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Oct/Nov 2000

Table of Contents
San Juan
River Magic
The Maverick TwinJet
Extreme Air
Albuquerque Aerobatics
The $100 Hamburger
The Galley, Flagstaff, AZ
Back To Basics
Retro-reflective Approaches
Hangar Flying:
GA Flying Tips for Flying Phoenix Sky Harbor
SWAV News Update

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SW Aviator Magazine
3909 Central NE
Albuquerque, NM 87108
Phone: 505.256.7031
Fax: 505.256.3172
San Juan River Magic
story by Mark Swint, photos by Gerrit Paulsen

The advent of fall, for many, signals the end to the summer’s great flying adventures. This, however, can be a big mistake. I have found fall flying to be some of the best flying of the year. A nice fall day means cool mornings and smooth air, with generally good visibility and great flying conditions. This is when I like to tour around, doing some of my more adventurous "flightseeing." I find that even mountainous terrain yields itself to close examination, without the ever-threatening turbulence and unsettled air found at other times of the year. The sun, too, seems to lend a softer, more diffuse light to all I survey. Autumn is the time for sightseeing and exploration.

I know there are many out there who enjoy backcountry adventures, but who are not so comfortable with camping or off-pavement landings. So this time I thought it would be nice to tell you about a fall trip that requires neither, and is suited to any level of flyer and type of aircraft. I’d like to take you on a flightseeing trip down one of the great rivers of the Southwest — I’d like to take you down the San Juan River.

The San Juan River begins life high in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, above the town of Pagosa Springs. It tumbles down, cold and clear, eventually spilling into the Navajo Reservoir, which straddles the Colorado - New Mexico border. After clearing Navajo Dam, the river meanders much more sedately westward through New Mexico’s high desert and farmlands, before finally entering Utah almost exactly at the Four Corners. From there, it continues through evermore-spectacular scenery until finally spilling its contents into Lake Powell.

Southern Utah has some of the most diverse landscape to be found in one state. The terrain has been shaped, in large part, by the mighty rivers that come down from forested mountain meadows in the north to carve the rugged and foreboding sandstone gorges and monuments the area is famous for. This expansive and unforgiving desert grudgingly yields its beauty to those who dare to challenge it.

Though not as famous as its bigger brothers, the Colorado and the Green, the San Juan River was, nevertheless, one of the last mighty rivers to be explored. Much of its canyon stretches were not revealed to white explorers until the early twentieth century. The river was named in 1776 by the famous Spanish explorers Fathers Francisco Dominguez and Francisco Escalante. They were responsible for many of the Spanish names given to areas around the Four Corners region. Focused more on saving souls than exploration, Dominguez and Escalante did not venture far into the river’s uninhabited, steep and unforgiving canyons.

It was well into the late 1800’s before European explorers went much farther. There is record of only one visitor to the area prior to that time. He was a French-Canadian fur trapper named Denis Julien. He left an inscription in "Hell Roaring Canyon" on the Green River, 50 miles up from the confluence with the Colorado. That inscription, dated "3 Mai 1836" is one of only four inscriptions left as evidence of European encroachment into this land during those early times. The other inscriptions are ascribed to him as well, though two are lost forever in Glen Canyon by the flood of Lake Powell. His fourth and last is found in Arches National Park and is dated June 9, 1844. Some historians think Denis Julien might have continued on to the San Juan, since there are plenty of beavers there, although no evidence of a visit has yet been discovered.

As with much of the West, it was the lure of gold that finally opened the canyons of the San Juan to exploration. The first known expedition down the river was conducted in 1879-80 when E.L. Goodridge floated from Animas (now Durango), Colorado to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona in his quest for gold. He found only small amounts of very fine-grained placer gold, called "Flour Gold," but word of his journey brought others eager to try their luck and wager their destiny on the precious metal. Little gold was found, though some prospecting continued as late as 1915. What E.L. did find along the river were "oil seeps," where oil was actually leaking out of the sandstone into the water. He went back in 1908 and sank a well to a depth of 225´ before hitting a gusher that, he claimed, shot oil 70´ into the air. Unfortunately, the geology of the "Anticline" in that area didn’t lend itself to great amounts of black gold, and his well very quickly went dry. In fact, no oil was ever taken out of the San Juan River Valley until the 1970’s. Texaco Oil drilled a mile-deep well to the east, near the beginning of our journey in the Four Corners Region, in 1956. That well began flowing at a rate of 1704 barrels a day and marked the discovery of the Aneth Oil field, which, still today, supports several hundred producing oil wells. The field should have an ultimate production of over 500,000,000 barrels before it runs dry. With that said, let’s get started on our journey and see what "gold" we can find!

To get the full effect of flying the San Juan, start at its birthplace, the snowcapped peaks rising high above Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Here, as the river flows through the center of town and past the famous hot springs, it is not much more than a swift mountain stream. The cool mountain meadows, verdant farm field, and pine and juniper studded hillsides cradling the river are a sharp contrast to the dry, rocky canyons the river traverses later on its course.

