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Pilot Getaways: Mineral Canyon, UtahPilot Getaways: Mineral Canyon, Utah

River-Camping in the Utah CanyonlandsRiver-Camping in the Utah Canyonlands

Editor's note: We asked the GA travel experts at Pilot Getaways to share some of their favorite nearby fly-out destinations. This article originally appeared in the Pilot Getaways magazine. Want more? We've secured exclusive AOPA members-only discount pricing for a subscription.
  • Approach and departure require close flight to the canyon walls. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Morning sun hits the camp midfield. Photo by Greg Illes.
  • Approaching from the north... Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • drop into the canyon... Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • follow the river... Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • until the airstrip comes into view... Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • S-turn around a small butte north of the strip...Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • before landing. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • The runway and midfield area can flood after heavy rains. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Airstrip view from the northeast. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • After takeoff, follow the river as you gain altitude. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Approach and departure require close flight to the canyon walls. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Photo by Greg Illes
  • The author’s Cherokee 235 and the Pilot Getaways Cessna 185 parked at the midfield campground. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Aerial view of the Mineral Canyon Airstrip (UT75) facing north. Photo by George A. Kounis.

Subscribe to Pilot Getaways at a special AOPA members-only rate.As the Cherokee bounced through hour after hour of rough air en route to Mineral Canyon, it occurred to me we were working hard to earn the treat in store for us. The crosswind from the south was aggressive and gusty, running 20–25 knots, and no altitude was better than any other. We had flown eastward from California across the Sierra Nevada, through Nevada and into western Utah, bouncing most of the way. After crossing the high divide between Bryce Canyon and the Wasatch Mountains west of Hanksville, we made our way toward Canyonlands National Park. I swore the Cherokee’s rivets would be seated in egg-shaped holes by the time we reached our destination. While relief from the turbulence would have been nice, there was one more task at hand: landing on a short, dirt strip at the bottom of the Green River Canyon.

The canyon was full of uneven air, and it was necessary to fly a large figure-eight path just below the canyon rim, between the two big river bends bracketing the airstrip. All looked well, with a steadier and gentler wind below, according to the faded windsock. Keeping the airspeed up to account for gusts, we S-turned from north to south, dog-legged around the low butte at the northern end of the strip, slipped into runway alignment, and touched down uneventfully. It was 102º F as we shut down the engine. Next stop, river dunk.

UBCP logo

If you plan to enjoy Mineral Canyon, be aware of how much effort and dedication it took to retrieve this wonderful airstrip from oblivion. The Utah Back Country Pilots Association is a group of energetic people dedicated to reclaiming access to Utah’s abandoned backcountry airstrips. Through their efforts, destinations like Mineral Canyon have been reclaimed, rejuvenated, and—most significantly—formally authorized and supported by the BLM and other agencies. A membership in UBCP helps fund reclamation efforts, gets you a copy of the newsletter, and puts you on the mailing list for events, up-to-date information, and (best of all) new back-country airstrips.

Improving the airstrip during one of the Utah Back Country Pilots Association work parties. Photo courtesy of UBCP.

A few minutes later, standing on the bank of the Green River, we took time to appreciate the view we had just earned. Multi-colored sandstone cliffs were mere yards away, towering hundreds of feet into a brilliant blue sky. The quiet enveloped us in a soft fabric of peace and calm. The silty river flowed smoothly by, harmonizing with the silence of the canyon. Dragonflies hovered in the warm air, welcoming us to their tranquil home.

A place like Mineral Canyon is worth every bump, and then some.

Flying There

In all fairness, the steady, moderate turbulence we experienced is not typical, just the product of an unlucky monsoon weather condition at the time of our visit. Winter brings relief from the hot summer temperatures, making it a great time to come. Expect mild days with highs in the forties and cool nights with lows in the twenties and frost likely. Temperatures rise quickly after February.

Canyon approach from the north. Photo by George A. Kounis.

The Mineral Canyon Airstrip parallels the Green River and sits at the bottom of a narrow canyon, 20 nautical miles west of Moab, Utah. Although it is marked as private on the Denver Sectional, transient aircraft are welcome. Almost any route there takes you across spectacular vistas of eroded sandstone. In particular, the route from the west traverses the remarkable escarpment that becomes Bryce Canyon. This rift of land stretches 100 miles, plummeting from 12,000 feet to 5,000 feet in just 25 miles or so.

