Fly throughout Idaho, over the Craters of the Moon
By Tim Wright
Contrary to popular perception, there is more to Idaho than potatoes and ski bums who answer to the name Muffy or Biff. And an airplane is a great way to prove it in this airplane-friendly state.
If you're a history buff, a fishing fanatic, a science
whiz, a friend of critters, or just somebody who likes to play outdoors,
you've come to a good spot. If geology is your thing, you might just
giggle out loud because Idaho, also known as The Gem State, is the site
of some of the most fantastic volcanic activity found anywhere in the
Now I admit that Idaho Falls isn't exactly a name that springs to mind as a prime vacation destination, but it's a nice town, centrally located in the region, and it has a good airport, Idaho Falls Regional Airport, offering paved runways, mechanics, and lots of gas. For accommodations, I suggest one of the upper floors of the Red Lion Inn. The hotel is in the heart of town and stands next to the Snake River. From your balcony, you can gaze out over the river to watch folks stroll up and down the delightful tree-lined banks or watch the sun set on distant hills.
When you get hungry, you can walk down the street to the Brownstone Restaurant and Brewhouse for good food and fresh beer that's brewed on site. Afterward, you can stumble back to your room or, if you're up for dessert, walk a little farther downstream and down the street to The Bistro Off Broadway for an espresso. The Bistro offers small outdoor tables, free wireless Internet access, and delicious pasta.
So now you're fat and happy and ready to go exploring. If you need suggestions or directions, don't hesitate to ask a local. You'll be hard-pressed to find a nicer bunch of folks anywhere. The pace of life is a little slower here and the reduced stress is reflected in the patience and helpfulness you'll find in folks living in the area. When I asked for directions for fishing, the bartender at the Brownstone drew three highly detailed maps to some of his favorite nearby fishing holes.
Fishing is a major industry for the state, and you shouldn't have much trouble finding someone to guide you in the mountains or paddle the boat for you as you cast into the fast-running tributaries of the Snake River. In the mountains of central and northern Idaho, there are lots of airstrips that are so close to streams and rivers that you can almost cast from the cockpit after you land. I suggest you get a hold of Galen Hanselman's flying guide, Fly Idaho! I picked up my copy at Aero Mark, an FBO at Idaho Falls, for $40.
It's a great little book about Idaho's off-the-beaten-track airstrips and it's filled with valuable information, wit, wisdom, and history. Even though it's entertaining enough to read for entertainment's sake, its most important feature is the system Hanselman has developed to rate the risk of each airstrip in the book. Hanselman's assessment is based on field elevation, runway length, runway hazards, mountain hazards, and a whole slew of factors a stranger is probably unaware of. Bottom line: The higher the score, the riskier the airstrip.
To give his words and scores more meaning, each listing includes a photograph of the airstrip. If you're not convinced when he says, "Don't even consider landing here without a local professional pilot and even then, be damn choosey!" then the photograph may help you to heed his words.
While most folks purchase Hanselman's book for its mountain information, it also has a lot of information about airstrips in the Snake River plain, such as the Arco Desert, not far from Idaho Falls. The Arco Desert represents some of the most empty and inhospitable terrain you can imagine. Its emptiness is one reason it was chosen as the site for the INEEL, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab, now the Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
The INL, being a government nuclear research facility, is not someplace one strolls into casually. The Salt Lake City Sectional even lists the airspace over it as a National Security Area, but tours are available and worth the time. One tour pilots should enjoy is the EBR-1 reactor site.
The EBR-1 is the first nuclear reactor to generate electricity for commercial use. When it was running, power lines stretched to the nearby small town of Arco, making it the first town in the world to be lit with nuclear power. The EBR-1 was shut down years ago and thoroughly cleaned up. It may now be the only nuclear power plant that civilians can tour completely.
But the attraction for pilots is what sits beside the EBR-1 parking lot.
Surrounded by chain-link fences topped by barbwire stand two massive collections of rusting pipes and tubes adorned with radiological warning signs. From a distance, it's impossible to tell what they are. It isn't until you get up close that some of the elements within the structures become somewhat familiar, but you'll probably be stumped until you read the plaques nearby. These are nuclear aircraft engines!
Back in the glory days of atomic energy, when anything nuclear was good and exciting, the Pentagon investigated the possibility of building nuclear-powered bombers. The first bomber was to be built and based at the INL. Other than these two engines, and a massive hangar that still stands, nothing else survives. The project died when it was determined that the radiation shielding needed to keep the crews alive during a mission made the aircraft too heavy to fly. The history of the project, which reads like a 1950s science fiction novel, is well worth the few minutes it takes to peruse.
Another fascinating area is the Craters of the Moon Monument. The monument protects a series of volcanic vents that gave birth to massive lava flows that have covered huge chunks of the Snake River plain. Oozing from the base of a hill, one lava flow stretches more than 20 miles to the south.
The monument is about a 35-minute flight in a Cessna 182 due west from Idaho Falls. The flight will take you past the INL and three large volcanic buttes that sprout from the plain. If you want to get a view from the ground, the Idaho state airport directory says fuel and a courtesy car are available 20 miles away at Arco-Butte County Airport, but Arco is a small community of about 2,000 souls so I suggest you call ahead to see what is available — the number (208/527-3261) is listed in AOPA's Airport Directory and any updates may be found in AOPA's Airport Directory online (www.aopa.org/members/airports/).
