The Two Antelope Canyons

You must see at least one of them when you’re at Lake Powell.

Antelope Canyon SquareI’m working on an itinerary for a Flying M Air excursion client. They’ve decided to customize their Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure to add another day at Page, AZ, as well as an overnight stay at Bullfrog Basin about halfway up Lake Powell.

One of the things they wanted to add to their trip was a visit to Lower Antelope Canyon. The trip includes a visit to Upper Antelope Canyon, which is the attraction that gets the most visits. I felt it important to explain the difference between these two places and provide additional information on how they could be visited. I figured this information might help others plan their visit to the Page area.

Antelope Canyon: An Overview

Upper Antelope CanyonAntelope Canyon was formed mostly by the action of water in Antelope Creek, a south-to-north arroyo southeast of Page, AZ on the Navajo Reservation. During heavy rains to the south, the normally dry creek bed turns into a stream of water that rushes northward, sometimes at dangerous flood stage levels. (Indeed, 11 tourists were killed in Lower Antelope Canyon during a flash flood in 1997.)

Lower Antelope CanyonOver time, the water has carved a series of narrow slot canyons through the red rock sandstone. Two of these slots are open to the public. Upper Antelope Canyon is south of route 98 (see top satellite photo); Lower Antelope Canyon is north of route 98 (see bottom satellite photo). Examination of satellite images of the area show additional slot canyons along Antelope Creek, but they are not open to the public.

Both canyons have restricted access. You must pay a fee to the Navajo Nation and enter the canyon with a Navajo guide.

Both canyons have smooth, carved, Navajo sandstone walls that are quite beautiful. Antelope Canyon is one of the most photographed locations in the area.

Upper Antelope Canyon

Antelope CanyonUpper Antelope Canyon is, by far, the more visited of the two. I think there are two reasons for this:

  • Tour companies based a few miles away in Page take groups of tourists directly to the mouth of the canyon, making access convenient.
  • The floor of Upper Antelope Canyon is generally level, making the canyon very accessible, even to those who are less physically fit.

Upper Antelope Canyon is about 600 feet long, carved through what looks (from the air) like a single sandstone formation. Much of the canyon is so narrow that you can touch both walls with your hands at the same time. The downsteam opening of the canyon is bright with three big “rooms.” The rest of the canyon is much darker and narrower.

Most of the photos you see of Antelope Canyon were shot in Upper Antelope Canyon. At certain times of the day and year, shafts of light come down into the canyon. Photographers often kick up sand or dust into the light shafts for interesting photographic effects.

There are two ways to visit Upper Antelope Canyon:

  • Sign up for a tour with a Page-based tour company. The fee they charge covers the fee to the Navajo Nation as well as their fee for guide service. They will provide transportation from their location in town to the mouth of Upper Antelope Canyon, usually in a large, open-backed truck with bench seats. Your driver/guide will then walk you through the canyon. Afterwards, you’ll have about an hour to explore it on your own.
  • Drive up to the park entrance on Route 98, not far from the power plant. Pay a park entrance fee and park your car. Then pay a fee to tour the canyon. You can then wait on benches there until a tour is ready to go and climb aboard the same kind of open-backed truck to reach the mouth of the canyon. The driver/guide will walk you through the canyon and give you about an hour to explore it on your own.

They’re basically the same experience, but one requires you to wait outdoors in a relatively unpleasant environment while waiting for your tour to depart.

If you’re wondering which one is cheaper, there really isn’t much of a difference in price. I prefer using a tour company based in town, strictly for convenience. If you do decide to use a tour company, I recommend Antelope Canyon Tours.

You cannot drive your car to the mouth of the canyon. You must go with a guide.

If you are interested in photographing Upper Antelope Canyon, you must read this.

Lower Antelope Canyon

Lower EntranceLower Antelope Canyon has far fewer visitors than Upper. Unlike Upper, no tour companies — at least none to my knowledge — visit it. In addition, the canyon itself requires a decent amount of physical fitness. There are ladders, narrow passages, and various places where scrambling on the smooth sandstone is necessary. Heck, even the opening of the canyon, where you descend into a crack in the rock (shown here) seems designed to keep certain folks out: a fatty simply wouldn’t fit through it.

Lower Antelope CanyonThe great thing about Lower Antelope Canyon, however, is that you have up to four hours to explore it pretty much on your own. This gives you plenty of time to shoot photos or lose yourself in thought between the smooth sandstone walls. Because there are far fewer visitors, it’s a more relaxed and pleasant place to visit. You can probably guess that I prefer it.

