West Yellowstone – Day 2.

By admin on December 2, 2011

We departed Nampa at the crack of dawn. Heavy showers were predicted over the West and South of Idaho during mid morning and temperatures were to climb to 90°F which created the threat of thunderstorms, we were keen to get started on the 3 hour leg to our final destination, West Yellowstone in Montana.

The initial plan was to fly eastwards and directly over the mountains of the Sawtooth National Forest but this was quickly changed due to a strong wind from the northwest and reports of thick smoke coming off of several fires in the north of Idaho. The backup plan was to route in an arc to the south of the mountain ranges following the Snake River Valley, the smoke may still have effected our flight but there were many more options available to us if it had became an issue.

The initial climbout from Nampa was a short one as we had to negotiate Boise’s Class C zone which sits to the southeast of Nampa. We flew under the outer shelf of the airspace and once clear started our climb to the comfortable cruise altitude of 10,000ft. There is a restricted area directly south of Boise (R-3203) and beyond that Mountain Home AFB which both needed to be carefully avoided but there is a handy railroad to the east of these areas that you can use as a visual backup to the GPS. The air was clear of smoke and the wind was following us around the mountains so we decided to route over the mountain foothills to shorten the flight and to get a better look at the more interesting landscape on the north side of the Snake River Valley.


Looking north towards the mountains of the Sawtooth National Forest. It’s interesting to see how almost every piece of level land is being used for farming.


Magic Reservoir with the Sawtooth National Forest Mountains in the background. The small mount in the foreground is Rattlesnake Butte.


Hollow Top Airport, one of several back country airports in and around the lava fields in the Snake River Valley.

The landscape of the Snake River Valley is varied, and some of the most interesting features are very large beds of lava and cinder cones which stretch across the valley from the Craters of the Moon National Monument. From the air the shapes, colours and textures of the lava beds, which were created by volcanic eruptions over 2,000 years ago, form striking patterns in between agricultural land and areas of wild prairie. The area is home to a number of backcountry airports which would be interesting to land at if you had the right type of aeroplane fitted with large tyres! The runways are often rough due to burrowing rodents, and owing to their low use it is difficult to get up-to-date information on their condition.


Where a lava field ends and agricultural land begins.


Volcanic crater.


The Lava beds form interesting landscapes.


One of the many large cinder cones in the Valley.


Craters of the Moon National Monument. The large hill in the foreground is Large Cinder Butte which has an elevation of 6,515ft.

To the east of the Craters of the Moon is a sensitive area with nuclear facilities of the Idaho National Labratory spread over a large area. Pilots are requested to fly above 6,000 MSL if routing over the area, this is not that much of a problem as the ground level itself is at around 5,000 MSL. However, I prefer to route to the south of this area to avoid causing any undue attention and there are several interesting natural features to look at on the way. The first is Big Southern Butte, which rises some 7,560ft off of the valley floor and is one of the world’s largest volcanic domes. To the east are two smaller buttes, Cedar Butte and Middle Butte. Lastly East Butte is easily identifiable by all the aerial arrays on its top.


Our route aound the Idaho National Labratory.


The massive Big Southern Butte is just to the south of the Idaho National Labratory security area.


East Butte with all its aerial arrays on top of it.

Once East Butte was cleared (it marks the southeast corner of the security area) we headed to the northeast and directly to West Yellowstone. Another interesting natural feature 50 miles to the northeast of East Butte are the St Anthony Sand Dunes. Covering 175 square miles and running for 35 miles long by 5 miles wide they form an interesting sight in an area many miles away from the dunes on the Pacific Coast. Here is some information I found about them on the internet…

Ten thousand years ago, when the weather in eastern Idaho was much cooler and wetter than it is today, lush vegetation was grazed by soon-to-be-extinct one-humped camels, mammoths, pony-sized horses, and large bison. These animals may have gone for a drink along the sandy shores of Mud and Market Lakes, about 20 miles southwest of where the St. Anthony Sand Dunes lie today.

Although Mud and Market Lakes still exist, they shrank considerably when the climate warmed at the end of the last ice age. As the shoreline sands dried out, that sand, as well as sand from floodplain deposits of the Snake, Teton, and other rivers, began to be blown into what we now know as the St. Anthony Sand Dunes.


St Anthony Sand Dunes.

West Yellowstone is situated 40 miles from the northeast corner of the Snake River Valley, across a ridge of higher ground that reaches 8,000ft AMSL. marking the border between Idaho and Montana. South of the ridgeline are two large water features, Island Park Reservoir and Henry’s Lake which has a nice grass airstrip next to it. As you cross this higher ground, including the 8,661ft peak of Mt Two Top, the terrain descends back down to 6,600ft, which is the elevation of the airport. The area around the airport is surrounded by high terrain and to the west is the large Hebgen Lake which dominates the views when airborne.

When 20 miles out and approaching the ridgeline I made a radio call to the West Yellowstone Unicom announcing my approach, they immediately came back with their current weather information and asked if we required any assistance. I told them we were to be staying at the camping area at the airport and they told me that someone would meet us when we taxied to the apron to show us where to park up. Great service!

Winds were light from the north at the airport but aloft we still had our 40 knot tailwind from the southwest, I kept a good eye on this as we descended on our straight in approach to runway 1. Winds here tend to get very strong and gusty after mid morning, with a real chance of rough turbulence due to the mountains that surround the area. Add to this the very high DA that is often experienced when the heat rises and it’s definately worth planning an early or very late arrival if visiting here.


West Yellowstone Airport looking from the North. Behind the hills in the background is the Snake River Valley. Due to this rising terrain care must be taken when climbing out from runway 19 to the south when the density altitude is high.

As promised, after landing we were met by someone from the FBO on a golf cart and led to the far end of the apron. They helped tie down Tango Charlie and showed us around the large camp area nestled in the trees next to the apron. It was fantastic! There were loads of pitches widely spaced apart in the trees, each had it’s own fire pit with firewood, there was a pit toilet, a hot shower on a trailer(!), a number of courtesy push bikes, trolleys to use when moving our stuff from and to the Cessna….total luxury!

The airport itself has a terminal that receives 3 commercial flights a day, although a very small building it does has a restaurant and several car hire companies based within it. The FBO office has a comfortable pilot lounge with wi-fi and fresh coffee, and very friendly and helpful staff.


Tango Charlie parked up at the far northern end of the apron right next to the camping area, nice and quiet.


The excellent shower facility at the campsite. It may not look like much sitting in the comfort of your armchair at home but to be able to have a hot shower while camping at this type of campsite is a luxury, especially after a very cold night!


Courtesy push bikes which are great for getting you into the nearby town, and could also be used to get you into Yellowstone Park as well. It is worth remembering that due to the elevation in the area any physical exertion is more difficult to flatlanders due to the thinner air.

To be continued….

Leave a Reply