Another good starting point for this adventure is Farmington, New Mexico, located about 100 river miles downstream. By my way of thinking, any great adventure starts better with a good meal. To that end, I decided to start my trip down the San Juan with lunch at Señor Pepper’s, a great Mexican restaurant located right on the Farmington airport. A restaurant has graced the Farmington airport terminal at least since the early seventies when, as a young charter pilot, I always looked forward to trips to Farmington just for the food.

Once airborne from Farmington heading due west from the airport, the San Juan River comes underneath the airplane almost immediately. At this point, there is not much to see, as the river is pretty flat and meandering in a wide drainage. However, though it sits almost 35 miles to the west, the magnificent volcanic spire known as Shiprock comes quickly into view. Standing almost 2,000´ above the surrounding desert, it can be seen for miles and is a truly inspiring sight. It takes little imagination to see why the Navajos hold it as sacred, and why early Spanish explores were reminded of the sailing ships that carried them to the New World.

Approximately 15 miles after you pass abeam Shiprock, look for the Four Corners Monument just southwest of the river. This is the only spot in the US where you can be in four states at the same time. Tourists enjoy posing for pictures here, and finding creative ways to be in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico simultaneously. Four Corners is easily spotted by looking for the vendor stalls ringing the Monument, where Navajo merchants sell their handicrafts to the tourists. From the Four Corners Monument, you can make a speed run to the small Utah town of Bluff, about 38 miles away if you follow the river. Up to this point, the river shows little to portend the beauty it is about to reveal, but the scenery is about to change dramatically.

Bluff does a thriving business as a jumping off point for river runners, and during the summer a careful inspection of the river will reveal numerous rafters. The boaters actually put into the water a few miles downstream at the bridge that crosses the river at the Sand Island Recreation Area. The unattended Bluff airport (66V) is also located here, with a good runway. Be aware of uncharted power lines crossing the river near the town of Bluff.

The easiest way to describe the next few points of interest on the river is to give their mileage along the river from the Sand Island Bridge. You can figure your progress by determining, beforehand, what your groundspeed will be, and with a good watch or stopwatch, you should be able to figure your distance accurately. Remember, the distances are river distances rather than straight line!

While the river stays wide for a few miles, the sights begin right away. At mile 1 on the river, cliffs begin to appear. The light colored rock is part of the Navajo Sandstone formation dating back to the Jurassic period (yes, that Jurassic!). The black streaks that wash down the cliff sides throughout the area are called "Desert Varnish" and are caused by the precipitation of manganese oxide from ground and surface waters. At mile 3.3, you might catch a small Indian ruin about a fourth of the way up the cliff on the right. Down at water level, but unseen from the plane, there will be numerous petroglyphs all along the river for the next several miles. As you approach mile 5.8, you may glimpse some cliff dwellings up a small canyon on the right. They include a small granary and, a half-mile farther up the same canyon on the left side, a well-preserved cliff dwelling.

Mile 7 is a good place to reset your watch and mileage computations. This area is identified by Combs Wash, which comes into the river from the right side. The east flank of the Monument Upwarp and the west flank of the Blanding Basin form this wash. The massive red cliffs on the south side of the river are made of DeChelly Sandstone, dating from the Permian Period. From mile 10 on, the banks of the river become steeper and the gorge gets deeper. The geology changes quickly, with varied and spectacular formations passing rapidly. Some may require an extra circle or two just to get it all in. Be sure to have a camera at the ready.

The rolling and heaving terrain to the south is known as the Lime Ridge Anticline and it soon gives way to the Raplee Anticline. Mile 17 starts an area called the Narrows, which continues for about three more miles. As the river twists through the deep, serpentine canyon, it may be more fun to just look outside at the passing beauty of the river gorge and not worry much about the geology. The river will continue westward for another couple of miles as it begins a gentle sweep to the north. Then, suddenly, it makes a sharp bend back to the left, completely reversing course. As you finish making the turn look for a road and a parking area on the right. Close inspection of the rocks there will reveal Mexican Hat Rock. This spectacular balancing rock marks the entry to the Mexican Hat oil field where Goodridge drilled his Goodridge No.1 gusher. There is a boat launch and campsite a few miles farther down stream as the river resumes its westward trek once more. Mexican Hat Bridge crosses the river at mile 27.6.

Approximately 2.5 miles past the bridge you will come to the Mendenhall Loop. In 1894-95, Walter Mendenhall made three trips down the San Juan in a crude hand made boat searching for gold. His stone cabin is located in the Gooseneck of the loop. A few miles further down, the Tabernacle will form another loop back around to the left. After this point, you will enter another stretch of narrows that ultimately gives way, at about mile 37, to an area known on the river as the Goosenecks. The next 22 miles are just plain fun to fly. I did not see any obstacles along the way, so I was quite comfortable flying low. I must add, however, that it is always imperative and prudent to keep a sharp eye out for obstructions as well as other flyers. Remaining on the south side of the river here will keep you clear of the National Recreation Area. Along this stretch, a sharp eye will spot other fascinating rock formations. Mile 62.5 should reveal Cowboy Hat Rock on the left and a bit farther down, just past Government Rapids, you may see Government Bird Rock. Don’t ask! I have no idea why it is called that or even what a Government Bird is! A sharp turn to the right followed by another to the left and the river straightens out. Somewhere along this stretch it makes the gradual transition from river to lake. As the canyon walls widen just a bit, the water gets deeper and bluer. Soon there is no doubt you are overflying the eastern arm of Lake Powell. During the warmer summer season, this area is filled with boaters looking for calm, remote waters and spectacular scenic vistas.

