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Sandstone, solitude, and silenceSandstone, solitude, and silence

Mexican Mountain, UtahMexican Mountain, Utah

Fly to Mexican Mountain, Utah, for superlative camping, hiking, and rock art next to the San Rafael River. This may just be the quietest place you’ve ever been. Soak in the solitude!

  • Mexican Mountain. The end of a perfect day in Utah’s canyon country. Photo by Steve Durtschi, president of the Utah Back Country Pilots Association.
  • Aerial view of the San Rafael Reef looking south, with Factory Butte on the left. Mexican Mountain is behind, to the north and just west of the reef. There’s nothing like flightseeing Utah’s red rock country. Mostly, the rocks are about time. As the Earth’s climate has fluctuated over the last half-billion years, this area, low-lying for most of its history, has alternately been covered by shallow seas and vast sand dunes, layers sometimes 1,000 feet thick. Tectonic forces then folded some of the layers. When the area was uplifted beginning about 20 million years ago, the layers were exposed to erosion. Water carved canyons, leaving behind buttes and plateaus. Now you can stand in a canyon and ponder 500 million years of geological time. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • Aerial view of the Mexican Mountain airstrip. The approach end of Runway 29 is lower left, Runway 11 is upper right. Mexican Mountain rises on the right. Spring Canyon, where you can find some ancient rock art, begins just below the bottom of the picture. Photo by Steve Durtschi.
  • A King Katmai on short final to Runway 11 (landing downstream). Photo by Bill Roberts.
  • In winter, the runway surface can become a bit soft. That’s usually okay, so long as it isn’t muddy. The weeds at left and right of the wheel tracks have been removed since this photo was taken. Photo by Mike Hart.
  • In September 2014, after long and productive negotiations with the BLM, the UBCP and RAF conducted a major restoration of the airstrip, which lies within a Wilderness Study Area. (No motorized vehicles allowed except aircraft, because this strip was built before the WSA was created.) A three-man crew, two mules, and a box scraper were brought in. Over several days, “Ellie” the mule pulled the scraper, thus removing weeds, leveling the runway, and returning it to its original dimensions. Photo by Steve Durtschi.
  • Several days later, Redtail Aviation used their Kodiak turboprop to fly in some RAF volunteers. The next day the BLM Recreational Planner hiked in to observe the progress. He seemed pleased with the work. After a week, the crew finished both sides of the runway. They cleared tall brush from the parking areas and graded the entrances, so they are not so steep. After eight days onsite, all equipment was packed up and hauled away. A new UBCP sticker and a BLM logo sticker were placed on the windsock plaque. Photo by Steve Durtschi.
  • After landing, you can park at mid-field, on either side. Please fly as courteously as possible to establish and keep up pilots’ reputation as good neighbors and remove all your trash before departing. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • There are petroglyphs in several locations in Spring Canyon, northeast of the strip. Photo by Randy L.
  • After a day of hiking, cool off in the San Rafael River. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • Cliffs and Cassiopeia—time. When you look at Utah’s towering sandstone cliffs, you are staring at perhaps 500 million years of geological time, revealed. And the five stars of Cassiopeia, at left, are between 54 and 410 light-years away. Fly here, camp out, and ponder your place in the universe. The Milky Way is visible at center and part of the Big Dipper at right. Covers were placed on the wings of this Cessna 206 to help prevent frost build-up during this mid-winter overnight. Photo by Mike Hart.
  • This boulder, and one next to it, are close to the airstrip. Both are decorated with petroglyphs created by Ancestral Puebloans between 800 and 1,200 years ago. Photo by Steve Durtschi.
  • There’s plenty of firewood lying around; just don’t leave the campfire unattended, and make sure it’s out before you depart. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • The Milky Way spreads out over this Husky, flown in from Wisconsin. Photo by Brady Lane.
  • The best way to visit any backcountry airstrip is to land in cool morning weather, spend the day hiking or fishing, and camp overnight. Don’t just land and take off again—this gives other wilderness users a bad impression of pilots. Instead, use the airstrip as a trailhead to adventure! Photo by Brady Lane.