Routes from other directions also abound in canyon beauty. It is worthwhile to plan some extra flight time and fuel for sightseeing. (The nearest fuel is at Canyonlands Airport, 17 nm northeast of the airstrip.) Canyonlands National Park is only a few miles south, and pilots are requested to maintain a 2,000-foot terrain clearance over the park.

The R-6413 restricted area to the east is long unused for test firing Nike rockets. It is listed as activated by NOTAM only; in reality, it is almost never active. A call to either Flight Service or Denver Center will verify inactivity.

The best way to locate the airstrip is to fly east or west until you encounter the Green River, an unmistakable deep gouge in the surrounding plateau. Plan to intersect the river north of 38° 32' N; then turn south, follow the canyon down to 38° 31.6' N, and you are there. If you’re not GPS-equipped, cross the canyon at the Hanksville 060-degree radial and follow the canyon south to about the 065-degree radial. An approach from the south is possible but not as neighborly, due to the proximity of Canyonlands National Park.

It’s not practical to circle down directly over the strip; you must go up- or down-river and descend into the canyon, returning at low altitude. The canyon environment can be intimidating at first glance, and it is advisable to fly at rim-level until you get familiar with the area. You’ll find that the canyon has a relatively uniform width, and that low-speed turns (75–85 KIAS) are usually possible within the canyon walls. It’s also worth a few practice turns above the rim to verify your turning radius. It is not necessary to reverse course in the canyon; you can start above the rim and follow the river to the airstrip, and depart by climbing out of the canyon along the river in either direction.

Though they are rare, check the canyon rims for base jumpers, those daredevils who like to parachute off cliffs, buildings, bridges, etc. The Green River Canyon has become increasingly popular for this sport in recent years.

The airstrip is not visible until you are almost on short final. Consequently, you must fly low above the river and know the visual waypoints that indicate where to make your turns while preparing to land. Be cautious of the low butte directly off the north end of the strip, which needs careful attention during arrival or departure in this direction. You can overfly it for a steeper approach, or you can fly around it to the southwest for an S-turn approach.

Greg Illes flies his Cherokee 235 well above the canyon walls to identify the location of the strip before descending. Photo by George A. Kounis.

The airstrip has a slight downhill slope from the north end, and then levels out before mid-field. This slope would normally suggest a landing to the north (Runway 32) and takeoff to the south (Runway 14), but prevailing winds can influence this decision. Go-arounds are possible in both directions; just turn away from the strip toward the river, then follow the river as you gain altitude for another try.

There are several sections of soft dirt on the runway. These will not necessarily grab a tire unless the surface is muddy, but will certainly affect your rolling resistance. Mid-field can get swamped and render the airstrip unusable after heavy rains. If you see standing water or indications of a wet surface, it is inadvisable to land. Don’t taxi through weedy areas unless you walk them first; burrows and mounds of dirt and rocks can be hidden in them. There are no tie-downs, so bring your own anchors and ropes.

Volunteers from the Utah Backcountry Pilots Association made substantial improvements to the runway after the photographs in this article were taken. Expect the surface to be in better condition than depicted. In addition, they added a new parking/camping area on the east side of the airstrip, mid-field, so you can now park on both sides of the runway. Be sure to push your airplane far enough away so that it’s not a hazard to runway ops.

History

Utah’s sedimentary sandstone plateaus were formed by ancient sea sediments and giant sand dunes, laid down in alternating bands over half a billion years as climates changed and sea levels rose and fell. Much later the entire area rose with the rest of the American West over millions of years of tectonic plate uplifting. The picturesque river-worn canyons, formed by post-Ice Age floods, were here long before man arrived; the first Native American civilizations merely date back to 8,000–12,000 B.C.

River access behind the midfield campground. Photo by Greg Illes.

By the 1940s and early 1950s, explorers flocked to the region in search of uranium. Uranium-mining corporations scoured the area and bulldozed roads to reach the most lucrative sites. The companies built as many as 150 airstrips to provide access to remote locations during the heyday of uranium mining.