Lower Antelope Canyon is only accessible by driving up to the parking area, paying the fee, and getting a guide to take you down. Sometimes a guide will take you straight down; other times they make you wait. The entrance to the canyon is walking distance from parking. The guide does not stay with you. Although you’re limited to four hours in the canyon, there’s no one keeping track. You can exit the canyon the same way you entered or climb out on a series of well-built ladders on the far end and walk back along the east wall of the canyon.

Visiting Both

My clients want to visit both, which I think is a great idea. What better way to appreciate the difference between them?

Of course, since they are separate, there’s no easy way to visit both. You can save the park entrance fee — which I believe is about $6 — if you drive to Upper and then visit Lower on the same day. If you’re interested in photography, however, that means that you might not get the best light for both canyons. It all depends upon the time of year and angle of the sun. We’ll be there in March when the sun is nearly straight overhead at noon; midday seems like a good time to visit.

Lake Powell to Monument Valley by Helicopter

Part of my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure.

This article was originally written for Aircraft Owner Online magazine. I write their monthly “Adventure Flying” column. I normally pull old blog posts for publication, but this time, I wrote an original piece for them. You can find it in their November 2010 issue.

Although I’m based in the Phoenix, AZ area, I spend an unusual of time at Lake Powell doing aerial photo flights for amateur and professional photographers. In September of this year, I flew a total of 20 hours over the lake with at least 20 different photographers on board. I usually get as far uplake as the San Juan River confluence, which is halfway to Monument Valley. But due to the difficulty and expense of getting aerial photo permits for Monument Valley, I rarely fly there.

The one thing that does get me to Monument Valley is Flying M Air‘s Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. That’s a 6-day excursion by helicopter that starts in Phoenix and spends a night at Sedona, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell (at Page), Monument Valley, and Flagstaff before returning to Phoenix. I don’t do this trip often — frankly, it’s quite costly and there aren’t many folks who want to spring for it — but I happened to do one in October 2010. In fact, as I’m typing this on my laptop, I’m looking of the window of my room at Goulding’s Lodge at the first light striking the famous monuments of Monument Valley.

On this particular trip, I rigged up a GoPro Hero camera on my helicopter’s nose. Although I used this “nosecam” to shoot video on the first day of the trip, the mount introduced too much vibration to make the video usable. For the remaining days of the trip, I switched over to still photos. The camera automatically shoots a high resolution image every 5 seconds as I fly. With 720 photos per hour, I usually get a few good shots on each leg of the trip.

Wednesday was one of the most scenic legs of the trip. We flew from Page Airport (PGA) up Lake Powell to the San Juan confluence and then east to the airstrip at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley (UT25). On board with me were my two excursion guests and all of our luggage for the 6-day trip. I pack the luggage on and under the seat behind me and sit my guests in the two right seats (front and back) so they get the same view. I then fly to put the best views on their side of the aircraft.

We lifted off from Page at about 2:30 PM. The ASOS reported wind at about 8 knots out of the north, but it sure didn’t feel that strong. I made my radio call and then departed right across the runway, heading uplake. A Citation jet called a downwind a few moments later; we caught sight of him high above us as we crossed the airport fence.

Departing PGA

Our shadow as we crossed the runway at Page Municipal Airport.

It was a beautiful day, with high, thin clouds tracing lazy lines across a clear blue sky. The October afternoon sun bathed the landscape with a soft light that illuminated the red rock cliffs and buttes, cast shadows in the canyons, and accentuated the blue of the water. Sure, the light was too harsh for the aerial photographers I usually take around there, but for my passengers and me, it was great for taking snapshots of our surroundings.

The first canyon we crossed was Antelope Canyon, which is just east of the airport. Normally, I just buzz across it, but the tour boat was inside the canyon, so I made a turn to the left so my passengers could get a photo of it. I didn’t circle, though. I’m extremely conservative with fuel on the fourth and fifth days of the excursion, since there’s no fuel between Page, Monument Valley, and Flagstaff (or, in this case, Winslow). I need every drop of fuel I have on board to get to my Day 5 destination on Thursday with required reserves on board.

Antelope Canyon

Most people see Antelope Canyon from the inside, where it’s a masterpiece of sandstone swirls carved by wind and water. But this is the view I see most often.

