Desert, mountain and river flying trip through California, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho

Les Goldner (701 builder/pilot) and his wife planned a two week flying trip into the Idaho back country.  Les and I belong to both the Petaluma EAA chapter and the Santa Rosa, CA EAA chapter.  We fly together from time to time.

Even though it was "his trip", Les let me plan the route from Santa Rosa, CA to Boise, ID.  I chose a little low-level desert flying in Nevada from Carson City (CXP) to Battle Mountain (BAM). Then we flew the entire course of the Owyhee River (about 380 miles) from just north of Battle Mountain to where it flows into the Snake River in South-Western Idaho.

Mrs. Goldner wisely skipped this part of the adventure.  She flew commercial into Boise (BOI). Les picked her up there then we flew to a grass airstrip with camping located in Garden Valley (U88).  This strip is at 3,100 feet.  We spend two nights at Garden Valley then we went our separate ways.  Les and his wife had reservations at several back-country lodges.  I did not.  Also, I only had one week for my adventure; they had two.

I flew from Garden Valley up into the Sawtooth Valley and landed at a grass strip at Smiley Creek (U87).  This strip is at 7,100 feet.  There is camping with hot showers etc.  You can walk to the lodge for food if you get tired of your own cooking.

The headwaters of the Salmon River are located a few miles south of Smiley Creek airstrip.  The “baby” Salmon River (looks like a creek) runs through the campground.  I decided to fly the river all the way to Johnson Creek (3U2), which is off the South fork of the Salmon River.  Along the way I flew up the middle fork of the Salmon and also into one of its tributaries, Big Creek.  I also flew up to Cold Meadows (U81 – 7,000 feet) to take a look.  I did not land there.  The trip from Smiley Creek to Johnson Creek was 405 miles the way I chose to go.  As the crow would fly, it is 80 miles.

It is said you should not fly in the Idaho Mountains after 11:00 am to avoid possible extreme turbulence. Flying in the canyons “for no good reason” is also not recommended.  I got into Johnson Creek about 2:30 pm and yes, flying in the canyons in the afternoon can be exciting; 21 knot winds one way followed by 14 knot winds the other.  Climbing 700 ft/minute sometimes, descending 700 ft/minute at other times, looking for lift, not always finding it were you would expect it.  This was not my first rodeo in the mountains.  The Zodiac and I held up OK.  Still, I can’t recommend afternoon canyon flying.  Enjoy this fool’s pictures.  Don’t be one yourself.

Speaking of fools… I landed a Johnson Creek a few hours too late to observe the excitement of the day; a Piper 150 which ended its flight from California in the trees.  According to the accounts offered to me as I walked the field, the pilot of this plane made a "few" mistakes.  Collectively, they just did not work out for him.

1)    Had never been to the Idaho mountains before and got no training

2)    Did not read up on the airport at Johnson Creek (clear runway advice is given)

3)    Did not call in on the radio asking for runway info

4)    Did a straight-in without checking the windsock or field conditions

5)    Landed downhill

6)    Landed downwind

7)    Came in high (many folks do that the first time in the mountains)

8)    Touched down 2 3rds of the way down the wet grass runway

9)    Skidded off into the trees near the end of the 4,933 foot runway. 4,933 feet!

The poor fellow must have been frightened out of his mind to make all these mistakes all at the same time. He and his two friends walked away OK. The plane’s flying days are over (two pictures of the plane are in the slide show).  Something like this happens at least once per year at Johnson Creek, according to the locals.  Don't make this strip your first mountain landing.  If you don't like Garden Valley, forget about Johnson Creek.

I spent two nights at Johnson Creek then flew home – mostly direct.  I stopped for fuel at Cascade (U70).  I stopped to water a bush at Rome State (REO).  The bush was thankful – it’s that dry there.

All around, a good adventure except it was too hot – into the 90s each day even at 7,100 feet at Smiley Creek.  Probably July and August are not the best times to visit.

Another challenge was the forest fires. In Idaho they were ominous looking but did not happen to block my path or my view. On the way home to California however, I ran into a wall of smoke hundreds of miles long.  I was able to climb above it at 15,000 ft.  But still, my handy little portable CO meter read 32ppm at one point and ranged from 6 to 16 for about two hours. Unpleasant to say the least!

I took many hundreds of pictures along the way, as I often do.  When I got home I cleaned up the collection and got it down to about 400 pictures worth keeping.  Instead of picking out a few to post, I decided to make a few slide shows out of all of them.  The slide shows were then turned into movies so I could upload them.  Links to the "videos" are below.


Here is an overview of my GPS track, Starting and ending in Santa Rosa, CA.

Below are 7 links to 7 video slideshows. These videos were produced and uploaded in HD (high definition). They are best watched full-screen. The default playback in your browser is not necessarily in high definition; you may need to click the gear icon in the video player to switch to HD each time a video starts.

The first video slideshow contains just a few pictures taken Along i80, near Donner Summit, Donner Lake, and Lake Tahoe.  Click here to watch.

The second video slideshow documents about 3 hours and 300 miles of desert flying. Click here to watch.

The third video slideshow contains pictures taken as we traveled north-east of Battle Mountain on our way to the Owyhee River headlands.  The video includes pictures of a monstrous open pit mining operation. Click here to watch.

The forth slideshow is of the 380 miles flown along the Owyhee River.  Click here to watch.

The filth slideshow shows the grass strip at Garden Valley, the flight to Smiley Creek and my time on the ground at Smiley Creek.  Click here to watch.

Slideshow 6: These pictures were taken on the 405 mile flight from Smiley creek to Johnson Creek along the Salmon River.  This includes a side trip up the middle fork and Big Creek. Click here to watch.

Slideshow 7: These pictures were taken on the 631 mile flight from Johnson Creek to Santa Rosa.  There were several fires burning in northern California which made for lots of smoke in the later pictures of the flight. Click here to watch.


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Comment by Sebastien Heintz on August 8, 2012 at 8:27am

Great photos of an awesome trip - what variety of terrain!
Nice use of YouTube video clips for the photo slideshows.

Comment by Zenith.Aero on August 8, 2012 at 7:12am

Excellent post!  Thanks for sharing.

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