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Canyon country treasure troveCanyon country treasure trove

Hidden Splendor, UtahHidden Splendor, Utah

Hidden Splendor. When I heard there was a backcountry airstrip with a name like that, surrounded by some of Utah’s most beautiful red rock canyons, I just had to go and see it for myself. Circling overhead, however, it became obvious this is not a landing to be attempted without at least getting a few tips from someone familiar with the approach. Caution prevailed and we vowed to return, because this is indeed spectacular country. Backcountry pilots revere this strip and have fought hard to keep it open. And once your tires roll to a safe stop, give yourself an extra pat on the back, because you just landed on one of Utah’s least forgiving airstrips, with a winding approach down a narrow canyon.

  • James Stevenson maneuvers in the canyon. Hidden Splendor is the perfect name for this gem of a backcountry airstrip, hidden deep inside a red rock canyon near a defunct uranium mine. The mine, originally named the Delta mine, was started in 1952 by Vernon Pick, an electrician from Minnesota. Pick sold the tremendously productive mine to Atlas Corporation, owned by Floyd Odlum, who renamed it Hidden Splendor. The landing strip was built during these boom years and has been used by aviators ever since. The mine became famous after a 1954 article in Life magazine but Atlas abandoned it in 1957 after production dropped. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • The astounding San Rafael Reef, about 75 miles long, forms the eastern edge of the San Rafael Swell. This uplifted and eroded monocline exposes hundreds of millions of years of geological history, when the area was alternately covered by vast sandy deserts and shallow seas, for easy viewing by the interested pilot. Factory Butte is seen at upper left. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • Hidden Splendor, looking upstream at Runway 34. The road down to the creek can be seen to the left. The 1,800 x 30-foot strip sits atop a plateau at 4,830 feet MSL. Wind permitting, land on Runway 34, which has a 1.62% uphill grade. Although the terrain to the north is relatively open, high bluffs within quarter-mile west, south, and east of the threshold (note shadows in photo) of Runway 34 preclude a normal pattern, so most pilots approach through the deep, narrow canyon to the southeast. Cool temperatures and calm winds in the early morning or late evening make for the best landing conditions. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Hidden Splendor, looking downstream at Runway 16. The strip runs the entire length of the plateau, so it begins and ends at steep drop-offs. In two places, the 30-foot-wide strip has been built up to cross over gullies, but the crossings are only as wide as the strip. If you drift off centerline and plunge into the gully, it would likely be fatal. Likewise, landing too short or too long could be fatal due to the drop-offs at either end. Land here only if you can land accurately in 1,800 feet, and can stay on the center of a narrow runway. This is not a place to be in strong winds. That said, the surface itself was in very good condition on our last visit, with no ruts or soft spots. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Once you’ve assessed the landing conditions, climb to a safe altitude above the terrain and fly back southeast to the end of the canyon. Start your approach by flying back upstream toward the airport. The canyon is very narrow and twisty until it makes a sharp 180-degree left turn, so it is easier to fly direct just over the top of the canyon walls until past the left switchback. Then you can start your descent below the canyon walls as the canyon widens slightly and makes a more gentle, 180-degree right turn. Maneuver carefully and keep your airspeed under control to assure a small turning radius, since the canyon is only about 500 feet wide. Make a blind call on CTAF 122.9 before starting the approach, since this would be a bad time to encounter an airplane coming the other way on departure. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • The canyon widens, and then makes a gentle left turn, placing you on a right base to Runway 34. Hug the left canyon wall to give you as much time as possible to set up your final approach. The strip should come into view about a half-mile from the threshold. Once you see it, get ready to make a right turn onto about a quarter-mile final. If the approach is not stable, you can (and should) go around by turning slightly left to follow the creek upstream. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • The runway is too narrow along most of its length to allow you to turn around, so you’ll have to roll out to the end where it’s a little wider. Taxi back and park southeast of the intersection with the road. