Flight: Alpine, WY to Livingston, MT: Yellowstone, Madison Valley

This particular flight had its genesis in reading an article written by Jeff Greenwald. He took a multi-state trip in an Aircam, a unique, open cockpit, twin-engine airplane that requires a bush/utility mentality to enjoy, not all that different from mine in some respects. Both scream for adventure, flights where aggressive terrain is viewed low and slow. I emailed Jeff and offered him a ride, and this trip transpired.

One issue with general aviation is making schedules. The schedule fits, the weather may not. In our case, it was (and still is) a sweltering heat wave: 93 F in Alpine, WY and 100 F at our destination of Livingston, WY. Hot air makes airplanes perform terribly. Imagine the difference between a car driving with you alone, and then compare it to how it performs while towing a trailer at the maximum permissible weight. That is the difference between a cold winter day and a heat wave in most small airplanes. Spunky in the cold, lethargic in the heat.

We compensated by having me pick Jeff up in Jackson Hole, WY (my first landing at a control tower airport with this airplane!) so we could leave with full fuel and have greater range. We also took off from Jackson at about 8:45, while it was still about 68 degrees.

The route of flight was to the headwaters of the Snake River (it flows from Yellowstone to the Pacific), over the hill that is the Continental Divide, then down the Yellowstone River from a source close to its headwaters to Yellowstone Falls. Instead of making it to Livingston, MT on one tank, I opted to check out Grand Prismatic Spring, refuel at W Yellowstone MT and go from there. It was quite hazy, and I pretty much figured my photographs would be crap. Well, what can I say…. I guess I am good at this after all.

By the time we landed at W Yellowstone, it was getting hot. W Yellowstone is above 6,000’, so we were getting hotter and still high up. Departing with not quite full fuel, I opted to go down the Hegben River in Montana, then the Madison River, over to Bozeman MT, and then into Livingston. The whole trip followed a river drainage, and effectively had slowly descending terrain. The plan worked, though the propeller turns into a blast furnace with that kind of heat, and the airplane had the aeronautical performance of a brick.

Gros Ventre River – Jackson Hole – Grand Teton on left
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Grand Teton National Park – Does this view ever get old?
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Snake River a few miles from headwaters, Yellowstone. Mt. Sheridan (10,298′) on left. Heart Lake visible.
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Yellowstone River looking N. Absaroka Mountains on right. Continental Divide on left.
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Yellowstone River looking toward headwaters in Absaroka Mountains. Continental Divide on right.
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Yellowstone River delta entering Yellowstone Lake.
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Gibbon Falls (roughly 7,000′)
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A few hot springs. A rare instance where I think people actually accent the image instead of defile it.
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This would be Grand Prismatic Spring.
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Hegben Lake, Montana
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Quake Lake, MT – Formed by a giant landslide (the rocks on the bottom came off the mountain on the left) during a 7.5 magnitude earthquake in 1959. Madison Valley in the background.
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Madison Valley, MT – Gravelly Range in background.
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Madison Range
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Bozeman, MT with Bridger Range in background.
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Flight: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride: Absaroka Mountains

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is a ride at Disney World in Florida. It is the best metaphorical reference that I can devise to describe what this flight was like. An all around roller coaster, the winds were higher than I would have liked, going over terrain that looks just fine on Google Earth. Well, as I say over and over again referentially in my books and blog posts, there is nothing like seeing things in 3D in an airplane. Google Earth just misses things, such as the proliferation of 1,000’ to 2,000’ vertical rock cliffs emblazoned onto mountainsides. The satellite shows a glorious abundance of plateaus to land on in case of emergency; reality shows a meat grinder of turbulence.

The flight went from Alpine to Jackson Hole, NE around Moran, WY, east along Togwotee Pass, then north into the heart of the Absaroka Mountains, descending out along the South Fork Shoshone River, ending in Cody WY for fuel. As I waited for the plane to be filled up, I wandered in the airport terminal, noting that the Cody newspaper was “Founded by Buffalo Bill.” Then I found a café and ordered a gluten-free sandwich with cranberry chutney. The café offered truffle-infused Italian olive oil, with a variety of gourmet cheeses. I highly doubt any of the cowboys wandering around Cody in Buffalo Bill’s time would have expected modern cowboys to fly in their personal aircraft and have gluten preferences.

