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.
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.
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.
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