‘The top of the hill is but the bottom of another mountain.’ – Unkown
It was time to leave Yellowstone and head home. We had spent six nights in our cabin and enjoyed the stay immensely. The first two nights were nice and crisp and the wood burning stove in the corner made for a toasty home. Each morning we got up to the sound of the stream steps from our door and stumbled groggily out to make a hot breakfast and decide how to spend the day. Most days we went hiking. These were strenuous hikes that started at more than a mile high and ended at eight or nine thousand feet. The terrain was beautiful and the views awe inspiring.
Yellowstone, however, represented an end for us. It was the last major stop and the last national park. It was the last of the mountain flying.
The mountain flying was the most challenging of the trip. Yellowstone is in a basin with really high terrain on all sides. We came in from the south when we arrived and, doing so, the only navigational aid is an ADF. ADF technology dates back to 1902, but does provide some level of guidance that you’re on the right path. Going north to south through the mountains is generally easier as the ranges tend to be oriented north to south. Trying to get from Yellowstone to Chicago is a distinctly west to east activity.
We had a couple options. One was to head north to Livingston. There was a nice wide valley going that direction and not only would that provide some lower ground to fly over, but would be an easier view for Beth. While improving day by day, she was still nervous about some aspects of flying.
Option two was to head directly east. Heading east would be much more scenic. West Yellowstone airport is, you guessed it, west of the park. Heading east would allow us to fly over Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake and then over the mountains via Sylvan Pass. The name Sylvan Pass sounded appealing (Sylvan means forested) and going north looked like it might run into some weather, so east we went.
Training in Boulder and flying to the highest airport in North America proved to be ideal for this leg. Even though this was the most challenging flying on the trip, it seemed quite reasonable compared to flying near Boulder. As an example, Sylvan is 8,500 feet. Returning from Leadville the pass we navigated was well over 10,000 feet. Approaching Sylvan we did all the necessary things. We took our time and climbed well before getting to the pass, flying a big lazy circle around West Yellowstone before departing to the east. We approached Sylvan at a 45 degree angle to be already part way through a turn if we needed to bail out and head back to lower ground. We climbed, in fact, to 13,500 feet. This gave us about five thousands feet of air to use if we needed to glide down. Of course, we didn’t need to glide down. Everything went great. A cloud deck at about 14,500 covered the snowy mountains as far as the eye could see. But it’s still a good insurance policy to have that extra altitude in your back pocket.
The final stop was a quick one at Mt. Rushmore. I guess it wasn’t much to write home about. We’re not all that patriotic and the many, many photos and videos that any american has seen over the years do a better job of showing the monument than being there in person does. Overall the impression left was one of “smaller than I expected”.