,460 and reassembled over the Colorado inlet in 1971.

Or fly to warm and friendly Yuma (YUM; elevation 216 feet). The airport is a military-civil joint-use field shared by a U.S. Marine Corps air station. Guided tours of the base are available for three months in winter. Call 928-269-2275 for more information. Located about 20 miles to the west of Yuma is the 26,000-acre Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreational Area. This unique area is interesting to fly across. These giant dunes have been used for filming many movies including Star Wars and The Flight of the Phoenix.

Come to the Colorado; tracing the river’s varied path provides the flying experience of a lifetime.

Patrick Mathews, AOPA 1134012, of Indian Wells, California, is a 1,600-hour instrument-rated private pilot. He is a freelance writer who owns a 1993 F33A Beechcraft Bonanza.