There is no other place on Earth like the red-rock canyons and plateaus of Utah. These forbidding desert canyons were the last places in the lower 48 to be explored. In a Utah canyon, you can find the quietest place you’ve ever been. It can be so quiet, you might almost think you can hear a cloud go by. A raven’s wingbeats will bring you crashing into reality. Pilots with the requisite skills and equipment have special access to many of these secret spots, courtesy of airstrips mostly built in the 1950s by mining companies.

The Mexican Mountain airstrip has no identifier. You won’t find Mexican Mountain on an FAA sectional chart, but you can find it and other “uncharted” airstrips on the GH-UT Supplemental World Aeronautical Chart. The chart and its companion two-volume book Fly Utah! depict 57 Utah airstrips never before published on aeronautical charts. The chart also shows noise-sensitive areas, roads, waypoint identifiers, and other features and is made of a waterproof laminated material. There’s also a Backcountry Utah Waypoints database for iPad/ForeFlight. The database and chart are free with purchase of the book. All are invaluable resources found in the cockpits of virtually every Utah backcountry pilot. You can also see approaches and departures to many Utah strips on this DVD.

A King Katmai at Mexican Mountain, mid-November. Fall often brings southern Utah’s best weather, with mild temperatures and clear, calm skies. Photo by Bill Roberts.

After renovations completed in September 2014 by volunteers from the Utah Back Country Pilots and Recreational Aviation Foundation (see photos for details), the strip was restored to its original length of about 1,800 feet; it’s 40 feet wide and sits at 4,461 feet elevation. The strip lies 38 nautical miles southeast of Carbon County Regional Airport/Buck Davis Field near Price, and 36 nm northwest of Canyonlands Field Airport near Moab. Both offer fuel, so it’s best to conduct operations at Mexican Mountain with your airplane as light as safe, and fill your tanks later. (Canyonlands is temporarily closed for renovations, check notams.) Make sure your equipment and survival gear are in good shape.

Overview of the airstrip area in winter, with a Cessna 206 below. It doesn’t take much of a hike up to get a great view. Winter snows are usually light. Photo by Mike Hart.

The area is best visited March through May and September through November, when temperatures are mild. Spring tends to be windier. Head toward N39.01.127, W110.27.024, the coordinates of Runway 11/29. The frequency is 122.9 MHz. Mexican Mountain rises to 6,393 feet msl, towering 1,900 feet agl just south of the strip, and there are several other buttes nearby. I generally prefer to fly to a backcountry airstrip at about 9,500 feet and circle over the area to get a good look at the terrain and plan the landing. Next, intersect the San Rafael River well west of the strip, turn east, descend to cliff-top level, and follow the river until it makes a wide, 270-degree clockwise turn around Mexican Mountain. Overfly the strip and check for surface conditions, winds, or debris. Do not land if the strip appears wet or muddy. At best you’ll put ruts into the strip; at worst you might bend metal. The strip is landable in both directions, although landing on Runway 29 and taking off on Runway 11 is preferred in calm winds. Fly a close downwind, use a tight teardrop turnaround, and watch your airspeed. You probably won’t see the strip on your base leg due to trees, so mark it mentally—it will come into view on final. Remember, go-arounds are fine either way—angle over the river and climb out. Park at midfield on either side and tie down; winds can come up quickly. Aviation Consumer rated these tiedowns the best.

You’ll be camping, of course. Please use Leave No Trace methods and pack out all your trash. Even if you plan to purify river water, bring backup water in case the river is dry. In season, you can swim or go for a hike. Four miles downstream is Swasey’s Leap, where the canyon narrows to only about 14 feet. Legend has it a Wild West outlaw named Sid Swasey jumped his horse over this crack. Much closer are the petroglyphs, or rock art, pecked into the backs of some large boulders about 200 yards northeast of the windsock, along the base of the hill toward Spring Canyon. More rock art, including pictographs (done with paint) can be found up Spring Canyon, and upstream from the strip.

Bring your telescope if you have one. Even without, you’ll be amazed at how clear the Milky Way is out here; these are some of America’s darkest skies. There’s plenty of firewood scattered about; just be sure your fire is out before you depart. Until then, breathe in the scent of sage and enjoy your silent interlude in this amazing place.

James Stevenson departs from Runway 11 (downstream) in his Cessna 170. Photo by Brady Lane.

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

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