The following are my notes to document Rachelle and I trip out West to celebrate her 40th birthday. My intent was to show Rachelle what I find the most interesting in the United States from the sheer beauty standpoint. Having had the opportunity to see nearly all lower 48 from the ground and the air, I feel I have a good understanding what this vast country has to offer in the natural attractions department. Not surprisingly, the most picturesque areas are naturally concentrated around the National Parks. However, not all National Parks are created equal and, again in my opinion having visited most of the National Parks, I wanted to highlight the best-of-the-best. Fortunately, the best parks are concentrated around AZ, UT, CA, and WY which makes it rather convenient to see several them without having to travel all over the US. The trip had to be concentrated to about a week so we had to make few compromises. Also, I did not want the trip to feel overwhelming or tiring for Rachelle (it was a vacation after all), so I focused on some real highlights to minimize the travel time.
Day 1 – Indy to Santa Fe, AZ
The first day is always tough one as one has to traverse nearly 1200 miles to just get to New Mexico (straight line distance). The winds in the US are typically from the West so that always slows you down with the headwinds. Fortunately, the day we departed (Saturday 6:30 AM) we had relatively weak headwinds and we made good time. Our first stop was at Lee’s Summit, KS airport where we refueled, and had a quick break. Next, we pressed on to Santa Fe, NM. The flight was uneventful. The terrain does not get very high until you get very close to Santa Fe where you must cross one mountain range East of the city and have to climb over 12,000ft for a brief moment. We did that easily and were vectored for the approach. Unfortunately, there was American Airlines in-front of us and the pilot could not make the descent in-time so he had to circle for a couple of loops to lose altitude before the controller could clear him for an approach. The controller screwed up a bit and instead of vectoring us in-front of American plane, he sent us about 10 miles West of the airport so he can land the American. Finally, the pilot got the plane on the right altitude, landed, and the controller brought us in for a visual approach. Door-to-door the trip took about 7 hours which is in-line what we would have encountered flying commercial (no direct flight to Santa Fe from Indy), not counting the to-from airport driving and waiting. Basically, we were in Santa Fe for late lunch.
The Jet Center girl who I know from my former trips hooked us up with a great hotel which was in the heart of Santa Fe (Inn and Spa at Loretto). Santa Fe is one of my favorites and Rachelle loved it. It has the old Mexican/Spanish feel with a great downtown and is an artist capital of the US. We ate lunch at the Café on the square and dinner at an artisan pizza place. We spent the evening walking around and having cocktails at a rooftop bar of the hotel.
Next day, we started with a mass at the St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral, breakfast at Pasquale’s (top breakfast place in SF) and then embarked on a drive tour and scenic drive through the Carson National Forrest which leads to Taos. The views are spectacular as you climb from about 6,000ft to almost 13,000. When we reached Taos, we enjoyed lunch and headed back to Santa Fe.
Day 3 – Santa Fe, NM to Flagstaff AZ
After having spent two days in Santa Fe, it was time to move on. The next stops were to be Flagstaff, AZ, Sedona, and, of course, the Grand Canyon. Sedona is what Rachelle and I consider probably the ultimate retirement place. Good climate – check, outstanding environment and views – check, safe and clean surroundings – check. Oh, also home of the World’s most beautifully situated airport. There is really no point to look elsewhere (assuming you want to live in the US). The only drawback is Sedona is extremely expensive but, as I always say, “you gotta pay to play.”
The flight from Santa Fe to Flagstaff is normally straightforward as typically you enjoy clear skies and great views. Unfortunately, July is a monsoon season for Northern AZ so there was a lot of convective activity around. We left Santa Fe in great weather but by the time we got 50 miles out of Flagstaff, we were completely in IMC with rain. The controller vectored us for instrument approach and said that a King Air landed 10 mins out and could see the runway from 10 miles out so I thought, no problem. Unfortunately, the weather deteriorated and I got the runway probably only 1.5 miles out as it was raining and obviously cloudy. The A36 has an excellent autopilot and this was a day I was glad we had one on board as made executing the approach much more manageable from the pilot workload perspective. I never thought I would be shooting instrument approaches in Flagstaff but hey, you never know. The line guy was waiting for us on the ramp with a vehicle and drove right next to the plane so we did not have to unpack in pouring rain. I quickly secured the aircraft and we left. The woman at the FBO I know from prior trips hooked us with a Mariott hotel. I called the hotel and asked them if we could check early as I was beat even though it was only 10 AM (probably due to low pressure and rainy weather). Luckily, they had our room ready so we grabbed a quick bite to eat at the MIX breakfast place downtown and left for the hotel. We checked in and I had a quick power nap.
After the nap, I felt better and it stopped raining so I decided we would proceed to Sedona. Normally I would fly there (15 min flight) but with the cloudy weather I figured it was no point since the views would be diminished. Plus, I know the car drive from Flagstaff to Sedona is awesome as it leads you through the Coconino forest. Honestly, this is the drive for a Ferrari not our Nissan rental car. By the time we got to Sedona, however, the weather cleared out completely. We toured the downtown, I flew the drone a bit to film the breathtaking views and the mesas, and we had a great late lunch at a Mexican restaurant downtown. We strolled around some more, did some shopping and headed back to Flagstaff as we had a long day.
