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!
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.
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.
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.
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