Most pilots have a favorite destination, either because it is in a beautiful part of the country, or because of the friends who gather there with you. My preference is Smiley Creek, Idaho, for both reasons. It is as close to the perfect place as I have found, plus the long grass strip is appreciated by the pilots that fly here...
Let me tell you about my favorite fly-in destination, Smiley Creek.
On my first visit to Smiley Creek, I remember clearing the ridge, northwest bound, at ten-five, and looking out under the left wing at Sun Valley, Idaho and thinking about all the successful folks who live in those fancy houses and wondering what businesses they were in to produce that wealth. Just curious thinking, as I am not jealous of them—matter of fact, I am happy for them and their success. I hope they are enjoying it.
But I’d almost bet that they are not having as much fun as I am, flying along at ten-five in smooth air and really looking forward to the gathering at Smiley Creek… which is now very close. Just one more high ridge to cross, and then I will be in the valley.
Even though I know exactly where the strip is located, it is still difficult to spot: everything is green, including the well-watered strip. I have been listening to pilots on 122.9 since I passed Sun Valley, and now I make my call, announcing that I am entering from the south to land at U87. Wow, I say to myself, what a beautiful strip!
“THEY JUST SHOW UP”
This event—officially titled the UCBP/Friends of Skypark Fly-in—is organized by the Utah Back Country Pilots Association, but it seems like everyone else hears about it and just show up.
In the years I’ve attended, I met folks from everywhere—including some from Townsend, Mont. flying Rans S-7 homebuilt airplanes. I also got to know an older fellow from Picabo, Idaho who built and flew an experimental Rans. It is sad that he has since passed on. When I visited with him at Smiley Creek, he was sure enjoying his life.
Most of the planes I saw my first time at Smiley Creek were Cessna built, like 170s, 180s, 185s, 172s, 175s, 182s and 210s. Plus, there were a couple of American Champion High Country Explorers who really demonstrated their short-field performance to us when they departed.
A SMALL, BUT POPULAR, DOT ON THE MAP
Smiley Creek Airport (U87) is located about halfway between Sun Valley/Ketchum and Stanley, Idaho. It’s really only a spot on the road, with a lodge and café and a few houses.
It sits at an elevation of 7,160 feet, and the manicured turf runway is 4,900 feet—long enough for most airplanes flown by experienced pilots. Pilots usually land to the south and take off to the north, providing that a strong wind does not dictate otherwise, as the runway slopes uphill to the south. The strip is located in a high mountain valley, so you can see it from the pattern, thus making it suitable for most pilots who are used to operating at high-altitude airports.
Density altitude can make for an exciting takeoff if the aircraft is close to max weight, so most summer flying in and out of Smiley Creek is done in the morning. One such event happened as we were sitting around visiting during the day and of course every time an airplane fired up, everyone stopped talking and watches the takeoff.
In this particular case, it was a Cessna 210 with a full load. The pilot tried to rotate too soon, which resulted in the 210 staying on the ground in a high angle of attack. He just went and went with the tail nearly dragging the ground. I was full of anxiety as I thought we were going to be witnesses to a bad wreck.
Luck was on their side that day and the Cessna flew at the last possible moment. Don’t rely on luck to save you, be smart about density altitude. Know your limitations and those of your aircraft. A wreck can ruin a perfect day.
THE PERFECT SPOT
The very best parts of camping at Smiley Creek are the hot showers, flush toilets and the short walk across the creek to eat at the Smiley Creek Lodge. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like camping and cooking over my little gas stove—but hey, it sure is nice to sit down to good meal that someone else prepares! This kind of camping suits me just fine.
On arrival that first trip, I pull into a parking spot which has room for my friends, Monte and Sheila Orr and Lowell and Deidra Manary from Colorado, both flying highly modified Cessna 175 taildraggers. I was unloading my camping gear as Monte and Sheila rolled past. We were in touch by radio the whole trip, since they ranch a distance to the east of my home, and we hooked up to fly somewhat together.
Since we arrived fairly early, we were able to set up camp close to the showers. My tent only requires four corners staked, then the center pole and I am done—so I relaxed and watched as Deidra and Lowell set up their brand-new tent. It looked to me like the instructions they had must have been for a different tent, because they were sure having a hard time figuring things out.
But it all ends well; the tent is up and we start making the rounds of visiting everyone the Manarys know from previous years.
Later, I just stroll down the line of parked airplanes where folks are sitting under the wing visiting. As I was walking past an experimental, I stopped to visit. Of course, I always ask people what they do back home, and this gentleman said he manufactured brakes for experimental airplanes. Turns out, I was talking with the owner of Matco Mfg. Years later I would remember him when I had a need for brakes on my Sonex.
I then spot a Cessna 185 that I recognize as belonging to rancher friends who now live in Colorado. I ask folks seated nearby if they knew the owner of that 185 and they said they sure did and they all were friends from the same area.
Since my rancher friends weren’t there to object, I had the opportunity to tell a flying story about them to their new friends. These stories often start out with, “Ask them to tell you about the time …”. And I would love to be present when these friends finally DO ask them about “the time…”! They would not be able to understand how these Colorado friends would have ever found out about that event—one that they would rather forget.