After having just spent time at 14,000’ wandering through high mountain peaks, I figured that my southerly route along the Absaroka foothills would provide a welcome respite from the winds at altitude. That would be incorrect. My first aggravation was trying to get altitude. Instead of huffing it with the engine at full throttle barely climbing, I prefer to find somewhere where winds impact terrain and head up. I fly in a circle (like a hawk) and take the free ride into the sky. It seemed that I could not find such winds, so I wandered around up some mountain valleys in a quest for updrafts. What I found was an overwhelming quantity of majesty. Valley after steep valley of majestic rivers, massive mountains, clear air, and wilderness. We can see on a map that there are large national forests and wilderness areas, though it is extremely difficult to fully see what is there. Forest service roads twist and curve through valleys and end unceremoniously before the views get good. There are no businesses, and maybe a few houses. This sort of situation goes on for miles and miles, and it just proves to me how enormous this planet is. There will always be something to explore.

Majesty aside, I finally found a few updrafts and looked forward to making the turn around the SE part of the Absaroka Range, to head west back to Jackson Hole and then home. This is where Mr. Toad really showed up.

There is a thing called “rotors.” Imagine westerly winds blowing against a mountain peak. They ascend on the left side and continue rising past the summit as the winds arc over to the right. To the right of the peak, there is a horizontal tube of air that rotates, instigated by the mountain wind arcing up into the sky. Well, I found a way to fly right through them all. Translation: one minute I am descending at full power. The next, I get smacked by the updraft, throttle back from 100% power to 30%, and am climbing, whether I like it or not. I was taking a beating, and so was the airframe, so I slowed to 55mph, pitched the nose up, and oscillated the throttle between 30% and 80%, depending on what part of the spin cycle I was in. The odd thing was that I was over the foothills for this part. I only once experienced something of this magnitude in Colorado (there were 14,443’ summits to blame for that, which makes a little more sense). This was absolutely ridiculous and is quite fatiguing, a lot like being in rush hour traffic during the worst downpour one can imagine. Its taxing, stressful, and requires all of the focus a person has.

I had wanted to photograph Washakie Needles. That wasn’t happening with this wind. Getting over the hills south of Togwotee Pass took full power, as now strong westerly winds were arcing down toward the Wind River Basin. Finally things eased up in the Gros Ventre Wilderness and Jackson Hole.

I realized I figured out something new about mountain weather. The windward side of a mountain range is the best. The wind blows, though it is “clean,” and usually heads up upon impacting the range. Flying in the dead center of high peaks is a bit of a wild ride, though usually not bad – this being the case in NC, CO, and WY. The worst part is the lee side, which most pilots know, and none of which is new. The new thing I figured out is when the lee side of a range gives way to prairie, a basin, or plains, gravity accelerates the turbulent, churning air downward, creating higher speed choppy wind with a generalized downdraft component. If it is range after range, wind will be much slower. That is true where the Rocky Mountain Front Range meets the plains in CO, where the Absarokas meet the Bighorn Basin, and where the Blue Ridge Escarpment gives way to the North Carolina Piedmont. In each place, the highest peaks in the area only had moderate turbulence, whether at 6,000′ or 14,000′, and the fastest winds were on the descent.

Sublette Peak – just east of Togwotee Pass
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Pinnacle Buttes
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Southern Absaroka Mountains (Grand Teton on center horizon)
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Absaroka Mountains looking east toward Wind River Basin
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Headwaters of the South Fork Shoshone River (Absaroka Mountains) – Teton Range on right horizon
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Absaroka Mountains
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Clark Creek (left), South Fork Shoshone River (Right)
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Carter Mountain, Bighorn Basin on horizon
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South Fork Shoshone River Basin, looking north into Absarokas (just west of Cody WY)
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Bighorn Basin (south of Cody WY)
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Greybull River (Absarokas in background)
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Wood River (valley elevation 8,200′)
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Southeastern Absaroka Mountains (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride really starts here)
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Bear Creek heading into the Wind River Basin (Wind River Range on right)
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DuNoir Creek
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North Fork Fish Creek – Gros Ventre Range
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Northern Foothills of Gros Ventre Range
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Jackson, WY – National Elk Refuge in foreground
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Flight: Wyoming Range

One of the drawbacks of taking an awesome flight is the need to match or exceed the splendor. With the last flight over the Gros Ventre Range, it would be hard to beat, as visibilities were almost 100 miles. I finally decided to conquer the Wyoming Range, being only 10 to 50 miles from the airfield.

The range runs parallel to the Salt River Range. An uniformed person (me included) would assume the Salt River and Wyoming Ranges are the same thing, as they are separated by about 5 miles. For some reason, the official tribunals of mountain range names have elected to make them two separate ones. You’ll see what I am talking about with the photos.

The Wyoming Range is interesting in that it abuts the desert areas between this neck of the woods, the State of Colorado, and the Wind River Range. All of these mountains are green, snowy, and majestic. The basin in between is a sagebrush-covered desert with sand dunes in the middle. There is even a little hamlet called “Eden,” though when I drove through it all the plants were dead and it was a blinding sand storm. The Wyoming Range had more snow in April on its eastern side than the Salt River Range, even though they rival each other in height (and the moisture tends to come from the west). There is something about the east side of ranges that abut plains and prairies that make them vulnerable to repeated lashings during western blizzards.