We continued uplake, passing Antelope Point Marina and the mouth of Navajo Canyon. I made a position call a mile north of iconic Tower Butte and changed from the Page airport frequency to the uplake frequency (122.75). I repeated the call on that frequency and got into a discussion with the returning tour pilots. They’d be coming my way at 5,000 feet; I’d stay out of their way by flying at 4,500 feet.

The tour traffic is a major concern for anyone flying at Lake Powell. It’s a very good idea to learn the tour routes, altitudes, and reporting points they use before exploring in your own aircraft. There’s nothing scarier than flying the lake and seeing a plane flying where you don’t expect it, especially if it’s not on frequency or doesn’t know where it is in relation to the usual reporting points. Ten minutes with a tour pilot and a chart at Page Airport is enough to get the basics.

We slipped between Dominguez and Boundary Buttes at the south end of Padre Bay and continued uplake. Winding canyons opened up on our right. I pointed out a cluster of kayaks near a powerboat in a canyon with water as smooth as glass. In the main channel, you could clearly see the wind on the water. Not enough to make whitecaps, but gusty enough to see round patterns of movement appear and disappear across the water surface.

Dominguez Butte

My usual uplake route takes me between Dominguez and Boundary Buttes. In the far left of this photo, you can see Padre Butte, referred to by local pilots as “submarine.” Navajo Mountain looms in the distance.

We passed the south side of Gregory Butte and Last Chance Bay as two tour planes flew by overhead. Last Chance is a long, wide canyon with steep sandstone walls. It’s a long boat ride to the end where there are a few sandy spots suitable for houseboat parking. Distance to parking and the cost of fuel are part of what keeps the canyon free of traffic, even during busy summer months. On this October day, however, the whole lake was quiet; I don’t think we saw more than 20 or 30 boats.

We flew over the main channel of the lake as the canyon narrowed. One of my passengers pointed out Dangling Rope Marina and asked me about it. I told her what I knew: it was a marina only accessible by water. There were no roads in or out. I then told her a story about our stop there 20 years before on a houseboating trip. How I miss cruising the lake in a houseboat!

Lake Powell from the Air

Over the main channel of Lake Powell just uplake from Last Chance Bay. The canyon walls rise about 800-1,000 feet off the water’s surface here.

We were nearing the mouth of the canyon that would take us to Rainbow Bridge. As I flew, I’d been listening to the radio and knew there was a female pilot in the area. I also knew there was another tour plane behind me, on its way to “the bridge.” It’s a tight squeeze in the canyon and my challenge is always to stay as low as possible to ensure my photography clients can get the shots they need. Over the years, I’ve perfected my approach.

The female pilot was just leaving the area when I reached the mouth of the canyon and turned in. I flew up the canyon at 5000 feet, telling my passengers what to look for as we flew: the dock, the trail, the giant stone arch of Rainbow Bridge. I was busy keeping an eye on the mesa to the right of the helicopter. On a day like that one, with occasional gusts of wind, I wouldn’t get any closer than 200 feet from it’s edge. I verbally pointed out Rainbow Bridge when I saw it, keeping both hands on the controls. We flew past and they snapped photos. I circled around the back, assuring the pilot behind me that I’d stay at or below 5000 feet until I was clear of the area. Then, when abeam the bridge a second time, I broke off to the left and climbed out toward the San Juan Confluence.

Rainbow Bridge

This wide-angle shot gives you an idea of how tricky the area around Rainbow Bridge is. I get very close to that mesa top. Can you see the bridge in the photo?

The trickiest bit of flying I’d have to do on the entire trip was behind me.

I climbed to 6500 feet to give my passengers a good view of the twists and turns of the San Juan River just upstream from the confluence. Then I punched in my user waypoint for Goulding’s Lodge, adjusted course, and headed east over the eroded desert terrain south of the San Juan River.

San Juan River

The San Juan River twists and turns dramatically before meeting the Colorado.

We were east of Navajo Mountain now and the area was riddled with water-carved canyons, windswept rocks, and stunted trees. Below us, here and there, were two-track roads leading back toward the river. One of the roads looked very well maintained, although there was no sign of any homesteads or other reason to use it.

We flew over the top of No Man Mesa, where two or three ranches are scattered. A pickup truck drove slowly along a two-track toward one of the ranches. We saw a herd of horses and a flock of sheep tended by a dog before crossing over the top of the mesa and beginning our descent toward Monument Valley. The famous monuments started coming into view as we rounded the edge of a cliff face.

