Savvy pilots know Idaho as a mecca for backcountry aviation in the Lower 48. It can be surprising how widespread Idaho’s fame actually is. In 1999, my son and I were visiting with the crew in the cockpit of a 747-400 somewhere over Greenland. As I chatted with the captain, he remarked that his favorite pastime was to rent a Cessna and fly Idaho’s backcountry. “I just love Johnson Creek,” he said. Six years later, another 747 captain at London’s Heathrow Airport also told me he liked to rent a plane in Idaho and camp at Johnson Creek when he’s in the U.S.
Why Johnson Creek? Simply because some other backcountry airstrips are short and rough, located in deep canyons or on sloped hillsides, and demand sharp mountain-flying and short-field skills, as well as the proper aircraft. Johnson Creek, by contrast, is suitable for a Cirrus. The perfectly mowed, flat, 3,400 x 150-foot grass airstrip offers access to creekside campsites, showers, a hot spring, forest hiking, and a tiny town with a restaurant. Its accessibility also means Johnson Creek can be quite crowded in summer.
But Idaho has another gorgeous, green, perfectly manicured airstrip, 125 feet wide and, at 3,850 feet, even longer than Johnson Creek. Located in a wide valley, the approaches are fairly straightforward and can be made from either direction, with go-arounds available if necessary. It offers camping and a hot spring beside a whitewater river, forest hiking, a tiny town with a restaurant, and a brand new restroom/shower facility. What’s more, you can go whitewater rafting, see an outdoor play, or drive the free courtesy car to a B&B if you don’t want to camp. This gem of an airstrip is called Garden Valley. The addition of the new shower facility puts this airstrip on the list of Idaho’s premier camping spots. Its lower elevation of 3,177 feet means it’s accessible almost year-round. Although it’s only a 15–20-minute flight from Idaho’s capital, Boise, you’ll usually only see one or two aircraft on the ground here, versus dozens at Johnson Creek.
Experienced Idaho mountain pilots check the winds aloft at 9,000 feet before departure. If they’re much over 20 knots, they may wait for a calmer day. Winds over the mountains mean a bumpy ride and perhaps tricky, unpredictable winds in the canyons. Morning flights are usually calmest.
Garden Valley Airport (U88) is in southwest Idaho, 33 nm northeast of Boise (BOI), a Class C airport. From Boise, follow Highway 55 north along the Payette River to Banks, where the South Fork of the Payette comes in from the east. Then follow the South Fork east to Garden Valley. Your other choice is to angle east of 7,700-foot Shafer Butte, then fly north over the Boise Basin towns of New Centerville and Placerville to Garden Valley.
Arrivals from Stanley Airport (2U7), east of the Sawtooth range, can follow the South Fork of the Payette River all the way to Garden Valley; arrivals from farther east may want to avoid the mountains by remaining just south of them and overflying the Boise area (make sure you have two-way radio contact with ATC before entering the Class C airspace). From the north, you can follow the North Fork of the Payette south over McCall (MYL) and Cascade (U70) before angling southeast at Smiths Ferry to the Middle Fork of the Payette, Crouch, and then Garden Valley.
As you approach, broadcast your location and intentions on CTAF 122.9 MHz. The runway is between the South Fork of the Payette to the south and the Banks-Lowman Highway to the north. In summer, USFS smoke jumpers are stationed at the heliport at the east end of the runway. They conduct training exercises by rappelling down from helicopters, so watch for helicopter traffic.
Runway 10 is preferred in light or calm winds since its approach is wide open and easier than the approach to Runway 28. If approaching from the west, don’t just land straight in. Fly an upwind just south of the runway so you can check for elk or people on the runway, and then fly a left downwind. A go-around on Runway 10 is accomplished by angling right and following the river on climb-out, thereby avoiding trees at the end of the runway.
For Runway 28, fly your left downwind above a ridge of trees at about 4,400 feet MSL. The final approach requires maneuvering slightly around a couple of tall pines before you straighten out on short final. For the experienced backcountry flier, it’s a good practice approach. If you’re uncomfortable flying close to trees, remember the runway is 3,850 feet long, so you can land a bit long as well. Runway 28 is preferred for takeoffs, wind permitting, not only because the terrain ahead is flat agricultural fields, but also because you avoid flying over the Forest Service buildings, campground, and hot spring.