If a car at Arco isn't available, and you're determined to see what a lava flow looks like, you can test your skills with the dirt airstrip at Hollow Top Airport in Martin, Idaho. Hollow Top lies just a short walk from one of the youngest lava flows in the United States. Hanselman scores Hollow Top at a relatively easy 8, with its biggest concerns being the field elevation of 5,359 feet and a dirt runway 2,500 feet long bedeviled by burrowing animals and cattle.
There's no fuel here or facilities or buildings of any kind. There isn't even a road. If you decide to land and make the hike to the lava, keep in mind that, according to Hanselman, "rattlesnakes are more common than grasshoppers."
Hollow Top takes its name from the hollow-topped volcanic butte just east of the airstrip. Idaho's volcanic past is astounding. The reason the Snake River plain is so flat is because of hundreds of massive volcanic eruptions, each one greater than anything man has ever witnessed. The plain is covered with lava that is literally miles deep. Sixteen million years ago a geological "hot spot" entered the state from the southwest and exited out the northeast. As it drove through the state, it took out mountains and reshaped the land.
Today, the hotspot is known as Yellowstone National Park and it's one of the largest living volcanoes in the world. When Yellowstone blows again, the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 will have seemed like an after-dinner burp.
Speaking of Yellowstone, the same number of air miles from Idaho Falls to Craters of the Moon will put you inside the park. Yellowstone from above is almost as amazing a sight as it is from the ground. Only from the air can you truly appreciate just how much wilderness is there. As for landing at Yellowstone, your best bet is probably the paved airstrip at Yellowstone Airport, which is just outside the park and across the Idaho border into Montana. But activity there is seasonal, so you could find yourself all alone. Rental hotels and cars are available in the area if you want to drive in the park.
If you were over Yellowstone, and heading back to Idaho Falls, you'd be remiss if you didn't head south to fly over Jackson Hole and past the magnificent Tetons. Seeing these incredible blocks of granite rising into the sky is nothing short of inspiring. But if the wind is up, they can be killers. Stay in the area long enough, and sooner or later you'll hear tales of airplanes having their wings folded by violent turbulence. If the winds weren't enough, icing in the area can be treacherous. Exercise extreme caution when you swing west to cross the Tetons on your way back to Idaho Falls.
Once on the Idaho side of the Teton summits, you might want to drop down and visit the airport in Driggs, Driggs-Reed Memorial Airport, with its 7,300 feet of asphalt. Driggs boasts ultralight and glider action and has become a home away from home for many pilots who feel driven away from Jackson Hole by the costs and hassles of operating there. As one émigré told me, "In the summertime, if you're not a [Gulfstream] GV, they won't even talk to you."
Because Driggs has drawn pilots from Jackson Hole, it's a lot bigger than it would be if it only drew local Idaho pilots. It's the kind of place that has become a destination in its own right, especially on warm Sundays when the numerous warbirds are pulled out of their hangars for all to admire and the restaurant is in full swing.
I hear the food is so good that it's reason enough to drop in and refill the tanks. If you're there on an off day like I was, go inside the main building at the FBO. You'll find a stairway leading upward with a window at the top looking into the attached hangar. Trust me, if you love warbirds, you'll find the view into the hangar worthwhile.
From Driggs, Idaho Falls is less than 50 nm away. If you've got restless teenagers along, there are two other trips to consider that the whole family may also enjoy. One trip would be St. Anthony, 30 nm northeast of Idaho Falls off Highway 20. Here you'll find the oddity of miles of massive sand dunes. The area is a magnet for dirt bikes, dune buggies, and all sorts of potential insanities involving speed and sand. Even if you don't join in, it's lots of fun to watch the activity. Since there isn't much chance of transportation at the local airport, Standford Field, and because it's so close by, it would be best to get a car in Idaho Falls.
Another trip to consider would be Lava Hot Springs, 50 nm due south of Idaho Falls. While the kids enjoy rented inner tubes coursing through the heart of town on the Portneuf River, mom and dad can enjoy a long, hot soak in outdoor, spring-fed, sandy-bottomed, concrete-lined pools. The facility is run by the state and you can even take a massage after sharing the waters with busloads of Japanese.
You can land at the Lava Hot Springs Airpark and its 3,500-foot-long dirt airstrip. Officially, the airport is still restricted so you need to call Reed White at (877) 360-2582 for permission and to learn runway conditions. If he isn't busy, when you get there he'll give you a ride into town.
Otherwise, it's a good two-mile walk. If you're lucky and respectful, one of the locals may offer to give a ride if you put out a thumb. If you decide to make it an overnight trip, the area hotels will pick you up and drop you off at the airstrip. One thing to keep in mind — the airstrip sits in a valley bowl and atop a small mesa. The north end of the runway has a 500-foot displaced threshold because of a noncompliant structure near the runway, and 20-knot winds from the south are not uncommon.
After traveling all over southeastern Idaho, you'll find it to be one of the most airplane-friendly regions in the lower-48 states. The flying here is spectacular, the scenery inspiring, and you'll find some of the most challenging flying anywhere. From highland to flatland, there's something in Idaho for just about everyone.