Off No Man's Mesa

A wide canyon cuts across the desert just past No Man Mesa. While not as beautiful as the Grand Canyon, it offers a glimpse of what the Grand Canyon may have looked like before it became grand.

I switched to the Monument Valley frequency and heard several tour planes making calls. I leveled off at 5500 feet and flew directly over the first paved road we’d seen since leaving the airport. Ahead of us, at the airport, I could see three tour planes launch, one after the other. One crossed overhead in front of me, the others climbed out beside me and likely crossed behind me. All of them were returning to Page the quick way. They’d be back within 30 minutes; we’d taken 60.

Before landing at Gouldings, I always make a quick loop around the western part of the Monument Valley Tribal Park. That day was no different. I climbed to 6000 feet and followed the road into the park. Once I reached the visitor center area, I banked left toward the Mitten buttes. I flew between them, on a route the tour pilots refer to as “splitting the mittens.” Then I banked left again and headed back toward Goulding’s.

Splitting the Mittens

The two Mitten Buttes (East and West) are iconic Monument Valley images.

Monument Valley

I restrict my quick loop around Monument Valley to the west side of the park to minimize noise impact on the ground.

As we came in for a landing, a small herd of horses, spooked by the sound of my helicopter, galloped across the desert east of the airport, kicking up fine red dust.

Landing at Monument Valley

Monument Valley Airport has just one way in and out. Not the kind of airport where you want to overshoot the runway.

It had been a good flight with few bumps or unexpected challenges. Later, in my hotel room at Goulding’s Lodge, I was pleased with the quality of the images my Hero camera had captured. What a great way to document a flight.

Note to Pilots: If you do plan a trip to Goulding’s Lodge, remember that the airport there is private and for use by Goulding’s guests and tour clients only. Go to Goulding’s Web site at www.Gouldings.com to learn more about restrictions regarding airport use.

It’s All in the Preparation

What it takes to conduct a 6-day helicopter excursion.

On Sunday, I begin the fourth and final 6-day Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure I’m conducting for calendar year 2009. The trip is the culmination of months of preparation, most of which happens in the weeks and then days leading up to the trip itself. I thought it might be interesting to some reader to see what goes into it.

A Year in Advance

I make hotel reservations for the weeks of the planned excursions a year or more in advance. I have to do this to ensure that I get rooms for my guests (and myself, in many cases) at some destinations.

The most troublesome destinations are Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, and Lake Powell, in that order.

Zero Mike Lima at Monument Valley

Zero-Mike-Lima at Monument Valley.

In Monument Valley, we stay at Goulding’s Lodge, which overlooks the valley from the west. It’s not a big place and it has lots of historic significance. It’s also very popular with bus tours. That means it fills up quickly and early. I normally reserve a room with a king bed and a room with two queen beds. If the trip is sold, my guests get first choice based on preferences selected when the excursion is booked. Sometimes, however, I have to get two identical rooms. The other room is for me; there’s no where else within walking distance — I won’t have any ground transportation there — to stay.

At the Grand Canyon, I usually try to book rooms at Bright Angel Lodge (rim cabins with or without views), Thunderbird Lodge (standard rooms with or without views) or Kachina Lodge (standard rooms with or without rooms). I try in that order because, in my opinion, those are the best value rooms. Lots of people want to stay at El Tovar. I think it’s overrated. Sure, its historic — so is Bright Angel — but the rooms are small and cramped, just as you might expect in a 104-year-old hotel. They’re also very expensive — the more spacious rooms cost far more than the budget I’ve set aside for overnight accommodations. And although the hotel is right on the rim — so are the other three I listed — very few of the rooms have any kind of view of the canyon. Bright Angel offers a more rustic, historic experience steps away from the rim. Thunderbird and Kachina are more modern and motel-like but are also more comfortable. And let’s face it: when the sun goes down at the Grand Canyon, there isn’t much to do. A comfortable room is important.

As for me, I go with what I consider the best value on the rim: a half-bath room at Bright Angel. Sure, the shower is down the hall and there’s no television, but you can’t beat the location or price.