Harsher part of the Salt River Range
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Wyoming Range to the left, Salt River Range to the right
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Wyoming Range
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Wyoming Range, Desert in the right background, with Wind River Range on right horizon
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Flight: Gros Ventre Range, Wind River Range

About 30% of the time, I plan for one flight and do another, with the decision being made midflight. The air got quite clear, 100% blue skies, 20% humidity, and temperatures in the 70s with 100-mile views. Basically, it was exactly what I long for on an ongoing basis. The plan was to go up the east side of the Gros Ventre Range and the Absarokas, and come down the west side of both after reaching the Montana border. That’s a pretty long flight, and instead I found that the Gros Ventre Range was just too pretty. That, and I got distracted and wandered over to the Wind River Mountains, the site of Gannett Peak, the highest peak in Wyoming at 13,804. Home to the largest glaciers in the West outside of the Pacific Northwest, I will be spending some time here in the summer working on a book on Wyoming’s glaciers from the air. A little trial run is not a bad idea, especially after I saw the range while climbing to 35,000 feet on a commercial flight. What I saw scared the crap out of me, and it was time to research emergency landing options on satellite maps and validate them before heading up into some crazy terrain.

The flight itself was remarkable. I discovered a waterfall that we went to the next day, and also found a ton of other ones, some of which are accessible and some are not. I have a little hiking list to undertake after seeing all of this stunning terrain. I came across two rivers that burst forth out of the mountainside; they basically are high volume springs that come out on picturesque places. Another river descended the Wind River Range, went into a cave, and came out from beneath the earth, resuming its path toward the Pacific Ocean. For some reason, I think the fact that I could wander around a good portion of the crazy terrain in Wyoming for hours in the air, not needing to look at the map once, makes the whole thing that much more transcendent, when it is really more a function of the relationship between my fetish looking at maps and my ability to recollect what I read.

As I cruised around at 12,500’ to 13,500’ snapping pictures of terrain, savoring the clean mountain air, and enjoying 100 mile views, I remembered why I endured all of the hypoxic, hypothermic, and mind-bending miseries of photographing all of the peaks over 14,000’ in Colorado: there are few places on earth like this with air, water, soil, and rock so clean, so pure, and so free as being this high up, though instead of being alone tens of thousands of feet from the nearest anything, I am staring the masters of this rocky domain eye to eye, in a place where no man can live.

Just north of Pow Wow Point – 8,400′ in Photo, Gros Ventre Range in Background
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Antoinette Peak (11,407′) – Left, Corner Peak (11,130′ or so) – Right, Gros Ventre Range
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Shoal Falls (8,400′) – Gros Ventre Range
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Doubletop Peak (11,720′) – Highest Peak in Gros Ventre Range
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Tosi Peak (11,380′) – GVR, Wind River Range in right background
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Meat grinder disguised as northern Wind River Range
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Squaretop Mountain (11,000′) – Right, Gannett Peak (13,804′) – Left – Highest in Wyoming. Note Mammoth Glacier in center left.
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Squaretop Mountain, Gros Ventre Range on right horizon, Wyoming Range on distant horizon
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Southern slope of Palmer Peak, Wyoming Range in distance
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Unnamed peak – 11,080′
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Granite Creek (left), Pyramid Peak at end of ridge, Grand Teton on horizon, GVR
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Flat Creek basin, National Elk Refuge in flat area, Grand Teton on horizon
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Gros Ventre Range, looking SE, Wind River Range on horizon
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Looking down the Wyoming Range from the GVR, Salt River Range on horizon right
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Looking south between two flanks of the northern Wyoming Range
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Flight: ID: Caribou Mountain

Caribou Mountain is not to be confused with the fact that it is part of the Caribou Mountain Range. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I took notice of its existence on final approach on an Airbus A320 coming into Jackson Hole, using the mountain as a starting point to sort out the morass of mountainous terrain that surrounds this area. At shy of 10,000 feet elevation, still partially covered in snow, and standing alone, the mountain is anomalous. Being a whopping 20-minute flight from the airfield, I figured I should head over and check it out.

Interestingly, there are no Caribou in this range anymore. They used to live here a long time ago and all fled to Canada. Maybe they are on to something….

All photos taken in the Caribou Mountain Range

Big Elk Mountain (so much for getting started on the “Caribou” theme)
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Caribou Mountains, Palisade Reservoir, Snake River Range on other side of reservoir
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Caribou Mountains, looking north
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Caribou Mountain, looking west
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Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge (just west of Caribou Mountain)
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Western side of Caribou Mountain
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Caribou Mountain Foothills (yellow tinge on grass comes from wild Alpine Sunflowers)
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Bald Mountain, Big Elk Mountain in background
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Flight: WY, MT, ID: Yellowstone!