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • Depart from Runway 16 if possible. Watch for vehicles, particularly from the left where a small hill blocks your view of the road. After takeoff, make a slight left turn to follow the creek downstream. Although the terrain is descending, the canyon narrows substantially, so climb quickly for maximum safety. The steep climb should also result in a low airspeed, so you can maneuver more tightly. At 70 KIAS, a 30- to 40-degree bank will be required to follow the canyon. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • It is not advisable to take off on Runway 34, since you’ll be taking off uphill on a short runway into climbing terrain. If you must take off in that direction, make a left turn after takeoff and follow the creek upstream until you have climbed to a safe altitude. However, it may be safer to wait on the ground until the wind permits a downhill takeoff. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • Built in the 1950s to transport mining crews and equipment, the Hidden Splendor airstrip has been used by aviators ever since. The Utah Back Country Pilot’s Association fought to keep the strip open; its volunteers maintain the strip and windsock. Photo by James Stevenson.
  • Among the pilots to land here was mine owner Floyd Odlum’s wife, Jackie Cochran, now enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Floyd Odlum was one of the ten wealthiest men in the U.S. when he married Cochran in 1932. She earned her pilot’s license that year, began air racing soon after, and befriended Amelia Earhart. During WWII, Cochran was the director of Women's Flying Training, and later served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U. S. Air Force Reserve. In 1953, she became the first woman pilot to break the sound barrier; Chuck Yeager was a close friend. Floyd Odlum sat on the boards of many prestigious research foundations, funded Earhart’s and Cochran’s flying, and helped develop the Atlas missile program, which launched the Gemini astronauts. Photo courtesy ChuckYeager.com.
  • Muddy Creek begins high on the Wasatch Plateau, cuts through the San Rafael Swell, and then joins the Fremont River near Hanksville to become the Dirty Devil River, which flows into the mighty Colorado River at Cataract Canyon. Follow the road down from the strip to an old Miner’s Cabin. From there, you can hike downstream and enjoy numerous stream crossings. The canyon becomes narrower, and you find yourself in a gooseneck with breathtaking red rock walls above. Just downstream from the gooseneck, a side canyon called Knotted Rope enters from the east, and downstream from Knotted Rope, another canyon known as The Squeeze enters from the west. Each canyon can be explored a short distance until stopped by a dryfall and plunge pool. 2.75 miles downstream from the Miner’s Cabin, Muddy Creek finally escapes the San Rafael Reef formation and bursts into the open desert near a shady stand of cottonwood trees. You can have a picnic, dawdle in the desert, and return to the airstrip the way you came. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • You can also hike upstream about a mile and find a trail up on the left side, at the first gooseneck north. Climb up and find the Little Susan Claims, with three old cabins. Turn around or continue up the road another mile, go down Chimney Canyon, and back downstream to Hidden Splendor. That should take about 4 hours. Photo by Mark Magnuson via Flickr.
  • For those with more energy, backpacking is another option. The “Chute” of Muddy Creek is one of the best hikes in the San Rafael Swell. Walk down to the creek and turn north, or upstream. The route is 15 miles one way and requires 8–10 hours. April/May or Sept/Oct are the best times for this hike. Walking upstream, the canyon will become very narrow for miles, cutting through the Coconino sandstone, the same type of sandstone found in Sedona. It’s highly unusual for this type of rock to form such a narrow canyon. You can’t get lost—just continue upstream. Normally the Chute is never more than waist deep and mostly ankle deep, but you will be walking in the water about half the time. It isn’t steep, and the bottom is mostly pebbles, gravel, clay, and some boulders. Drybags, a warm jacket, a walking stick, and perhaps neoprene socks are good ideas. Photo by Hannah Cowan, BLM Utah.
  • Past the Chute you will eventually reach Tomsich Butte, with secluded camping on the banks of the creek. Hondoo Arch is clearly visible on the canyon rim to the west above the Eagle and Big Chief Mines. Numerous shafts and tunnels have been bored into the deeply colored, angular buttes and cliffs on either side of the creek. Stone shacks and mining equipment are still scattered over the hillsides. The Dirty Devil Mine is located nearby, up the road from the trailhead. Remember that flash floods can occur anywhere in Muddy Creek (this photo is near the airstrip) if there has been rain in the vicinity within the last 24 hours. Photo by James Stevenson.