At Lake Powell, my guests stay at the Lake Powell Resort. It’s a huge resort complex right on the lake, with views, private patios, pools, a hot tub, restaurants, etc. I get lakeview rooms for my guests. They’ll spend nearly 24 hours at the resort and I want them to be comfortable. I don’t stay there, though. It’s too expensive and too far from the helicopter for me. Lately, I’ve been staying at the Days Inn across from WalMart. Less expensive, clean, and it has wifi.

Of these three hotels, I have to pay for the rooms at the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell up front. That means thousands of dollars in prepaid hotel expenses. I think of it as an investment. And when the excursions sell, I’m ready.

The remaining two nights — one in Sedona and one in Flagstaff — are usually relatively easy to book with at least a month’s notice. I don’t book them until an excursion is booked.

One last thing I do after booking: I modify the Southwest Circle Availability page on the Flying M Air Web site to clearly indicate what dates are available.

On Booking

Lookout Studio at the Grand Canyon by Maria Langer

One of my favorite subjects is Lookout Studio in the early light. (You can click it to see a larger version in my Photo Gallery.)

When an excursion is booked, I start by sending a package of materials out to my guests. The package includes a bunch of brochures, as well as a preferences questionnaire. They fill in the questionnaire with their preferences for rooms (for example, 1 king or 2 queen beds?), tours (for example, Antelope Canyon or Navajo Tapestry boat tour at Lake Powell?), and other options.

When I get the questionnaire, I start working the phones. I confirm and, if necessary, attempt to change existing hotel reservations. Sometimes I might have booked a non-view room at the Grand Canyon, for example, because that’s the only thing that was available at booking; I may be able to change it to a better room. I make new reservations for Sedona and Flagstaff. I also make reservations for tours. I book rental cars and rooms for me.

As I do all this, I’m entering dates and times and details into iCal, which I use for scheduling. This builds an itinerary for my guests. I’ll send them a PDF version of the itinerary for their approval. They may have some changes — perhaps they want to do their helicopter tour over the Grand Canyon a little later in the day to enjoy more time in Sedona that morning — and I’ll make them, if I can, when they tell me.

A Month Before

In the middle of each month, I look at the excursions scheduled but not booked for the following month. Then I work the phones again to cancel the hotel reservations I made for those dates.

Although I can cancel with as short a notice as two or three days, I’ve realized that it’s not a good idea to wait until the last minute. Not only can forget to do it, but I’d prefer to have the prepaid expenses refunded back to my credit card as soon as possible. Besides, with a month or less advance notice, I’m not likely to be able to get the rest of the excursion — other rooms and tours — booked satisfactorily. It’s best to just throw in the towel for those dates. I update the Web site to remove those dates so folks don’t try to book them.

Canceling all those dates takes the better part of a morning. There are a lot of dates in the systems and the reservation clerks don’t understand why. I have to explain it to them. I also have to make sure they only cancel the dates that need to be cancelled.

Accounting for the refunds is a nightmare. I have to match them in my accounting records by date. Although the hotels don’t usually make mistakes, sometimes they do. And it’s a real pain in the butt to fix them.

A month before a booked excursion is also when I take the 50% deposit from guests. I confirm with my guests that we’re still moving forward — this deposit is not refundable. I’ve never had anyone back out at this stage of the game.

Once I have the deposit, I send out the luggage, hats, and other goodies I’ve promised my guests. I provide the luggage so I know it’ll fit in the aircraft. They’re Totes wheelie bags. Admittedly, they’re not the best quality, but they’re lightweight and they will last for the entire 6-days of the trip, as well as through any baggage handling the airlines subject them to on the way to or from Arizona.

If my guests have requested dinner at El Tovar during their stay, this is also when I make reservations. You can make them as far in advance as a month; if you want until the last minute, you’re likely to be eating at 5 PM or 9 PM. I try to book for either a specific requested time or right after sunset.

A Week Before

I reconfirm all reservations about a week before a booked excursion. This takes about a half day.

I also fine-tune the itinerary and do a final check to make sure it’s correct and resolve any problems I might have found.

If my guests are flying in and I haven’t gotten their flight information, I call or e-mail them to get it. I also send them instructions for finding the Terminal Three helispot at Sky Harbor Airport if I’ll be picking them up there. I can’t leave the helicopter unattended there, so they’re responsible for finding me.

I also begin my daily weather checks, just to keep an eye on storm systems, temperatures, and wind forecasts. I’ll be checking the weather along the route every single day for the next two weeks.

