ParkWest air tour of the U.S. National Parks
My son and I recently completed a 16 day trip through the
national parks in the western U.S. as participants in the Grand Expedition tour
conducted by ParkWest Air (www.parkwestair.com). I’m writing this lengthy
report at the request of several COPA members who’ve been thinking of signing
up for one of their tours.
In a nutshell, it was a fantastic experience: literally the trip of a lifetime.
Our tour group consisted of seven planes: a Cessna Centurion flown by the husband/wife team of Collin and Marisa Fay, who run ParkWest and served as our guides; two Cessna 182s; one Piper Arrow; one twin Piper Comanche; one 1946 Navion; and my SR22. The tour was laid out so that we flew two to three hours on nine of the sixteen days, always in the morning. In the afternoon of a flight day we toured a national park and on other days we had free time to do our own hiking, exploration or relaxation at a national park.
The Grand Expedition tour (which is ParkWest’s longest) covers 2,300 nautical miles in a big circle which begins and ends at Grand Junction, Colorado: total flying time on the tour is roughly 25 hours in an SR22. The parks we visited were Colorado National Monument (outside of Grand Junction), Glen Canyon (Lake Powell), Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, Crater Lake, Glacier and Yellowstone; in addition we flew over or near places like Monument Valley, Mammoth, Mt. Shasta and Grand Teton. See ParkWest’s website for detailed information about the sites which are visited on each of the various tours which they offer.
The tours are planned to be entirely VFR, so no instrument skills are required (although in our group all but one C182 pilot were instrument rated). Several weeks before the trip Collin sent out sectionals with all of the routes marked, as well as each day’s flight with all GPS waypoints and coordinates (many were user-defined for this trip). My son programmed and stored the routes during the long trip from Caldwell, NJ to Grand Junction and we activated each one as needed. There was a detailed flight briefing each evening and again in the morning. We all took off within twenty minutes and generally followed the same route on our GPS. All of the seven planes in the tour kept in touch with each other on a specified frequency as each day’s flight progressed. In effect, the tour leader plane acted as our flying ATC and poor man’s AWACS, tracking progress at each waypoint and advising us on active runways, local weather, interesting sights, etc. Periodically the tour leader plane would also come alongside and snap aerial photos of the rest of us (one at a time, of course).
What made the trip particularly enjoyable was the way ParkWest Air had planned the routes: they were at sufficiently high altitude to avoid coming near any mountains, yet they brought us right past the most fantastic scenery imaginable. At some places (e.g., Grand Canyon and Glacier) Collin provided GPS coordinates which enabled us to crisscross the park for maximum flightseeing enjoyment. So we had the double benefit of flying over or past a park and then touring it on land. From my perspective this is what made the trip so unique and enjoyable. Needless to say we took dozens of pictures.
ParkWest (Marisa) arranged all of our meals (except lunch on free days in the parks) and every place we ate at offered a quality meal. ParkWest (again Marisa) also arranged all our transportation to and from the airports, as well as guided tours within the national parks. They also took care of all the hotel accommodations: we stayed at excellent locations, in some cases the classic rustic hotels inside the parks. While the trip was not inexpensive, all of the members of the tour felt we were treated to first class accommodations, food and tour services wherever we went, thanks to Marisa’s careful research and fine taste.
Having not done any mountain flying before, I was a bit concerned before the trip and read several articles on the subject. Collin (who is also a CFII) also provided guidance at the first briefing and was readily available to discuss flying techniques as the need arose. And he planned the routes and timing of travel (morning only) to avoid most issues, such as convective activity that typically builds up in the afternoons. Frankly, the one time we actually flew a real mountain pass was at Mammoth Lakes, CA on the way to Yosemite, and it was well worth the experience.
The airports we visited varied from huge to tiny. Two fields—Pine Mountain, California (near Yosemite) and Prospect, Oregon (near Crater Lake)—were beautifully situated among high trees and posed very nice short field challenges. Several fields were true high altitude/high temperature situations, such as Grand Canyon, West Yellowstone and Grand Junction. One field—Starr Browning, Montana—was literally in the middle of nowhere, with no taxiways, and the whole group had a great time pulling and pushing airplanes into position. And, of course, Death Valley has the distinction of being extremely low altitude and extremely high temperature. For me, ParkWest’s choice of airports made the trip a pilot’s fantasy with an exciting and challenging variety of approaches and takeoffs.
We were fortunate to have clear skies and excellent visibility virtually throughout the trip. The one exception was the flight from Coeur D’Alene, Idaho to Glacier National Park in Montana: there was a storm system just south of our route and clouds right above our flight altitude, but the entire group reviewed the situation and decided to proceed. Had there been a problem Collin (our personal AWACS) would have directed us to an alternate airport. ParkWest warns everyone upfront that bad weather and mechanical delays can require readjustment of the tour, but I believe that only once in the four years they’ve been in business has there been a serious delay due to weather. My SR22 had a door problem that required a diversion to Las Vegas for repairs, but we had no trouble rejoining the group a day later (as a result we missed the oppressive heat of Death Valley and instead suffered the perverse beauty of Las Vegas).
Lastly, I must add a positive word about the kind of people who would sign up for this kind of trip. They were from all over the country (on some tours from Europe as well), with a love of flying and visiting new places. We spent many easygoing hours together: at meals, touring the parks and flying. We took hikes together and just hung around at the bar. It was a pleasure being with them and sharing such a wonderful experience.