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Idaho's premier backcountry base

Johnson Creek, Idaho

During a flight between Heathrow and O’Hare, I passed some aviation magazines to my flight attendant and asked her to give them to the crew. They responded by inviting me up to the cockpit of the giant Boeing 747-400. As I sat in the right seat, talking with the crew about procedures and how to land such a huge airplane without breaking it into a million pieces, the distinguished-looking British captain interjected, “But you know what my very favorite thing to do is, in all of aviation? When I have a bit of time off, I’ll airline to Boise, Idaho, rent a 172, and fly to Johnson Creek.”

  • Johnson Creek airstrip, looking north on a perfect Sunday morning in late June. Although the strip has a reputation for being crowded, on many summer days only about a half-dozen or fewer airplanes are parked along the long, wide, runway. On this morning, most pilots have already departed, in search of the perfect huckleberry pancakes. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The unofficial “bible” of the Idaho backcountry is Galen Hanselman’s “Fly Idaho!” Take a copy along and keep it handy; it has a wealth of information, background, and safety tips. The Third Edition is two volumes, Air and Ground, in a convenient box, with updated survey info, photos, and additional diagrams. Photo courtesy Q.E.I. Publishing.
  • McCall Airport is just 26 miles west of Johnson Creek. If you are unfamiliar with the area or have little backcountry experience, land at McCall and have Lori MacNichol or one of her CFIs at McCall Mountain Canyon Flying Seminars fly with you before you try it on your own. Photo courtesy McCall Mountain Canyon Flying Seminars.
  • Final approach to Runway 17 at Johnson Creek. While flying the backcountry, always monitor 122.9, broadcast position announcements for approach and departure canyons and at major canyon intersections or reporting points, and watch for other aircraft. Fly along the right side of all canyons whenever possible; other pilots expect that. Know your aircraft’s performance capabilities, be able to fly “on speed” during approaches and departures, and always be aware of wind. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Middle Fork of the Salmon River, just upstream of the Flying B Ranch. Flying inside the canyons is best left to locals who know each turn by heart. I find it safer to fly at about 9,500 feet msl, above all but the highest peaks, until arriving above my destination. Then I can look down, see the canyons, and plan the descent. Experienced Idaho aviators typically shun the backcountry if winds aloft at 9,000 feet exceed 20 to 25 knots. There’s always tomorrow. They also prefer to be on the ground by 10:30 a.m. in summer to avoid turbulence, wind, and density altitude complications. If you ever find yourself flying upstream in a canyon and aren’t sure of where you are, consider this an emergency and turn around until you can sort it out. You may be flying up a box canyon and find yourself unable to turn around. When you fly downstream you always know the terrain is descending. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The first Johnson Creek airport was a tiny dirt strip. Later, the Bryant family donated a large tract of land to the state of Idaho, permitting expansion of the runway to the huge 3,400-by-150-foot turf beauty it is today. The Bryant family still lives in the white house at the south end of the strip, so be courteous and don’t overfly their home. This airplane is approaching to land from the south onto Runway 35, which is not the typical procedure. Although winds were calm on this morning, flying the standard pattern to Runway 17 helps avoid mid-air collisions. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • This airplane is landing on Runway 17 after flying the normal pattern. The state of Idaho manages the airport through its Division of Aeronautics, which hires full-time caretakers from about May to October. The caretakers mow and water the field, maintain the facilities, and generally keep Johnson Creek, known worldwide as the country's premier backcountry airstrip, in pristine shape. The airstrip phone number is 208-633-3333. Even when half the 150-foot-wide field is being watered, you still have 75 feet, which should be plenty. Watering like this is typical in Idaho, so always check for sprinklers before you land. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • South of the airstrip at Wapiti Meadow Ranch, Diana and Barry Bryant happily provide pickup and return to your airplane as well as local transportation for fishing, accessing off-ranch trails, or the village of Yellow Pine. The couple are experts on the area’s history. Four generations ago, the Bryant family homesteaded land that includes the airstrip and owns the house at its south end. Diana purchased the land just south of the Bryant property, which includes the ranch. Barry is a high-time retired commercial Idaho bush pilot and a great source of information about flying in Idaho. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Wapiti Meadow Ranch offers quiet, affordable, and beautiful one- and two-bedroom cabins that you could live in comfortably for a month! Bring your own food or ask for a continental breakfast; weekly rates available. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • The immaculate, thoughtfully decorated cabins are carpeted and have big windows, a couch, easy chair, dining/work table, and great views. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Fully equipped kitchens come with a refrigerator, coffee/coffee maker, microwave, stove, oven, dishes, and utensils. In addition to electric heat, there’s a wood stove with firewood. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • One-bedroom cabins feature queen beds, while two-bedroom cabins have one queen plus two twin beds. Either way, you’ll enjoy a nice hot shower, full electricity/heat, lots of drawers and space for hanging clothes—even a hair dryer! Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Outside your cabin, you’ll find a beautiful BBQ and picnic table, perfect for summer cookouts beneath the mountains. On our visit June 24 and 25, I saw exactly two mosquitoes. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Johnson Creek is a three-minute walk from Wapiti Meadow Ranch. Photo by Fred Worthy.
  • In late summer, one of Nature’s most miraculous events takes place in the shallows of Johnson Creek. After making it safely to the mouth of the Columbia River and spending up to five years at sea, Chinook salmon return to fresh water. Exhausted from traveling over 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean without eating, climbing over a mile above sea level, successfully passing four huge dams, thousands of rapids, fishermen, and other impediments, they finally arrive to spawn in the shallow waters of their birth. This is the longest migration of any salmon in the world. The fish can be as much as three feet long. Do not harass them in any way, but simply stand off to the side of the creek and watch with respect. Think how much easier your journey here was than theirs! Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Johnson Creek is a premier spot for backcountry camping, which is free for visiting pilots. There’s ample camping space; pitch your tent near your airplane or in the forest back from the flight line. Firewood, barbecue stands, fire pits, tables, potable running water, toilets, showers, hot water, and electricity make this a luxurious base from which to explore Idaho’s beautiful backcountry airstrips. Photo by Scott Boling.