Three Days Before

I take the final 50% deposit three days before the excursion. This is also when I do all the paperwork that goes into the guest package:

  • Receipt for payment.
  • Welcome letter.
  • Printed itinerary.
  • Sedona and Flagstaff street maps.
  • Grand Canyon walking tour, shopping, and dining brochures.

I create the flight manifests and weight and balance calculations for each leg of the helicopter flight. This is required by the FAA to be on board the helicopter during the flight.

The Day Before

The day before the trip, I go through the helicopter and pull any item that I won’t need to have on board for the flight. I reorganize the under-seat storage bins so it’s easy to find what I need. The seat behind me will be for luggage — mine underneath and theirs secured on top. I make sure the bungee I’ll need to secure the luggage is on board.

I’ll also add the items I need for a long cross country flight. I usually bring along 4 quarts of the W100+ oil I use — I can definitely expect to add at least one quart during the trip, but I sometimes need more. The oil is hard to find, so it’s better to have enough with me than to have to hunt for it. And for our flight over Lake Powell, I need life jackets, so I bring those along, too. And I stow the manifests I’ve created. I don’t need to consult them in flight, but they must be on board, so I put them in my Hobbs book under my seat.

I also make sure the helicopter and its windows are clean, that my spray bottle for cleaning the windows is full, and that my rags are clean. I do a thorough pre-flight, which I’ll mostly repeat the next day before the flight.

The Trip

On the first day of the trip, I meet my passengers at the predetermined airport. After introductions and hand-shaking, I give them a complete and thorough passenger safety briefing, pointing out things like the fire extinguisher and the location of first aid and survival equipment (under my seat). I load up their luggage — mine is already under that back seat — and secure it. Then I help them aboard, make sure they know how to operate the seat belt and doors, and close their doors securely for them.

Then we’re off. I won’t go into the trip details; you can read about a typical itinerary here.

As we fly, I tell them what I know about the terrain we fly over. I know the routes by heart — I’ve flown over them enough — but I still have occasional surprises: wild horses, a herd of antelope, mild turbulence where I don’t expect it, etc. I share just about everything I see with my passengers — they’re probably sick of listening to me by the end of their trip.

Lower Antelope Canyon by Maria Langer

In Page, my guests visit Upper Antelope Canyon. If I have time, I scramble into Lower Antelope Canyon with my camera and tripod. (You can click it to see a larger version in my Photo Gallery.)

At each destination, I have two goals: get my guests to their tour or other activity on time and handle the luggage. Every day’s activity is different and may have free time around it. I need to get people where they need to be and make sure they know how to get around — especially back to the hotel — for the day. Once I set them loose, I won’t see them until the next morning when we meet for departure.

I’m in charge of their luggage. At most destinations, our rooms are not ready for us when we arrive. That means I Have to either check or carry around the bags but be back for check-in time. When I check in my guests, I get a key to their room and bring their luggage in. I leave the key and, on the first day, I leave the welcome package.

I do this every day. The goal is for my passengers to enjoy a scenic helicopter flight to their destination, worry-free transportation to the central area, and time on their own for tours and other unscheduled activities. Anytime after check-in time, they can go to the hotel’s front desk, give the clerk their name, and get their key. Their bags are already waiting for them.

Heck, why can’t I find a vacation like this?

I also handle any arrangements for parking the helicopter, such as getting fuel, putting on the blade tie-downs, preflighting for the next day, and cleaning the windows.

The next day, I meet my passengers at the predetermined time. Although they usually bring their luggage with them, I can fetch it if they want me to. Then we head on out for the day. Some days, there’s an activity in the morning; other days, we just go to the airport and fly out to our next destination.

We do this for six days with five overnight stops.

Sedona by Maria Langer

I made this photo in Sedona during one of my excursions. (You can click it to see a larger version in my Photo Gallery.)

To be fair, I usually have most evenings and early mornings to myself. Once the bags are stowed in guest rooms — always by 4 PM — as long as the helicopter has been tended to, I’m free. I hike at Sedona and the Grand Canyon, do photo flights for other folks at Lake Powell, relax and blog at Monument Valley, and stroll around town and enjoy Thai food in Flagstaff. I take a lot of photos. I blog. This coming trip, I hope to work on a novel.

I have a huge amount of responsibility — these folks have paid thousands of dollars for a dream vacation. It’s my job to make sure it doesn’t turn into a nightmare. I take that responsibility very seriously. What I’ve found is that by doing everything I can in advance, the trip goes much more smoothly. And the more trips I do, the more smoothly each one goes — although I admit that the first one back in 2006 was the smoothest one of all.