Flagstaff is a cool town. Route 66 goes through it, it has a beautiful location with the pine forests and mountains around and a youthful vibe. Only issue is, due to elevation of over 7,000ft, lots of snow in the winter, so definite out for Rachelle. Interestingly, Sedona, which is only 1h south by car is at 4,800 ft and the climate is completely different. It is amazing to see that change of climate in such a short distance.
Day 4 – Grand Canyon
Next day, it was Grand Canyon. In my list of things to see in the US, it is probably in the top three and maybe numero uno. There couple of options to get to Grand Canyon from Flagstaff. Option one is to drive (about 1.25hrs). The option two is to fly to the Grand Canyon airport. I figured it is better to drive since we will be able to drive around the South rim and I figured Rachelle would see the canyon from the air anyway as I planned to fly over it the next day.
When we got to the Grand Canyon and walked to the rim, I could not believe it – you could not see, as one young man said to his dad, shit! The cloud deck was below the rim. I was devastated. I wanted Rachelle to see this so badly and here we are and all you see is white. On top of things, it started to rain.
In these times you need to, as my Jazz professor said, improvise. I took Rachelle to the visitor center and we watched a great movie about the canyon. Then, we jumped on a bus and went to the Yaki point which is a bit West (I thought the weather may be different there). No dice, we went to the building and it was raining hard. I was ready to throw in the towel when a miracle happened. I told Rachelle I want to go outside to take one, crappy, photo through the rain. I went outside and just like magic the clouds parted. I rushed inside to get Rachelle as I did not know how long the condition would last. It turns out Mother Nature was kind to us. The rain stopped and the visibility magically improved by the minute. Rachelle let out her first, WOW! Yep, wow indeed, this is a sight to behold.
I suggested we walk towards El Tovar so worst case if it starts to rain again, we have a place to wait it out. We stared to walk. Needless to say, we covered probably four miles around the Southern rim stopping every moment as the vista changed. Rachelle became a total shutterbug and could not, literally, believe her eyes. Even though it was not completely 100% cloud-free, the presence of these cumulus clouds made the canyon look even more majestic. I was ecstatic Rachelle could see, and confirm, what I was rambling about all these years – this is probably the best sight you can view on Earth. After all, it took about 17 million (!!!) years to generate the views that we find so breathtaking.
Our luck continued to improve. When we got to El Tovar, it was lunchtime and I figured I try my luck getting a reservation in the dining hall knowing full well that given the rainy weather the place would have a gigantic wait. The lady at the hostess stand told me someone cancelled and we got seated right away. El Tovar is an old historic hotel from the Teddy Roosevelt era and shows its age but the restaurant was excellent. Probably best French Onion soup I had in a long time. After lunch, we grabbed the shuttle back to the visitor center and decided we are ready to hear back to Flagstaff. We rested up a bit in the hotel and in the evening hit the downtown scene with a dinner at an Italian restaurant where Rachelle and I shared a bottle of wine and flatbread and salad.
Day 5 – Cedar City, UT
The next day, we woke up early as we had some flying to do. Fortunately, the cloudy weather was gone for good and we had an excellent forecast for our flight to Cedar City, UT. On the way to Cedar City, I wanted to take the opportunity and fly over the Grand Canyon to appreciate it again, this time from the air. The Canyon is a very busy area with heavy helicopter traffic so you need to exercise extreme caution. Also, the FAA established special no-fly zones to preserve the tranquility of the canyon. In short, you need to exercise caution. Fortunately, I recently upgraded the plane with a ADS-B radar which brings me truly to the 21st Century as I now have visual and aural traffic alerts and can see and hear all air traffic around me which greatly enhances safety, especially in busy areas as the canyon. We flew along the rim for a while and then I crossed the canyon via one of the FAA-approved corridors. The canyon is about 250 miles long but only about 10 miles wide so at cruising speed it only takes a few minutes before it is all over. I flew then along the north rim for a while and then Rachelle said we can continue to Cedar City, UT.
Cedar City is a great little town (home to Shakespeare festival and generally a culture-oriented town) and, equally-important, is a great base for excursions to some outstanding parks – Zion and Bryce. Out of the two, Zion is a clear leader and, in my opinion, probably overall the best National Park in the US as it has, literally, everything you can dream of. Mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons, tunnels, caves, diverse flora and fauna, it has it all. It is also a relatively small park making it very manageable to see as, say, compared to Yellowstone where you really need days to just drive through it.
We stumbled on a little gem in-route to Zion. It is called Majestic View Lodge. It is just on the outskirts of the park and it has an awesome restaurant with a majestic view of Zion. I am placing this on my list of potential hotels for the next trip as it offers proximity to Zion and, what it looks, great amenities.
In Zion, Rachelle became a shutterbug again and could not contain her excitement. We took a scenic drive through the entire park and there was a unique view at, literally, every bend.