By the time the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had amassed more than 10 times the weaponry needed to annihilate the planet, weapons production had slowed significantly. The demand for uranium began to decay (pun intended) and dissipated rapidly. By the mid-1970s, uranium-mining operations in Utah had closed down and the airstrips were abandoned.

One of these airstrips was Excaliber Mining Company’s Mineral Bottom strip, constructed in the early 1950s. The site became unprofitable long before the overall uranium market dried up, and it was abandoned after only a few years. Nature had its way, and the strip became generally unusable.

Somewhere along the way, Mineral Bottom started to be known as Mineral Canyon. Always a desirable destination, though not “officially” sanctioned, the coarse, rocky airstrip was used by only a few intrepid rough-country pilots. Around 1997, the Utah Back Country Pilots Association began energetically campaigning to reopen the strip. Access battles ensued, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance made a case for endangerment of local bird nesting areas. After long debate, the nesting areas were shown to be abandoned, the birds were no longer classified as endangered, and the issue was resolved. Volunteers rebuilt the runway, and the airstrip was opened to the public in December 1998. The most recent volunteer maintenance, in the fall of 2014, left the airstrip in excellent condition as of then.

What to Do

The most profound reason to visit Mineral Canyon is simply to experience the natural wonder of the canyons. That said, there is plenty to do while soaking up the canyon’s beauty and tranquility.

There are no pre-built accommodations, toilets, or other facilities, although you can walk downstream about a half-mile to a boat ramp, where the BLM has enclosed pit toilet facilities. At the airstrip, primitive camping is your only option if you stay overnight. The best camping area is near mid-field on the west side of the airstrip, right where the tallest tree stands on the riverbank. The ground is flat and spacious, and the shrubbery offers shade almost any time of day.

Greg Illes and his copilot make a northbound overflight of the airstrip in Greg's Cherokee 235. Photo by George A. Kounis.

There is no trash disposal or any kind of service. Please haul all your trash out, bury body waste at least 200 feet from the river, and leave the area tidy. Also, be extremely careful with fire; the riverside brush is full of crisp dry kindling and can catch fire in a heartbeat.

In most places, the vegetation between the river and the runway is too dense to allow access to the river. In the middle of the camping area is a wide pathway that leads to the water, with a handy tree-anchored rope to help with balance during the climb up the steep dirt embankment. Narrower paths lead to the river from the north and south ends of the strip as well, but they are less convenient, and the camping is not as nice as at mid-field.

Swimming in the river is aided by a sandy clay bottom, but watch for the swift current near the center of the river; it will most likely carry you farther than you think. The best technique to prevent yourself from drifting downstream is to use a rope to defeat the current and return to the river bank. Rafts, floats, and boats are only advisable if you are willing to drift far downstream. If you choose to brave the current for a crossing, there are inviting sandbars on the far side, where you can relax and soak up the sun. Fishing can be productive, unless of course, you’re counting on your catch for dinner, in which case it never seems to work out.

Mountain biking can be a real joy in Mineral Canyon. There are several rough roads throughout the area, and the incredible beauty of the canyon reveals itself at every turn. Hiking provides similar visual rewards, starting with the Excaliber mine in the bluff just northeast of the runway, only a quarter-mile from camp. Other roads and trails along the canyon will lead you as far as you care to trek.

If you are interested in experiencing Mineral Canyon, but are apprehensive about doing the backcountry flying yourself, consider contacting Redtail Aviation for an aerial tour. An expert’s tour can greatly enhance your comfort level and provide excellent information about the area. Tours over Canyonlands and/or Arches National Park depart from Canyonlands Airport (CNY), $177–$239 per person. Charter flights between CNY and the Mineral Canyon airstrip run $82 per person each way, 435/259-7421 or 800/842-9251.

The first taste of the canyon country reveals how unique and beautiful this environment is, often leading to a life-long addiction. Its timelessness envelops you, seeps into your soul, and becomes a part of you. Down in these tranquil chasms, peace and solitude surround you in a way unmatched by other terrain. The sun moves through the canyons, continuously shifting the light on the spectacular cliffs. The only sounds are the sighing of the breeze and the murmur of the water flowing by, neither of which pay you the slightest attention. You are alone among sandstone and trees, water and rock. You will feel as though you have become an eternal member of this eternal place.

Topics: Travel, US Travel, Technique

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