This was also the first time that I met Mel, who flies a Cessna 180 from near Salt Lake. Mel can really tell stories, as he once held a job checking a pilot’s ability to operate the big iron for a major airline.
In one memorable story, Mel was in the jump seat and when the pilot in command touched down slightly to one side of the centerline, Mel informed the pilot that he was to land on the centerline. He said, “If they wanted you to land over here, they would have painted the centerline over here.”
Only in this telling, the story was begun by Mel—and finished by the fellow who was obviously the pilot being checked out. These types of stories go on all night around the campfire. And if you hear the same story told again the following year, it is still just as funny.
These are the kind of activities that attract pilots to fly-ins: meeting and making new friends.
Mornings are a time to fly out for breakfast at another location. We have airplanes, so we can go anywhere there is good food and adventure. Popular fly-out destinations include the Sulphur Creek Ranch, a private guest ranch located to the north of Stanley, Idaho, just inside the wilderness.
Sulphur Creek Ranch is widely known for cooking a great breakfast for those who fly in. It is an old ranch with log cabins and a large lodge. I have stayed there several times and love the place. The fishing is also great. Electricity is generated by water coming off the mountain through turbines.
On one Sunday morning, a group of us flew over to Atlanta, Idaho for breakfast. Atlanta is only a few air miles, but a good climb out of Smiley Creek to clear the 10,000-foot Sawtooth Mountains just to the west. Then the letdown into Atlanta takes a little time, too.
Atlanta’s airport (55H) is in the west edge of a bowl, with a private airport (Greene) only a couple of miles to the east, this requires one to be alert for traffic at Greene and announce intentions on 122.9.
Elevation of Atlanta is 5,500 feet, and the dirt/grass strip is 1,650 feet long. High timbered ridges limit the maneuvering area to the west. I made my approach from the east over the town, while turning north and letting down I was lined up with the strip, and landed to the north.
We later departed to the south and turned west down the Boise River. Atlanta sits at the end of the road which comes in from the west. Once a mining town with around 400 people in 1864, it now has only a few houses, a lodge, restaurant, a ranger station and a hot springs. It is an easy and scenic walk across the Boise River into town from the airstrip. A great breakfast was enjoyed by our group of four airplanes.
The proprietor of the restaurant suggested that the next time we give him a call to make sure there is enough food on hand, but he was able to feed us all with plenty of food. Also, we were not in a hurry—and told him so. A beautiful day, coupled with great food and mild summer temperatures, made for a great experience in the mountains of Idaho.
Smiley Creek Airport (U87)
Elevation: 7,160 feet
Runway 14/32: 4,900 x 150 feet
Open to public; turf, good condition
Sulphur Creek Ranch Airport (ID74)
GPS Coordinates: 44°32’ N, 115°21’ W
Elevation: 5,835 feet
Runway 8/26: 3,300 x 40 feet
Private; gravel/turf, good condition
Atlanta Airport (55H)
Elevation: 5,500 feet
Runway 16/34: 2,460 x 75 feet
Open to public; turf/dirt, fair condition
Utah Back Country Pilots
Association Skypark Airport
1887 South Redwood Rd. #16
Woods Cross, UT 84087
V-Mailbox (801) 583-0342
Smiley Creek Lodge
16546 N Highway 75
Sawtooth City, Idaho
Toll Free (877) 774-3547
Phone (208) 774-3547
Sulphur Creek Ranch
On the edge of the Frank Church–
River of No Return Wilderness Area
Satellite Phone (254) 378-7473
71 W. Main St.
Atlanta, ID 83716
Phone (208) 864-2132
MORE ABOUT SMILEY CREEK
Smiley Creek is one of the most beautiful landing strips in the country, and the grass surface is suitable for most airplanes. But plan to arrive early and leave early at this high altitude location.
Airplanes typically land south and take off north. The landing strip rises slightly toward the south. Announce your intentions on 122.9 and be on the lookout for other traffic as this is a popular location.
If the caretaker is watering the runway, it will be marked with cones. They water along its length one half at a time. (It is plenty wide to land on the half with no sprinklers running.)
The airport facility has free hot showers and a nice grass camping area with tables. You can set up your tent next to your airplane if you like, and you can eat (and stay) at the Smiley Creek Lodge.
The lodge also sells basic groceries and auto fuel. It is about a 300-yard walk from the landing strip to the lodge.
Bring your own tiedowns. Afternoon gusty winds occur on most days and thunderstorms are not uncommon.
Smiley Creek is the traditional gateway to the Idaho backcountry, and several landing strips are nearby for varying experience levels.
For more, a video montage created by Fritz Wonderlich shows the gorgeous details for anyone considering airplane camping at Smiley Creek. It’s viewable through the Smiley Creek Lodge website—visit smileycreeklodge.com/fishing/airplane-camping-at-smiley-creek/.
Adapted from a posting by Rob Hunter at utahbackcountrypilots.org.