After securing your airplane, take a deep breath and look around. Vibrant, multi-colored layers of rock and red Wingate sandstone, representing millions of years of geological time, tower in every direction. Muddy Creek winds its way through the rock almost 150 feet below, beckoning you to explore its every twist and turn. Discover the old mine relics. If you pause, you’ll hear—nothing. The silence in Utah’s red rock canyon country can be profound. Lay on a warm rock and you almost think you can hear the clouds as they go by, it’s so quiet. The sound of a raven’s wings can be startling; it’s such a contrast to the complete silence. Sit, enjoy, and ponder your place in the universe.

You won’t find Hidden Splendor airstrip on FAA sectionals, so before you fly to this or any other Utah backcountry airstrip, order a copy of Galen Hanselman’s Fly Utah! and his Utah Supplemental WAC Chart. The two-volume book covers just about every usable airstrip in the state and supplies vital information in the form of aerial photos, diagrams that depict runway dimensions and slope plus surrounding terrain, detailed information about what to do on the ground, and area history. The laminated chart depicts the strips, including 57 that have never been shown on an aeronautical chart before.

Mine relics are scattered throughout this area, including, of course, from the Hidden Splendor mine itself. Walk northeast on the road and turn right at a T intersection to get to the mine, which is located above the airstrip. Closer to the runway, you’ll see old foundations and discarded equipment. For safety, stay out of all mines, take only pictures, and leave only footprints. Photo by Scott via Flickr.

About 13 nautical miles northwest of Hanksville, Muddy Creek cuts a narrow gorge into the San Rafael Swell, a tall plateau 1,000 to 2,000 feet above creek level. The strip is about 2.5 nm up the gorge, where it opens up to an expansive maze of small red rock plateaus and canyons. Fly over the strip first to check for campers or obstructions; a windsock sits near midfield. At 4,830 feet msl, Runway 16/34 is 1,800 feet long and occupies the entire top of the bench. This means there are steep drop-offs at both ends, and a long or a short landing could be fatal. The strip is only 30 feet wide, with steep ravines on both sides, so good rudder control is a must! Avoid landing in gusty winds.

The hard-packed dirt and gravel surface was in excellent condition on our last visit. You will see a dirt road crossing the runway at midfield, but the strip remains smooth there. Winds in this region can go from calm to a maelstrom in 15 minutes, making it impossible to safely take off and maneuver in the canyon. Be prepared with food and camping gear to spend the night, even if you only plan a short stop.

 You can set up your tent anywhere; bring plenty of water. The Utah Back Country Pilots Association requests that all campers and hikers practice “leave no trace” methods. Hiking is the premiere activity at Hidden Splendor, and October is my favorite month to visit. You can follow the road south as it descends into Muddy Creek gorge. Just as it reaches the bottom of the canyon, you will find an old miner’s cabin. From there, hike downstream and enjoy numerous stream crossings (wear hiking boots and just accept they will get wet—bring extra shoes). See photo captions for more hiking options!

Hidden Splendor is truly a gem in the heart of Utah’s magnificent San Rafael Swell. A thrill to land at and take off from, the airstrip can be the starting point of many enjoyable days of hiking, exploring, and relaxing. Once you get a taste for the fascinating geology of Utah, you’ll be coming back for more.

Your feet are the safest and most reliable way to get around here, if you flew in. But most people arrive via auto, and there are numerous dirt roads in the area. Mountain bikes can be used on the roads, so you can visit Tomsich Butte and the Dirty Devil Mine that way instead of hiking upriver. It’s about 16 road miles each way. Photo by Brady Lane.

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Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen 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. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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