The runway is neatly mowed and watered. In summer, sprinklers are running most weekdays on one side or the other. As you approach the runway on short final, look for sprinklers; there is plenty of space on the 125-foot-wide runway to land to the left or right of them. Tiedowns are available on the south side of the runway. (If you plan to do more backcountry flying, it’s a good idea to invest in some quality tiedowns, as they’re not always available at remote airstrips.) There are no instrument approaches or services. In winter, there is no snow removal and the shower facility is closed. The nearest fuel is at Cascade (U70), 26 nm north, or Emmett (S78), 29 nm southwest. Idaho Aviation Association members get a 15-cent-per-gallon discount at Emmett’s 24-hour self-serve pump.
In 1818, the Payette River was named for Francois Payette, the French-Canadian trapper who explored much of southwestern Idaho. Garden Valley is aptly named; the valley is as green as an Irish golf course in spring and early summer. By 1862, prospectors had located gold in the Boise Basin, a few miles to the south. Soon, nearly 14,000 miners crowded into the gold camps of Idaho City, Centerville, Placerville, and Pioneerville, and they needed to be fed. Enterprising men settled along the fertile banks of the Payette’s South and Middle Forks, trapping fish, raising dairy and meat cattle, and growing a variety of vegetables to supply the camps—hence the name Garden Valley.
By the late 1800s, dredges requiring electricity were replacing hand mining, and a dam was built on the Payette’s South Fork. The powerful river washed out the dam in 1943, and it was never rebuilt. Today the South Fork of the Payette runs wild and free from its headwaters in the Sawtooth Mountains to Banks, where it joins the North Fork to form the main Payette River. Five miles west of the runway, the tiny town of Crouch is now the commercial district for Garden Valley. It was named for homesteader Billy Crouch. Each winter, hungry elk migrate down the mountains to Garden Valley’s milder climate. They congregate in large numbers to feed on dried grass. In January, we counted nearly 100 animals lying together in a field like so many cows chewing their cud. In March, we saw over 250 elk, spread out over several groups, in addition to Canada and snow geese.
In early 2011, the Idaho Aviation Association (IAA) and the Idaho Division of Aeronautics entered into an informal partnership to build a shower and restroom facility at the Garden Valley airstrip. Both organizations wanted to relieve pressure on the popular Johnson Creek airstrip, and visitors to Garden Valley had requested such a facility on the sign-in log. Aeronautics obtained legal permits and provided plumbing and electrical equipment for the 24-by-24-foot covered building, with an equal-sized covered, open area for picnic tables at one end. The Idaho Aviation Foundation (IAF) provided funding for building materials and skilled labor. Many IAA members also donated funds, while other members donated their professional design and construction services. The building was completed by early summer. The IAF, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, uses tax-deductible donations to provide aviation scholarships, and has funded new aeronautical charts and airstrip improvements like webcams, windsocks, and runway maintenance throughout Idaho and the Northwest. The IAA, a membership organization, works with government entities to keep airstrips open for all pilots, conducts work parties and get-togethers throughout the state, and publishes a newsletter, The Flyline, loaded with information of interest to recreational pilots. Joining the IAA or contributing to the IAF will help preserve backcountry airstrips throughout the northwest.
Most fly-in visitors to Garden Valley just want to get a little fresh air, camp near their airplane, or perhaps enjoy a hike. A couple of fly-ins are scheduled for early summer and are always well-attended. Summers are warm, though not overly hot, and mosquitoes generally aren’t a problem like at some more remote and densely forested mountain campsites. For adrenaline junkies, the wildest section of one of Idaho’s wildest rivers is just upstream.