When It’s All Over

On the last day of the trip, I return my passengers to the starting airport and see them off. If they liked the trip — and they always do — I get a nice tip. Then I bring the helicopter back to base, clean it out the best I can, and put it away.

The trip is expensive, but so is flying the helicopter. I’ve recently introduced what I call “a la carte pricing,” to reduce some of the sticker shock. Instead of paying for the whole package up front, guests can simply pay for flight time and my overnight costs. Then they’ll be responsible for taking care of all the other arrangements — hotels, tours, ground transportation, etc. — for themselves. That would certainly take a huge weight off my shoulders. But unless the guests want to skip overnight stops and tours, it won’t save them any money. My margins are tight; I don’t make much on each trip. I seriously doubt whether they could do it for less without sacrifices.

To my knowledge, I’m the only helicopter operator in the country offering these trips. After reading what it takes to conduct one, can you get an idea why? If that’s not enough to explain it, consider this: each time I take the helicopter away for six days, that’s six days that I can’t do any other for-hire flying — other than the occasional photo flight at Lake Powell. So my revenue stream is basically turned off for those six days. Not many helicopter operators would be willing to take a helicopter offline for six days at a time.

If you’re wondering why I don’t just fly back to base each night, consider this: it costs more to fly the helicopter for an hour than it costs to stay overnight at any of the destinations. And since we’re always at least an hour — and as much as three hours — away from base, it simply doesn’t make sense to go home every night.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I love doing the trips. I love sharing my knowledge of Arizona with my guests — especially folks from out of state.

And who could complain about an all-expenses-paid trip to five of Arizona’s most popular destinations — by helicopter?

Lake Powell to Monument Valley

A slow start to the day, a great flight to a beautiful place.

I slept great at Page. I think it was the combination of a comfortable bed, good climate control (no need to run any heater or air conditioner), and a completely exhausted body.

I walked over to the Safeway supermarket, where there was a Starbucks, to get my morning coffee. It was a great day: clear, calm winds, blue skies, nice temperature. Or maybe it just seemed great because I’d slept so well. There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep to get you off on the right track for the day.

I had a bunch of chores to do before picking up my passengers at 10:45 at their hotel. One of them was a meeting with the Chief Pilot of a Page-based tour operator. I’m doing a custom video for them based on our Lake Powell footage and we needed to iron out details regarding the narration script and footage to be used. I also wanted to preflight the helicopter and remove the tie-downs. And pick up a book about the ill-fated San Juan Marina on Lake Powell. And do some networking around town.

I got all of this done — and more — before picking up my passengers and while they were out on their tour of Antelope Canyon. I also checked them out of their hotel, checked myself out of mine, and stowed all of our luggage in the helicopter.

Antelope Canyon
This is actually Lower Antelope Canyon. I made this photo on another trip. My passengers went to Upper Antelope Canyon, which is more accessible and looks a lot like this shot.

One of my passengers had eaten something the day before that didn’t agree with her and was feeling a bit under the weather when I picked them up. Fortunately, the symptoms had subsided by the time they went on their Antelope Canyon tour. When they returned, they were in high spirits and she was hungry for lunch. Since there was no rush getting to our next destination, I recommended a restaurant near the tour operator office and they went in for a meal. I spent the next hour doing some last-minute networking with a Hummer tour operator nearby.

By the time we got to Page Airport, it was well after 2 PM. Although winds had been forecasted out of the southwest at 20 mph, there was barely a breeze out on the ramp. We loaded up and took off uplake. We were the only aircraft out there — the radio was dead quiet.

The lake water was a mixture of glassy smooth areas punctuated with ripples caused by surface winds. Our ride, 500 to 1000 feet above the lake’s surface, was remarkably smooth. I pointed out all the buttes and bays and canyons I knew by name, then swung us past Rainbow Bridge for just about the best view you can get from the air.

From there, it was on to the Confluence of the San Juan River. We followed that arm of the lake up a bit, then turned toward No Man’s Mesa, crossed it, and descended into the valley west of Monument Valley. There are a bunch of dark red sandstone formations out there that few people ever see; an old hogan at the base of one formation provides some scale to its huge size.

N630ML Parked at Gouldings
The Goulding’s airstrip, photographed from my room at the lodge. Can you see my helicopter parked there?

