Crossing the Rockies and the Continental Divide
Eight months into the Pandemic I was desperate for a real adventure. Although I’d been flying, kayaking, hiking, hunting, shooting, fishing, etc., what I was really craving for was some new views and a grander adventure. My wife was putting a “College Covid Go Bag” together for my son in Denver as a requirement for quarantine should he test positive and I suggested we just fly the bag out there in the 206. Sure, it would be a “little” more expensive than USPS but probably faster! Crossing the Colorado Rockies and flying the biggest mountains our country has to offer was on my bucket list. An early October weather window set the stage for what turned into a 2,100-mile journey.
Planning started out simple with one stop in Provo, just south of Salt Lake City for fuel and relief. As I stared at the map, the complexity of the trip unfolded. There was a lot to see and do, so the plan evolved. A visit to friends in Park City (Covid safe of course), then cross the Rockies to Denver, with stops back west in Montrose/Telluride, Canyonlands/Arches, Bryce and the Grand Canyons. I dug into the flight planning. There were several route decisions that made deviation from an optimal flight path key to a safe and successful journey. The “West” was on fire causing lots of smoke and no fly zones and the Pandemic affected some facilities’ operational status, sometimes on a daily basis. All of the maps shown here have red-hashed areas where you can see no fly zones for firefighting activity, especially in California and Colorado. The smoke from the fires extended well beyond these restricted air spaces.
Smoke did dominate many legs of the trip from our departure, across the desolate regions of Nevada and Utah, until the Great Salt Lake. Both the predawn launch time and the thick
smoke, demanded I resort to flying the gauges for the first hour of the flight. Climbing to 11,500’ we rose above the smoke as the sun was coming up. Heading toward Salt Lake City, we passed through Battle Mountain, NV and then threaded our way through the extensive military air space west of the Great Salt Lake and over the Bonneville Salt Flats. Turning south, then east, followed by north we entered Provo Canyon for the descent into Heber City, UT for our Park City visit. Our stop there started somewhat clear but after a day the beautiful vistas became obscured by smoke from newly expanded fires near Salt Lake City.
The night before leaving Heber City I spent time digesting the details of our early morning
departure to Colorado and the “big mountains”. There are several routes that have become common for smaller and/or lower flying planes to take when crossing this part of the Rockies. The routes directly west and north of Denver were effectively closed to us due to smoke at the lower altitudes we wanted to fly. Our chosen flight path would take us through what can be the most challenging route across the Rockies, with 14,000’ plus peaks and passes in the 11,000’ range.
Negotiating our route would require focus, anticipation, and critical decision making. The State of Colorado maintains several mountain automatic weather observation systems (AWOS) that can help develop a picture of what’s happening along or close to many routes across the Rockies. Having a turbocharged plane and oxygen on board was also not going to be an excuse for less than sound decisions. I thank the many folks that posted excellent tips on the various routes they’ve taken across the Rocks.
One recurring theme from most of the pilot community was to avoid flying in winds greater than 25 knots. Mountain waves of greater speed can be felt all the way up to the highest commercial flight levels. No night flying over the Rockies with a single engine with the possible exception of a turbine engine and staying in the flight levels. These mountains deserved my utmost respect. There wasn’t going to be a lot of room to turn around in the passes, so entering with an out was critical. I’ve flown the Sierras for decades and have taken multiple mountain-flying courses and I still felt like I might be behind the curve once in the thick of it.
We arrived early at Heber City airport to smoke, haze, and cold. That last one I should have anticipated for better. I had a difficult cold start as I hadn’t planned for a way to plug in the engine preheater and no one was around to order a blow torch preheat. With the engine finally at proper temps, we rolled down the runway and climbed through the smoke to 11,500’. Despite the smoke, the views were spectacular as we left Utah for Colorado and my first crossing of the Rockies and the Continental Divide.
The Rockies stretch from British Columbia to New Mexico with the Colorado section having the highest peaks in the continental U.S. These big mountains contain not only big rock but forested regions and basins. The Continental Divide, which crosses the Rockies, is basically a hydrological or drainage divide that separates the river systems that flow to either the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean (including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea), or the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay. The Divide begins at Cape Prince Wales, Alaska, crosses through the Rockies, heads south through the Andes Mountains and ends in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
Passing over Montrose, CO I was now flying further East from California than I had ever previously gone. As we headed over Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, I updated
my weather information for the coming waypoints. Smooth sailing was in order. I was pleasantly surprised that Gunnison and Monarch Pass (closest to Marshall Pass where we’d be passing through) were still reporting sub 10kt winds and clear skies. We passed East Tavaputs Plateau north of Gunnison where the Aspen trees were in full glow.
As the mountain peaks started to catch up to and surpass our altitude, we navigated Marshall Pass with Mount Ouray to our left, towering 2,500’ higher than us at 13,971’, and a peak to 13,269’ to our right. The vistas were spectacular from this unique and privileged vantage point. I was on a high not unlike an athlete pumped up for competition. I caught myself several times absorbed more in landscape viewing than monitoring the gauges. These one of a kind geographies are incredibly distracting.
A hard left after Mount Ouray took us through Poncha Pass and over the town of Salida. I
had chosen this particular fly over to pay tribute to an old friend who passed on, Jerry Gunkel, and who taught me to fly. He was born and raised in Salida and retired to Monarch Spur nearby. I knew he was watching this flight. Thanks Jerry.