I’d heard this before, even from other European airline pilots. Johnson Creek is simply the “Cadillac” of Idaho backcountry airstrips, in terms of the runway, facilities, and location, and its fame has literally spread worldwide. Runway 17/35 is 3,400 feet long by 150 feet wide with perfectly manicured turf that can handle anything from a Husky or Super Cub to a Mooney, Bonanza, Cirrus, or even a twin, provided the pilot can follow the published standard operating procedures (consider them mandatory reading). Johnson Creek now has a webcam so you can see current conditions. There is even a snow marker in front of the webcam in winter, so you can see how deep the snow is, if you want to fly in on skis.

To organize traffic and prevent accidents, the Idaho Division of Aeronautics has created SOPs for Johnson Creek and five other popular airstrips. At Johnson Creek, landings should be to Runway 17 and takeoffs from Runway 35, if possible. Fly a pattern as shown, keeping clear of the Bryant Home. Diagram courtesy Idaho Div. of Aeronautics.

If you’re just getting started with backcountry flying, you might wet your feet first at Garden Valley, but Johnson Creek’s location, deep in the central Idaho mountains, makes it the perfect launching point for further adventures, or breakfast at places like Sulphur Creek, Dixie, Smiley Creek, or Flying B. Don’t fly to Idaho without the Idaho Aeronautical Chart, which shows all the strips you won’t find on the sectional, plus the two-volume Fly Idaho! Third Edition, which provides essential information and photos of 83 airstrips.

The Idaho Aviation Association commissioned this aeronautical chart, which covers the entire state and depicts many airstrips not shown on the FAA sectionals. It also shows reporting points, obstructions like cables and windmills, wilderness areas, and much more. Plus, the back features a close-up of central Idaho, where many strips lie in close proximity. Finally, this chart is printed on a special material that is water- and tear-resistant, called UltraGreen synthetic paper. Photo courtesy IAA.

When vacationing in the backcountry, I prefer one of two methods. The first is to fly to a strip early in the morning, set up camp, spend the day exploring, sleep in the tent, and depart for the next strip early the next morning. The second method is to use one strip as a base camp from which to make daily forays, and this is where Johnson Creek comes in. Summer days are long, and winds usually die down in late afternoon/early evening, when there’s still plenty of light. Fly back to Johnson Creek after each day’s adventures and you’ll have access to bathrooms, hot showers, Wi-Fi, electricity to charge your devices, and a van you can take to Yellow Pine for a restaurant meal or basic groceries. For avgas, McCall is only 26 nautical miles west. McCall Aviation can shuttle you into town for groceries, or you can borrow a bike (provided for pilots by the Idaho Aviation Association) from the shed near the tiedowns. McCall is also home to McCall Mountain Canyon Flying Seminars, whose flight instructors specialize in mountain flying and canyon ops. I highly recommend bringing one of their CFIs along the first time you attempt to land at any of Idaho’s more challenging airstrips.

Recently I discovered a new way to enjoy Johnson Creek. Camping is fun, but sometimes my back longs for a real bed, and, much as I love airplanes, when “that guy” fires up his engine at 6 a.m., it’s not always a welcome sound. Just 3.8 miles south of the airstrip, right beside Johnson Creek, lies the Wapiti Meadow Ranch, with easily the best-equipped and most-affordable fly-in cabins in Idaho! Bring your own food or ask for a continental breakfast. Funny enough, a group of airline pilots had stayed there the night before us. Your hosts, Diana and Barry Bryant, know more about the area than anybody, going back four generations on this land. You can fish without a license in their large, stocked trout pond (see photos for more details on the ranch and cabins).

Two miles south of the strip you’ll find the Ice Hole, where the boulder-lined creek crosses a wide meadow. It’s a nice spot to swim or fish; licenses are available in Yellow Pine or online. The six-mile roundtrip Hot Springs Trail climbs 800 feet from the trailhead off the runway’s west side at midfield to a big bathtub, placed there decades ago by the Bryant family. Hot spring water runs into this tub, so you can enjoy a relaxing soak and an amazing view at the same time.

You’re here. Johnson Creek. The place pilots literally fly halfway around the world to experience. Enjoy!

Be aware that on several weekends per year, Johnson Creek plays host to fly-ins that can attract over 100 aircraft. Unless you are participating in those fly-ins, you should avoid those weekends. Check the Idaho Division of Aeronautics’ Calendar. Photo by Jeanine Grant, shot during the fly-in.

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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.
Topics: U.S. Travel

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