It is great fun to see the lake by flying low between the canyon walls. A higher view, however, reveals an ever-expanding scene as the lake broadens below, and is more compliant with the 2000´ altitude requested over National Recreation Areas (not that anyone could really hear your aircraft over the roar of the speedboats). High or low, the scenery is awe-inspiring, as each new bend opens up to evermore-incredible views. The senses are almost numbed as each successive calendar shot manifests the splendor of this area. I think later afternoon, with the sun high enough to stay out of your eyes, but low enough to add a resplendent sheen to the water, is the perfect time to fly this portion of the trip. A video camera would be the best way to capture the panorama in proper perspective. I took a still camera on my first trip and quickly found that I could have shot as many rolls of film as I wanted. There just aren’t enough descriptors to adequately convey the beauty and natural ruggedness of Lake Powell.

From the marina at the eastern end of this arm of Lake Powell, the river-turned-lake winds around for approximately 40 miles (23 miles straight-line) before joining up with the northern arm of the lake. This confluence defines the point where the San Juan River ends as it joins the Colorado River.

The spectacular sandstone arch of Rainbow Bridge lies approximately eight miles south of this junction, on the east side of the lake in the shadow of Navajo Mountain. From Rainbow bridge it is 25 or so straight-line miles southwest to Page (PGA), Arizona. If home is in the opposite direction, Cal Black (U96), located 30 miles northeast, also has fuel and lodging.

Following the general path of the river from Farmington to Page covers a distance of approximately 231 nautical miles. Of course, you will likely want to explore, so I think it only fair to add another 40 miles or so to the total. Depending on your airplane and number of scenic detours, the trip should take from 1.5 to 3 hours. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to spend an autumn afternoon than with a good friend and a fine airplane on a gorgeous trip down the San Juan River!

If you would be interested in a video tour of the San Juan River, please contact Mark Swint at

Practicalities of Flying the Four Corners

Fuel stops are rare in the Four Corners, so top off the tanks before setting out on your San Juan Adventure. You will be overflying some extremely remote areas; carry water and survival gear appropriate for this dry high desert, and file a flight plan.

Brush up on your mountain flying skills if starting at Pagosa Springs, Colorado. A good reference are the helpful folks at Flite Crafton Aviation (970-731-2127), the FBO at Pagosa’s Stevens Field. They can also offer suggestions for food and lodging in town, and have courtesy and rental cars available.

There are also many hotels to choose from in Farmington, New Mexico. Señor Pepper’s, the on-field restaurant at Four Corners Regional Airport, is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Sevenbar Four Corners Aviation, located at the base of the control tower near the restaurant, is the FBO; call 505-325-2867 for more information. Farmington is home to Mesa Airlines’ busy commuter airline flight school, so be vigilant near the VOR for instrument trainers. Contact Farmington tower on 118.9 at least 20 miles out for traffic advisories.

The airports at Navajo Lake, Shiprock, and Bluff are unattended, with no services.

There are several motels and restaurants in Bluff, Utah, including the Recapture Lodge. The lodge monitors 122.9, and offers airport transportation with prior arrangement (435-672-2281). Fuel is available 20 miles north of Bluff, from the self-service pumps at the Blanding airport. Call Eagle Air at 435-678-3222 for more information.

Fuel is also available at Utah’s remote Cal Black airport, near the northern end of Lake Powell at Hall’s Crossing. Midway Aviation (435-684-2419) is the FBO. Call Midway on unicom 123.0 about 10 minutes out to dispatch the Hall’s Crossing marina courtesy shuttle, if you need a ride to the general store on the shores of Lake Powell. Lodging and a restaurant are available across the lake at the Bullfrog Basin Lodge (435-684-3000), accessible by scheduled ferryboat or by "hopping" over to the Bullfrog airstrip.

Classic Aviation (520-645-5356) is the FBO branch of Classic Helicopters at the Page, Arizona municipal airport. Along with selling reasonably priced fuel, they will cheerfully provide courtesy transportation to the many hotels and restaurants in Page. Lake Powell Air Service (520-645-2494) will also sell fuel, but at a premium. Their main focus is operating air-tours over Lake Powell up to Rainbow Bridge, as well as to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. Monitor 122.75 for tour operator traffic over the lake.

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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publishing, Inc. and the staff neither assume any responsibilty for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising out of it. Fly safe.