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Idahoans’ favorite fly-in: Sulphur Creek Ranch

Idaho is blessed with an unusually large number of wonderful backcountry fly-in lodges. Each has a particular stand-out quality, but Sulphur Creek Ranch has perhaps the best-rounded combination of attributes fly-in guests want. That’s why, in summertime, if you ask Idaho pilots where they flew last weekend, the most common answer is, “Sulphur Creek Ranch!”

  • Sulphur Creek Ranch is Idaho’s most popular fly-in ranch, especially on summer weekends. Pilots dig in to a big cowboy breakfast, catch up with old friends, and make new ones. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The view of 3,300-foot Runway 26 on short final. Don’t drag it in; there’s a fence in front of the runway. Don’t come in too fast either; the mountain ahead makes a go-around a bad idea. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Landings are made uphill on Runway 26 (report on 122.9; most pilots say “upstream” or “to the west”). Experienced Idaho backcountry pilots check the winds aloft at 9,000 feet and generally wait for another day if winds exceed 25 knots. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The west end of the runway has loose gravel, so watch your prop blast. Tiedowns are along the south side across from the lodge, and you can get a cart for your luggage if you need it. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • This Beaver is parked across from the usual tiedown area. The ranch webcam, visible on the left, is due to be upgraded Aug. 26, 2017. It’s provided by the Idaho Aviation Foundation, Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Takeoffs are made downhill on Runway 8, “downstream” or “to the east.” Experienced backcountry pilots prefer to fly in the morning, before heat-induced turbulence and density altitude take effect—yet another reason why breakfasts are so popular. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Kiere says, “Breakfast is served!” Breakfast is usually eggs, bacon, hash browns (Val's famous for these) and biscuits and gravy, fresh fruit, big chewy cookies, orange juice, coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. Sometimes they prepare pancakes or French toast but usually not on busy weekends. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Not all guests fly in. These cowboys rode in, put their mounts and pack animals up for the night, and enjoyed a hearty breakfast before hitting the trail again. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Kiere and ValDean need to provide food for their horses as well as their guests. Each winter they purchase an entire season’s worth of grain, load it in a trailer, and leave it at the trailhead 8 miles from the lodge, where it stays with the grain safely inside, away from the squirrels that would fatten up on it in the barn by chewing through the burlap sacks. About once a week, ValDean leads a string of mules to the trailhead to pick up a week’s worth of grain and you can ride along. Photo courtesy Sulphur Creek Ranch.
  • Relax in the woodsy lodge with a game of pool or chess. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Historic photos line the wall above the bar. The property was first settled in the early 20th century. By the 1950s when Marvin and Barbara Hornbeck, both pilots, owned the ranch, it was a destination dude ranch, with a new runway. Advertising and magazine articles brought in many well-heeled guests, including Howard Hughes, Fred MacMurray, and the Crosby family. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The log guest cabins sit along the edge of the forest on the north side of the airstrip. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Inside the cabins, wood-burning heaters, horseshoes, even a toilet paper roll hand-made from a bit, or a sign out of barbed wire, add to the Old-West ranch ambience. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Bruce “Sparky” Parker nabs one of the wily cutthroats that lurk in the pond across the runway from the ranch. Photo by Colleen Back.
  • This friendly fellow seems to say, “It was fun playing with you, come on back and see us again sometime!” Photo by Crista Worthy.

Let’s take a look and see why Sulphur Creek Ranch is so popular. The runway sits within the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and therefore qualifies as remote, yet it’s only a 45-minute flight from Boise, Idaho’s capital city. The approach and airstrip are challenging enough to make a pilot proud of a good landing, yet not so difficult that people shy away. The lodge itself is historic; you can feel the pulse of those who visited decades before. The bountiful breakfast gets rave reviews. Private guest cabins are very comfortable. You can fish in the pond just steps away from the lodge, or grab a friendly horse and ride to Sulphur Creek, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, or alpine lakes where native cutthroat trout hide. Hike in the forest, take a trail ride, or go for a guided hunt: All these activities are available.

Yet what stands out most are the caretakers, Kiere and ValDean Schroeder, who pour their hearts and souls into this place so they can share it with visitors. In season, they’re up at 5 a.m. maintaining the old lodge, pampering the many horses, assembling meals from ingredients flown in weekly, and bending over backward to ensure that you have the opportunity to relax and commune with nature. Their enthusiasm is infectious—they love it here. What more could you ask for?

Unless you have an emergency, never fly straight in. Flying a pattern allows you to assess wind conditions and check the runway for obstructions such as people, other aircraft, or wildlife—especially important at backcountry airports. Photo by Crista Worthy.

Sulphur Creek Ranch is generally open from Memorial Day weekend to October. The Schroeders have managed the ranch since 2010. They’ve upgraded the cabins, and drop-in breakfasts have become more popular than ever, served Thursday through Monday from 7:30 to 10 a.m. Like other remote fly-in ranches, securing plenty of nourishing, home-cooked food for guests is a logistical challenge that requires careful planning and more than a little ingenuity. At Sulphur Creek, a rustic wooden sign hangs from the ceiling in the kitchen: “Menu: Yes or No.” This neatly sums up the ordering process. You’re either having a meal, or not. But don’t worry; you’re going to love the creations that come off or out of the ancient Monarch wood-fired stove/oven. Basically, it is like going to grandma’s for brunch in the old days: You get what's being prepared, and it’s a very big plate!

Lodging (and breakfast for guests) is provided seven days a week. Lunches and dinners are generally reserved for overnight guests, but fly-in lunches can be reserved ahead. Sulphur Creek has eight heated log cabins with private baths and showers; one has a kitchen. Overnight stays include three home-cooked meals, pond fishing, and evening bonfires with the horses. These are a real treat; the horses hang around and graze on the lawn.

Kiere and ValDean Schroeder are the perfect hosts, and love sharing the ranch and wilderness with visitors. Want to hike? They can suggest an almost endless variety of routes. Photo by Colleen Back.

If you seek the peaceful isolation of wilderness, you can find that all around Sulphur Creek. But if you like to meet new people, most of whom are pilots, you’ve come to the right place for that too. On weekends, pilots often arrive in groups of two or three aircraft. The 4,400-square-foot lodge is cozy and woodsy inside, with a pool table, backgammon, chess, poker table, and warped ping pong table to keep guests entertained.

Pilots can drop in for trail rides Tuesday and Wednesday from  8 to 10 a.m. (email in advance). Trail rides are available daily for guests; longer drop-camp fishing or hunting trips can be arranged. Guests have multiple options for fishing; the three-acre lake across the runway is a great place to start; catch-and-release, single-hook barbless; no fishing license needed for the lake, but you need one to fish the creek, river, or alpine lakes. One of the highlights of summer is to watch as huge Chinook salmon complete their epic journey from the Pacific Ocean. These fish made it past eight dams, swam more than 800 miles, and climbed over a mile! The salmon worked awfully hard to get here; you just need to hop in your airplane. What are you waiting for?

 Morning or evening, the front lawn is a favorite gathering place—and the perfect spot to grade other pilots' landings! Folks are friendly and it’s fun to find out where they flew in from; pilots never lack for things to talk about when they’re out flying for recreation. Photo courtesy Sulphur Creek Ranch.
Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: U.S. Travel

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