The Ponderosa pine-clad hills north and east of the runway offer numerous pleasant hiking opportunities. The Station Creek trailhead is just across the road from the U.S. Forest Service facility at the east end of the runway. It does not loop, so you’ll need to backtrack. Several loop trails can be accessed beginning at the marker and sign-in box. They are basically game trails instead of designated hiking trails so there isn’t any signage. Observant hikers will nearly always see elk or deer en route to the top of the ridgeline. The trail goes from an elevation of 3,150 feet to 4,450 feet, for a gain of 1,300 feet in about 2 1/2 miles. The lower loop trail totals two miles, crosses Station Creek, and takes about an hour. A longer, 4–5-mile loop trail adds another hour, emerging from the forest at Alder Creek Bridge, west of the airstrip. Several other drainages lead down out of the forest, and you emerge abeam the airstrip, so it’s fairly easy to determine the length of your own hike.
If you prefer, enjoy the forest on a guided horseback trail ride. Garden Valley Trail Rides, just a mile west of the airport, offers rides from one hour to a half day. Call ahead for free pickup. Closed-toe shoes are required and long pants are recommended, mid-May–Oct 31, rides $50–$90, experienced riders can ask about customized trips, 12 Outpost Rd., 208-462-3451.
An easy-access hot spring rests just above the riverbank one mile east of the runway, across the road from Hot Springs Campground. Just walk down the stairs, and then soak in comfort while you watch the river go by.
During the annual Father’s Day Fly-in, aircraft line up along the runway, and pilots, families, and friends camp beneath the wings or above the river. A barbeque is held Saturday evening; bring something to barbeque for yourself, and a side dish to share. The event always takes place on Father’s Day weekend. The Treasure Valley Chapter of the IAA serves breakfast on Sunday morning 7–10 a.m., suggested donation $10. For information, call Jerry Terlisner, 208-859-7959.
The annual Garden Valley fly-in, sponsored by the International Cessna 180/185 Club, generally takes place around the end of June or in early July. If you have a Skywagon, you don’t want to miss this event, but other aircraft are welcome too. Check out all the Skywagons, see who’s got the fanciest tent, socialize, and pick up a commemorative t-shirt. A gala BBQ is held Saturday evening, $20; bring your own drinks. A Continental breakfast is provided Sunday morning. For information, call Jim Davies, 208-859-5537.
Across the highway from the west end of the airport, a rifle range is open to the public. It’s unattended, and anyone can go over there and pop away to their heart’s content, no fee.
Continuous Class IV rapids on the South Fork Canyon Section of the Payette River, just upstream from the Garden Valley airstrip, make this stretch one of the finest locations for whitewater rafting in the U.S. Cascade Raft & Kayak offers free airport pickup and drop-off for rafters taking their full-day trip called “The Plunge.” You’ll be driven 20 minutes up the road to the Deadwood put-in. Then get ready to rock and roll most of the way downstream. The deep, pine-studded canyon and cold water keep heat at bay; wetsuits are provided so you don’t get cold. A mandatory stop occurs at Big Falls, a spectacular 40-foot waterfall requiring a portage. Everyone helps carry the raft around the falls. If the river is high, you’ll feel the waterfall’s thundering power in your bones. Often you’ll stop at the Pine Flat hot springs to relax. Lunch includes appetizers, deli-style build-your-own sandwiches, pasta salad, fruit, cookies, sodas, and water. The takeout is at the Danskin boat ramp. Weekends tend to fill up about two weeks ahead, so book in advance, age 12 and over, mid-May–end of August depending on water levels, airport pickup at 9 a.m., drop-off around 4 p.m., lunch and all gear included, $110, 208-793-2221 or 800-292-7238.
Idaho Whitewater Unlimited offers a variety of trips on the South Fork, including the same one above, $105, and some that are tamer. Gear is provided along with free airport transportation if you arrange ahead by phone. Dutch oven cooking is the rule for all-day trips that include lunch. You can take the Staircase section half-day trip from Garden Valley to Banks, with Class III rapids, $45. The Swirley Canyon half-day float offers Class II and easy Class III rapids, $45, while the Garden Valley Scenic float is a relaxing splash-free trip, $35, 12 and under $20, 208-462-1900 or 800-800-RAFT.
Just outside Crouch about 4 1/2 miles from the airport, Starlight Mountain Theatre showcases Broadway musicals in a 300-seat outdoor amphitheater on the banks of the Middle Fork of the Payette River. The summer schedule varies, but often includes productions like “Cinderella,” “Calamity Jane,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” $9–$24, Thursday–Saturday dinner tickets cost an additional $14, all shows 8 p.m., 208-462-5523.