We approached Monument Valley from the west and made a loop around the famous monuments on that side of the park. Then we went back for landing at Goulding’s airstrip. We spooked a herd of horses as we came in low across the runway. I set us down gently on one of the two helipads.

A van was down from the lodge before I had a chance to call. We were checked into our rooms, overlooking Monument Valley, by 4 PM local time. (The Navajo Reservation is on Daylight Savings Time; we were in Utah at that point.)

Wagon Wheel
I snapped this from the covered overlook in front of the old trading post at Goulding’s.

I took the rest of the afternoon off, shooting a few photos from the lodge property. The drawback of flying into Monument Valley is that once you get there, you’re pretty much stuck. There’s no mass transit, no rental cars, no taxis. The only way off the lodge property is to hitchhike or take a ground tour of Monument Valley Tribal Park. But there are plenty of nice views from Goulding’s Lodge, so it wasn’t difficult to get a few good shots. And everything you need is within walking distance: restaurant, shops, grocery story, gas station, laundry. So it’s not as if staying there is a hardship. It’s not.

Later that evening, I went up to the little theater on the property and saw a short video about the history of the Lodge. The night was dark and the sky was full of stars. As my fellow travelers settled down for the night, a deep silence surrounded me. In the distance, now out of sight, the ancient stone monuments loomed in the darkness.

On the Road Again

Traveling again.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard from me here in a while, it’s because I’ve been traveling. I’m doing one of my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventures in northern Arizona, accompanied by a video crew and staff writer for a respected travel magazine.

The goal of this trip is to gather about 90% of the video needed to create three individual broadcast-length videos, each of which will be made available on DVD. It’s a huge project and, so far, we have at least 20 hours of raw video footage to wade through.

I’m flying with a door off and a video guy on board taking glare-free video images of what we fly over. He also has at least two POV.1 cameras mounted inside the helicopter at all times. The other video on the ground is “chasing” us — actually, he’s getting a big head start each day to drive to the airport where we’ll land before we arrive — and taking video of us landing. Then there are cameras whirring all over the place on the ground.

Wild HorsesThe writer is sitting up front beside me, taking notes and using my Nikon D80 to shoot images of what she sees. Although a good portion of the shots have some unfortunate glare — not much you can do about that when shooting through Plexiglas — many of them are really good. Like this shot she took of a herd of wild horses we overflew on the Navajo Reservation two days ago.

It’s been a busy week so far. Although I’m trying to demonstrate to the writer what my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure is all about, I’m also working with the video crew to make sure we capture all of the footage we need for our three videos. I’m hoping she understands that my usual clients won’t be rushing around like nuts all day.

Antelpe CanyonI’m treating myself to a few of the activities my excursion guests get to enjoy. For example, on Tuesday, I joined the crew for a boat ride on Lake Powell that visited the “business side” of the Glen Canyon Dam before squeezing about a mile up Antelope Canyon (see photo) and gliding up Navajo Canyon for a look at the “tapestry” of desert varnish on some cliff walls. I skipped the Sedona Jeep tour and Monument Valley tour to work with one of the video guys or just rest up. Normally, while my guest are touring, I’m scrambling to get the luggage into their hotel room and confirming reservations for the next day. You might imagine how tired I am after 6 days of playing pilot and baggage handler.

At this moment, however, I’m sitting at the dining table of a double-wide mobile home near Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley. (Long story; believe it or not, the only lodging we cold get here in MV was in a pair of mobile homes that are part of the lodge.) I have the front drapes drawn aside so I can watch the eastern sky brighten for what promises to be a classic silhouetted butte sunrise. I always enjoy my dawns here at MV. Seeing the famous buttes outside my window is always surreal.

Today, we were scheduled to fly down to Winslow for lunch, then tour Meteor Crater and the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River. Normally, the Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure takes this route on the way to its last overnight stop at Flagstaff. But today we’ll probably go straight back to Page. I have four aerial photo shoots at Page starting on Friday morning; the money I make doing them will pay for this video excursion. We’ll do more video between those flights. Then we’ll hit the Crater, Falls, and Flagstaff on our way back to the Phoenix area on Sunday.

It’s a big trip and a bunch of huge projects. Just the kind of thing to keep me busy between flights for the winter season. But if all works well and as planned, I might be flying this route weekly in the coming spring and fall — with real paying passengers to take care of along the way.