From Salida, we flew over Kaufman Ridge and I switched my attention to our descent and destination, Centennial Airport, one of the 3 busiest general aviation airports in the U.S. After a circling descent just outside Centennial’s airspace and some dangerous pattern sequencing issues due to a trainee controller, we landed. First Rockies crossing complete.
Not much was open in Denver at the time, but we found ourselves having dinner at the Buckhorn Exchange. The oldest steakhouse in Denver and recipient of the State’s first liquor license in 1893. On our Rockies crossing celebratory menu for the night was rattlesnake, alligator tail, and bison steaks. Oh, and a whole load of spectacular taxidermy to keep us company.
I was up early for our departure from Denver. We were headed to Montrose and Telluride for a couple of days. Montrose was where the 206’s engine was overhauled in 2018 and the folks there at Western Skyways were pleased to do a once over of their handy work (and clean ash out of the engine’s filters from all the fire areas we passed through). The forecast for the Rockies back to Montrose, starting well before our departure time and extending late into the day, was for moderate to severe turbulence across most of our route and any reasonable alternative ones.
I was not pressed for time but made the decision to go with the idea that our early departure would be the best time of day and I’d keep my quick turn-around and alternative landing options wide open. I altered the plan from a straight course reversal of our inbound route to one requiring a few extra miles by heading southeast to Colorado Springs and Pueblo then cutting back west toward Salida and Poncha Pass. I could monitor Salida weather from near Colorado Springs, which seemed fine, but wouldn’t pick up Monarch Pass weather until we were closer to Salida. There was only some minor chop as we entered the mountains, but it felt like a bit of a warning for what was to come. The only pilot reported weather was for the flight levels way above our chosen altitude.
Finally picking up Monarch Pass’ automated weather gave me significant pause. Winds were reported to be 36 knots with maximum gusts hovering at or near 50 knots (Monarch has had recorded wind gusts of up to 148mph). I’m now at the threshold of Marshall Pass and had a critical decision to make. Turn back or test the waters. So far, we had experienced nary a bump. Marshall Pass is bordered by Mount Ouray on its North side but there is some room south to maneuver, so I flew past the Pass’ entry point and then turned to approach it at a 45-degree angle. The idea that if at the Pass’ entry the winds and turbulence were too strong I could deflect out of there. With a heightened sense of caution, I approached the Pass. Marshall clearly wasn’t Monarch, and not a bump at the entrance. But once into the Pass there really wasn’t any turning around. Then, my airspeed began to deteriorate while the autopilot pitched the plane up to hold altitude, compensating for a strong downdraft. There was no turbulence at this point, and we were halfway through the Pass. I kicked off the autopilot and rode the down draft for maybe 500 feet, down to 12,000’. The turbulence kicked in just as we excited the Pass but as soon as it started it stopped, and we were on smooth rails headed over lower terrain towards Gunnison. I didn’t relax completely until we were down and chocked at Montrose. Second Rockies crossing complete.
I’ll fast forward past our encounters with Canyonlands, Arches, Capital Reef and Bryce Canyon only to say those parts of this trip were spectacular and I’ve included some aerial shots from the flight. You can get a sense of the topography and the smokiness we encountered from some of the pictures here. I will talk a little bit about our last-minute diversion to the Grand Canyon and the unique perspective we achieved by flying its corridors.
On the way from Bryce Canyon airport to Grand Canyon airport I had planned to transition the North/South Dragon Corridor. The National Park Service and FAA have allowed for commercial sightseeing and general aviation to fly across the Canyon in designated corridors.
Five minutes from the Grand Canyon’s northern rim my trim servo crapped out indicated by an unpleasant but useful alarm. Those that read about my last trip through the Grand Canyon area may recall I had a runaway trim issue as I approached the northern rim of the Canyon. This time, despite the noisy alarm, nothing happened. Odd to occur in the same basic location. I kicked off the autopilot and just hand flew across the Canyon. The problem resolved for the next leg.
The views from the Canyon’s rims, and even from down in the Canyon, are spectacular but
the pictures I took just don’t do justice to the overwhelming views from flying just above rim level across the Canyon. Millions and billions of years of intense geologic activity created this incredible landscape. One is humbled to realize that their or any human’s existence or even humans as a species, can’t be measured in any really meaningful way against the scale of the events that shaped such beauty.
As we started the approach into the South Rim area for a landing at Grand Canyon Airport, it was a surprise to me the extent of the forestation and remoteness. I had known the north side of the Canyon was fairly devoid of civilization but had not realized the extent of that on the south side. Grand Canyon National Park Airport is in Arizona on the South Rim of the Canyon. Our only competition for the traffic pattern was a departing US Forest Service helicopter and before we knew it, we were down. GC Airport is a very lonely place during the Pandemic. Other than the fuel attendant, and a voice in the tower, we and lots of parked tour planes were it. It took some doing to get to the South Rim where we were staying at the El Tovar Hotel due to a pandemic-induced lack of transportation options.
Our stay at the historic El Tovar was fantastic and probably more so by the lack of any significant numbers of visitors. We hiked, star gazed, and ate. Opened in 1905 the Swiss Chalet looking hotel was considered the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi upon its completion.
This adventure had us fly almost 2,100 miles and over mostly extreme remote country. Everywhere you can see the dramatic effects of time, tectonics and water erosion. I crossed the Colorado Rockies twice, albeit at roughly the same location. I’d really like to cross at more northern points and even in Wyoming. A fantastic adventure with many more details I’ll keep for another story.