For more information, contact the Garden Valley Chamber of Commerce, 208-462-5003.
Camping is the name of the game for most pilots flying here; they usually camp beside their airplanes. Just downhill from the airport, there are two campsites on a bluff above the river, as well as a fire ring or two. Pets must be on leash; be sure to clean up after them. A dog dish is available below a water spigot at the shower facility. One mile east of the runway and across the road from the hot spring, Hot Springs Campground is a USFS facility with campsites and small grills in an open pine forest, $16 overnight, 208-365-7000 or 877-444-6777.
A mile west of the airport, the Garden Valley Motel looks like a giant log cabin. The 12 plain, but clean rooms on two floors offer queen beds, satellite TV, Internet hookups, coffee, and tea; some have kitchenettes. However, the building is surrounded by old trucks and logging equipment, $80–$120, 1111 Banks Lowman Rd., 208-462-2911.
The Walk on the Wildside Bed & Breakfast resembles a 1930s Idaho ranch. Furnished with antiques, some suites offer therapeutic beds, whirlpool spas, and private balconies. Located on the Middle Fork of the Payette River, the B&B offers romantic river and mountain views complemented by wildlife sightings. It’s common to see deer, elk, geese, eagles, and quail. Expect the likes of homemade quiche, buttermilk pancakes, and fresh fruit for breakfast. Shuttle service can be arranged for a fee, rooms $115–$165, 69 River Ranch Rd., 208-462-3451 or 877-322-2467.
Crouch offers a couple of surprisingly good eateries five miles west of the airport. Two Rivers Grill sports a Western, woodsy exterior with a much fancier interior. Expect cloth linens, black furniture, antiques, and local artwork. Live, light jazz is played on some weekends. Breakfast is served on Sunday and includes eggs benedict, French toast with candied bacon, and homemade biscuits and gravy, $5–$9. For lunch, the half-pound Certified Angus Beef burger is the most popular choice. Or, there are a variety of other sandwiches and homemade soup, $9–$13. Dinner choices include rock salt roasted prime rib, chicken marsala, and barbecued ribs, $12–$25, open Mon–Thu 4:30–8 p.m., Fri–Sat 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.–1 p.m. & 4:30–8 p.m., 1049 Old Crouch Rd., 208-462-3770.
Relieve your caffeine cravings across the street from Two Rivers at Wild Bill’s Coffee & Bistro. They serve a full line of espresso, cappuccino, or latte drinks including the Bob Marley Mocha with chocolate, banana, and coconut, $5. Summertime bliss is achieved through an array of smoothies and gelatos, $2.75–$4.75. The breakfast and lunch menu is served all day and includes excellent Panini like the Vegetarian with basil, tomato, and cheese; Breakfast Panini with ham, eggs, cheddar, and mayo; ham, turkey, or pastrami with roasted red peppers and mozzarella; and tuna or salmon melts, $7–$8. The popular Garden Mountain Frittata is loaded with eggs, bacon, spinach, tomatoes, and jack cheese, $7.25, open Sun–Thu 7 a.m.–4 p.m., Fri–Sat 7 a.m.–6 p.m., 592 Middlefork Rd., 208-462-3505.
A state courtesy car is available by making prior arrangement with Annie, the airport caretaker, at 208-462-6036. The answering machine and courtesy car are operable from April through early October. All other times, contact Annie on her cell phone at 208-830-9523. Let her know if you need it overnight for a hotel stay. She’ll sign you out for it at the airport when you get the keys; remember to bring it back with full fuel.
For a backcountry respite from the city without a high-anxiety landing and takeoff, Garden Valley airstrip fits the bill perfectly, with its smooth, long, turf runway. The variety of activities here spans the gamut from hiking and hot springs to whitewater rafting and even a live stage play. Next time someone from afar tells you about Johnson Creek, you can share your discovery of Garden Valley with them. — By Crista V. Worthy
Prices, hours of operation, and contact information may change after the publication date of the article.