|One of the great privileges of flying light aircraft is their potential to whisk us away with alacrity to places far and wide in a relatively short and easy time. For most, the endless circuits around the patch and the quick rides around the valley get old after a while, and finding new and interesting destinations becomes a challenge.
In an effort to satisfy that challenge and at the same time do something worthwhile, a few intrepid souls in Utah decided to band together and form the Utah Back Country Pilot's Association (UBCPA). The group, headed by Steve Durtschi, set out to catalog all the back country strips in the stateincluding seldom used or even abandoned strips that once served Utah's burgeoning uranium and petroleum industry.
According to Jim Hurst, a long time Utah bush pilot and historian, there were once over 100 airstrips within a hundred-mile radius of the Green River. In our efforts to rediscover some of these sites, we have found well over 50 airstrips that are still identifiableand 20 more that are still usable to various degrees.
The UBCPA is dedicated to saving and restoring as many of these as is possible. Some are lost forever, due to the ever-expanding wilderness designation of larger and larger pieces of Utah. But many are still on unencumbered state or BLM land.
We recently won a big victory with the restoration of one beautiful strip located deep within the red sandstone walls which rein in the Green River. This strip, known as Mineral Bottoms, has been graded, widened and returned to service by the state. It is now serving rafters and other sportsmen under the auspices of Red Tail Aviation in Green River, Utah. We have other strips targeted for similar restoration and these efforts will keep us busy for the foreseeable future.
One strip in particular has captured my fancy. It is truly one of Utah's hidden gems, but it may not be around forever. The strip, known as Mexican Mountain, lies on the San Rafael River surrounded by 1,000 foot sandstone cliffs to the north and east, and Mexican Mountain itself to the south.
The land upon which Mexican Mountain Airstrip sits is part of a Wilderness Study Area, which effectively puts it under the same restrictions as a designated wilderness. Most people do not realize that the Wilderness Act of 1957 allows for the retention of any structure or improvement preexistent to the designationincluding airstrips.
The challenge to preserving an airstrip in such an area is to show that it has been in continuous use so that it can remain once the wilderness designation has been issued. As a wilderness designation is imminent at Mexican Mountain, it has been incumbent upon us to make every effort to make as many visits as possible in order to show continuous use.
The Mexican Mountain Airstrip was built back in the 1950's by Amoco Oil in order to service the effort to drill an exploratory oil well. The well came up dry and was capped off. Eventually, the airstrip was abandonedexcept for the occasional weekend pilot who happened upon the extraordinary beauty and tranquility of the place.
The area first gained the attention of Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang back in the late 1800's. Immediately to the east is Horse Thief Passdown which Butch and the gang brought the horses they had stolen from Colorado. They would make their way down the steep and difficult pass and then proceed on to Robber's Roost, just to the south.
One day, Steve and I hiked up the pass trying to see if, in fact, horses could make their way up or down the narrow draw. During the climb up, we were convinced that it would have taken a superhuman effort to get horses through there. However, on the way down, we looked carefully and were able to see vestigesfaint thought they wereof an old switchback trail just barely discernible after 100 years.
Knowing that very few people had ever been there before, it was exciting to walk the trail and feel the history of the place. There are still a few old timers in the surrounding areas who insist that Butch Cassidy survived until well into the 1940's, and that he occasionally showed up to visit old friends in the area. One man I know swears that, as a small boy, he met Butch at the home of a neighbor: an older woman who had been married to one of Butch's gang members.
The area also boasts a rich Indian heritage. Just two hundred yards off the east end of the runway, there are large boulders covered with petroglyphs. A little exploring in one of the canyons leading off to the north yields some additional, faint drawings. The entire area is bathed in a serenity and quiet that is difficult to find anywhere, and a day hike up any of the canyons reveals raw scenery of unsurpassed magnificence.
On another trip to the strip, we decided to hike 2 or 3 miles down the San Rafael River to another site famous in local lore. It seems that a ranching family called the Swazeys had quite a notorious and colorful history in the area. Known for their abilities with animals, they were particularly adept with horses (their own, and others they had borrowed).
There is a place on the river where it begins to cut into a gorge and is bounded by steep rock walls. At one point, the walls come close togetherby my estimation, approximately 12-15 feet apart. The place is known as Swazey's Leap, because legend has it one of the Swazey boys made his escape across the river by leaping his horse across the gorge at this point.
The Mexican Mountain strip requires a degree of skill and a decent airplane. It appears that originally a 2,000 foot strip was graded and packed. However, over the years, nature has reclaimed her own, and now the strip is down to about 1,300 feet of usable runway.
It is a little narrow, and in a few places the ground has a thin, soft layer. But it is certainly safe, and it has been visited by a fair variety of tail wheel and tricycle gear planes. There are a few hundred feet on the east end which could be used for overrun, and it would not take much to reclaim the ground for good usable runway.
If you are interested in going to Mexican Mountain, please remember the sensitive nature of the area and leave it as you found it. We are in a fragile truce with the BLM, and our continued access depends on being good and responsible visitors.
The cooler months of the year are the best times to fly to Mexican Mountain, because the air is cool and the density altitudes are reasonable. The strip is at 4,100 feetmeaning the density altitude can run over 8,000 feet in the summer. The weather is usually very good from October through May, and we've never seen any snow during our numerous visits there.
We have erected a very sturdy and unobtrusive windsock on the north side of the strip, and approaches can be made from either direction. The coordinates are N39.01.02, W110.28.0. Though the airstrip is not depicted, the site can be located on the Denver Sectional. If you are looking for adventure and a unique place to visit, consider Mexican Mountain.