We got back to Cedar City and checked into a hotel. In the evening, I suggested we go downtown and see what we feel like having for dinner. Then, I remember, Alex and I really liked Centro which was an artisan pizza place. Surprisingly, the place was still around (turns out Alex and I went there in 2012 and that was their first year in business). Rachelle and I shared a bottle of wine, salad and a delicious vegetarian pizza.
Day 6 – Omaha, NE
All good things must come to an end and next day it was time to make it slowly back home. It is doable to make it back in one day but it is much more comfortable to split it into two days. There are several ways to do the trip back from the West. One can go south of the Rockies and fly back through NM in low terrain. One can go through the Rockies through Denver and back. Lastly, one can go North through Laramie and Cheyenne, WY and avoid the very high mountains. I opted for the last route for several reasons. First, the weather was best over the northern states. Second, it was safer than going through the central Rockies (I have oxygen on-board but I prefer to go through airways I do not have to use it). Lastly, it would allow us to fly West of the Rockies that offer some pretty good views while only adding about an hour to trip time vs. more direct routing. Out of Cedar City, we climbed to 13,300 ft which is the MEA for the airway. Legally, pilot must use oxygen above 12,500ft when flying longer than 30 mins so I turned on the oxygen system and offered to Rachelle (not a requirement for passengers). The weather was gorgeous and we now had a small tailwind. Normally, without a tailwind the plane cruises at about 155kts which equals about 180mph. We were doing well over 200mph and making good time.
Our planned refuel/lunch stop was Cheyenne, WY. Cheyenne is the capital of Wyoming but has a population of only about 64,000. Wyoming is the least densely populated state in the lower 48 and flying through it makes you redefine the word for nothingness. Seriously, Kansas seems like lower Manhattan compared to Wyoming. There is, literally, nothing there for miles on-end.
Landing in Cheyenne was interesting to say the least. There was a helicopter on final and the pilot took an eternity to land and when he did, he just stopped in the middle of the damn runway! I was gear down, 100 feet of the threshold when the controller told me to go around so he could have this yahoo vacate the runway. At least this gave Rachelle a good opportunity to take few shots of the downtown (I’m using the word “downtown” loosely here). The downtown, as you can see on the photos, is tiny. Think Crawfordsville.
We finally made it down and grabbed a crew car from the FBO to get lunch. Guess what kind of crew car they have in Cheyenne, Wyoming? Of course, a pick-up truck (a first for me). The girl at the FBO said it was busy in town because of a Rodeo. We had quick lunch at Olive Garden and I was ready, as they say, to get the hell out of there!
Next stop, last for the day, was Council Bluffs, IA which is just East of Omaha, NE. I decided to land there as I’ve read that this was, supposedly, the best airport in the Omaha area. We landed and got the rental car. Now, I must admit, the last stop in Omaha was a bit selfish on my part. I am a big fan of Alexander Payne who is an Omaha native and had one of his movies (About Schmidt) filmed in Omaha. Rachelle watched the movie with me and somehow agreed we could spend an evening visiting couple of the famous movie scenes. It turned out not be a bad idea at all.
Our first stop was Johnny’s Café, a historical restaurant started in 1920’s by a Polish immigrant. It is featured in the movie as the scene of Warren’s retirement party and quite famous (it made it to the top 1,000 things to see before you die book). When we got to the restaurant, I suggested we grab a drink at the bar, just like in the movie where Warren (played by Jack Nicholson) gets up from the dinner and gets a vodka gimlet to contemplate the end of his career. I sat at the same exact spot and Rachelle and I enjoyed a drink before dinner.
The dinner was outstanding. The place has an old, rustic feel to it but the food and service is outstanding. The waitress was very kind to take us to the exact room they filmed the scene (it was a private room reserved for parties, etc.) and showed us all the memorabilia from the movie including photos of the film crew with Jack Nicholson and Alexander Payne with the restaurant owners which are children of Frank Kawa, the founder. To sum up, it was a great evening. Afterwards we headed to the hotel briefly stopping by the barber shop where Warren and Ray got into a fight.
Day 7 – Back to Indy
The next day we slept in a little. Normally, I had Rachelle wake up and go on the road early during our trip. This was out of necessity. In the mountains, the air gets turbulent as the day goes on and the temperatures rise making air travel uncomfortable. My personal motto is that all flying in the mountains needs to be completed by noon. I learned this the hard way. Many years ago, I flew in the mountains with Alex after lunch and scared the you know what out of him due to petty good turbulence. In the lowlands, however, this is not as relevant so we could allow to sleep in a little during our last stop.
On the way to the airport, we made couple of quick stops. We saw the home of Warren (a nice house in an upper-income subdivision of Omaha), the Woodmen tower (Warren’s place of work), and took the obligatory photos.
I must say Omaha was a pleasant surprise and Rachelle liked it a lot as well. It seemed clean, well-organized, had good roads, and overall had a pleasant appeal. We left Council Bluffs at our last leg direct to Indy which was only about 3h in the air with slight tailwinds. The weather was excellent throughout the flight. I filed for 11,000 feet so we traveled in a calm, cool air.
To sum up, an outstanding, safe, and trouble-free trip. I am slowly thinking what to plan for Rachelle’s 45th! Maybe that wine tour in CA???