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Needles Outpost, Canyonlands, Utah
The $100 Hamburger Off the Grill - Off the Grid

By Fletcher Anderson

Needles Outpost, in southeast Utah, has been my favorite fly-in restaurant since 1996. This is an interesting coincidence, since I was also the current owners’ very first customer on their very first day of business. I was deadheading back from Marble Canyon, Arizona to Glenwood Springs, Colorado in 100-degree plus temperatures, with the sweat flowing off my body gluing me to the seat. Lumpy midday convective turbulence was adding nothing to the joy of the flight. I was ready for a break, when suddenly below me was a dirt runway, near a gas station.

Down on the ground — equally sweaty and looking up — Gary and Tracey Napoleone were wondering just how wise it had been to completely uproot their lives and open a store and restaurant here in this desert, 100 road miles from the nearest town. Located about seven miles due east of the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers (38 10.32 N, 109 44.38 W on the Denver Sectional), Needles Outpost may not be the exact middle of nowhere, but you can see it clearly from there. If Gary and Tracey thought my arrival was the answer to their prayers, they were wrong — all I bought was a cold Coca-Cola with the company credit card. Nonetheless, we became the best of friends in a matter of seconds, and have remained so to this day. Virtually all visitors to Needles Outpost have the same reaction; this is a lot of peoples’ favorite $100 hamburger.

Canyonlands Needles Outpost is the only private facility serving the southeast entrance to the vast Canyonlands National Park. Services include gasoline, a well-appointed campground, and a general store. The Western Grill is located in the back of the store, with counter seating indoors for 8 to 10 people, and — for dining with an incredible view — two picnic tables outside on the patio.

While the proverbial $100 hamburger (prepared on the outdoor grill) is the Outpost’s most popular item, I recommend the beef or chicken fajitas. The food off the home-style grill inside is simple, but very good. The menu varies, depending on what’s in the fridge. In addition to burgers and fajitas, lunch offerings include sandwiches, and (if you’re lucky) Tracey’s famous Outpost chili. Breakfast fare also varies, but typically features breakfast burritos, omelets, and whatever Gary wants for breakfast that day. Coffee, muffins, and bagels are always available. Tracey will also cheerfully accommodate special menus by request; call ahead to ensure the fridge is properly stocked. Hours are (more or less) 8:30 AM until 6:00 PM. Later hours can be arranged with prior notice, and overnight guests are welcome to use the grill.
Anything cold to drink in the middle of the desert is one of life’s greatest pleasures. To this end not only does the Outpost stock cold Coca-Cola for hot, weary transient pilots, but they also make one of the best milkshakes in all of Utah. A liquor license is in the works for this summer, so overnight guests can enjoy the colorful sunsets with a tall, cool one.

The Outpost’s own private campground is just out of sight around the corner from the gas station and general store. They feature some essentials the Park Service doesn’t offer, including flush toilets, showers, and the aforementioned cold beverages and delicious meals. Call ahead if you need to reserve a camp space. They also rent camping gear and will set it up for you — a real bonus if space is limited in your aircraft. (Runway camping is not allowed at this time due to no sanitation facilities.)

Most of the Outpost’s business is four wheel drive and motor home visitors to Canyonlands National Park. This park protects some of the most spectacular desert canyon scenery in the world, much of it inaccessible except for few trails for hikers, mountain bikes, and four wheelers. Elephant hill, seven miles away, is the jeep driver’s Mount Everest. Winter is hiking and mountain bike season, bringing a steady stream of hardy souls eager to challenge the backcountry trails. I’m not giving away any secrets when I say the reasons to fly here include having the best view of these magnificent, inaccessible canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers, and of nearby Lake Powell and Arches National Park. Neither am I giving away any secrets when I remind you there are very few people living out here, and very few places to land. Pack survival gear accordingly, and file a flight plan.

The National Park boundary is the fence along the south edge of the Needles Outpost runway. Before flying in, you should call to ask about the runway surface. Currently it is very smooth and Gary drags it regularly to keep it that way, but the soil can be very soft at times. The east end of the airstrip is firmer than the west end. At an altitude of 4950 MSL and a length of 4500 feet, virtually any general aviation airplane can get in and out. No unusual skills are required to land (most of my flight school students have made at least one trip here). Tracey recommends an inspection pass over the field before landing, and suggests you pay particular attention to the drainage berm on both sides of the runway, lest you be surprised by their proximity to your wingtip. There is a $15 day-use fee for the airstrip to help defray maintenance costs. The fee is waived if you camp overnight, and an unlimited use annual pass is available for $50 if you become addicted to the fajitas.

A common traffic frequency is not published, but most people are using either 122.8 or 122.9. Consider “channel hopping” as you approach, and announcing which frequency you will be using. lists the runway as 07/25, with an airport identifier of UT59. The windsock is over by the store, north of the west end of the field. You can taxi to the pumps to fill up with auto fuel (the trail is a bit rugged though), but there is no avgas. If the wind is light, land 25 and depart 07, but only because the tie down is at the west end of the runway. There is no up or down hill, and no obstructions off either end. A word of caution if you are flying a very heavily loaded, low powered plane: with midday July temperatures over 100 degrees, density altitude is an issue, and it can be hard to un-stick from the ground if the surface is particularly soft. Remember to fly friendly over the National Park, 2000 feet AGL is requested, and avoid over-flying the Park Service visitor’s center and campground one half mile west of the Outpost.

Tracey and Gary pride themselves on personal service to their guests, and they encourage you to contact them with questions or requests. Needles Outpost is a great spot for large group fly- ins and special occasions like weddings or reunions, just call ahead to give them time to prepare a cookout. Contact the outpost by phone, (435) 979-4007; by e-mail,; or in writing, at Canyonlands Needles Outpost, P.O. Box 1107, Monticello, UT 84535. There is also an informative photovoltaic powered wireless web site,, which includes daily weather information and current runway conditions. At Needles Outpost, the nineteenth century is about to meet the twenty-first century by skipping over the twentieth!

Building Needles Outpost:
A Study in Perseverance
The Outpost owes its runway to the fact that back in the 1980’s, the store was managed by a mechanic from Redtail Aviation in Green River, Utah (now owned by Lake Powell Air) who commuted to work. When Gary and Tracey moved in, the Outpost was suffering from several years of mild neglect. They assumed the biggest mortgage they could qualify for and got to work.

Needles Outpost is way, way off the power grid. Most places like it, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, hum with the sound of a mammoth diesel generator 24-hours a day. Not here. One of the first projects was a photovoltaic system powerful enough to run the big industrial refrigerators at the store and grill. Next came a complete overhaul of the water system, which uses trucked-in water from a nearby spring. Then the store was remodeled. It was beautiful. It worked. Their pride in their hard work showed. Then disaster…

Disaster in the form of a ruinous hailstorm. I guess there is no such thing as a freak storm in the desert (either none of them is, or all of them are), but the one which hit in the spring of 2000 looked like the index finger of God. The footprint of hail on the desert floor was only half a mile wide and three miles long, but Needles Outpost was at ground zero. The photovoltaics were smashed. The roof of the store was pounded through, and the inside destroyed. The campground was hit so badly some motor homes were washed away. What was left of the runway was cut by two gullies over six feet deep. There was nowhere near enough insurance to cover everything.

Most people would have packed up and gone back to the city looking for a job. Instead, Gary and Tracey went searching through the wreckage for their tools. Less than a year later, there is a new roof, new coolers, new photovoltaics, a completely rebuilt campground, and a new runway.

The runway was the last thing to be repaired, being the least important moneymaker. By then, the repair budget was more than spent. Karl Speilman of the Utah Backcountry Pilots Association helped by pointed them in the direction of all sorts of possible assistance. Ultimately, salvation came from the San Juan Country road department. The runway might be a wonderful asset to pilots, but like all small rural airports, its most important use is for medical flights servicing the surrounding area, including the very busy National Park.

Thanks to the hard work and perseverance of Tracey and Gary Napoleone, their many friends, and the forward-thinking folks governing San Juan County, Needles Outpost is back up and fully operational for us all to enjoy.

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