It has been two months since moving here, and I finally bothered to go to Yellowstone in the airplane. I realized the situation: fear. I flew through Yellowstone on a crappy photography day in July 2014, and I was shocked to find that the place may as well be an airplane graveyard. Emergency landing locations in some sections of the park are entirely non-existent (how does a nice pine tree sound for a landing spot?), the park is at very high altitude (flight level is 9,500’ to 10,000’ to be not far above the ground), wind seems to be howling nonstop, and the nearest airports are very far. It is a test of will, flight planning, and skill.

So I finally went. It takes an hour to get to the beginning of the park, passing by the Teton Range and Grand Teton National Park. You’ll just have to put up with some crappy, repetitive photos of the Tetons as you humor me on the way to Yellowstone.

The first surprise I had, and that most have, is that the bulk of the park is a plateau. Derived of a giant civilization-destroying super volcano caldera, the park is high up, though only mountainous around 3 sides of it. Inside the rim of mountains is a huge lake, more pine trees than one can fathom, pits of fire and brimstone, holes that belch sulfur (that I could smell from the airplane), tons of waterfalls, and many, many canyons. The thing about Yellowstone is that it is quite simply diverse. One cannot stereotype it; it just is a ton of different things. I did not hit Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful, the Absaroka Mountains, or a lot of other things. The whole affair took four hours battling getting the crap knocked out of me by wind, and that was enough for one day. Its not like I won’t go up there again.

I did get another new lens, this one going from 70 to 300mm, a super telephoto. As you can see, it is a must in this park, though the in flight lens swap is a new routine that I’ll have to get used to.

Fuel was West Yellowstone (arriving just before a passenger airliner), and the flight home was over Targhee Pass at the Montana/Idaho border, down the northeastern corner of Idaho, the Teton Valley in Idaho, over the Snake River Range and up Palisade Reservoir.

Teton Range, just south of Jackson Hole Ski Area
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Teton Range, just north of summit of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
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The other side of the Tetons….
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Emergency landing options were a 180 degree turn and a glide down a canyon to the valley….
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Other side of Tetons, with Jackson Lake visible
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Snake River, Yellowstone
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Much of Yellowstone looks like this
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Some hot spring
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Lake Yellowstone with Absarokas on horizon (civilization-destroying volcano lies beneath that gentle lake)
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Pelican Valley, Vermillion Springs
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Lower Yellowstone Falls (from directly overhead)
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Lower Yellowstone Falls
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Another hot spring (that it appears nobody hikes to)
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Belching pit of sulphur and brimstone (note to self: poor emergency landing location)
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Gibbon River becomes Madison River (Montana on the horizon)
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Madison Valley, Gallatin Range in background, Montana on horizon
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Targhee Pass, Montana (not in Yellowstone)
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Flight Among Giants

I came in yesterday on a commercial flight from Salt Lake City, passing over the Salt River Range on final approach into Jackson, WY. As we came out of thick overcast, there was a limited view of the ground and, as usual, I have to figure out where I am. Caribou Mountain, Idaho was the giveaway, a lone mountain over 10,000 feet hanging out about 20 miles west of the house. I thought to myself that I hadn’t yet been over there in the airplane, so I tried to make a go of it today.

The problem is, it has been wet, very wet. Most locations in the state of Wyoming have recorded their top 10 wettest May ever, with quite a number in the top 5. We received more rain than Seattle, Charlotte NC, or Buffalo NY averages during their wettest months. We basically got one third of our average annual rain in a month. So much for the “dry” West, while California withers away into the next Sahara desert.

As I went up, Caribou Mountain was bleakly overcast (the new normal around here), despite my calculations for a sliver of sun. Sigh. As I flew, I saw sun over the Salt River Range southeast of Thayne, WY, so like a moth to a light (or flame), I went over there. There were some towering cumulus clouds as a backdrop, with stratiform clouds at 8,500 feet along the edge of the range, with puffy white clouds interspersed around mountain peaks exceeding 10,000 feet in elevation. I was able to venture to the east side of the severe part of the Salt River Range making my way through the clouds and granite peaks, and it was truly a surprise – breathtaking scenery just 20 miles from the house.  To add sizable puffy white clouds was an experience that usually is amazing without the terrain. Adding the two is hard to put into words. It truly was a flight amongst giants, those of land and sky.

Caribou Range – A bit bleak without the sun
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Ascending the Salt River Range
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Still Ascending
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Now we’re getting somewhere….
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Amongst Giants……
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East side of Salt River Range, looking south
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Salt River Range, Looking North
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Crossing the spine of the Salt River Range, looking south (Wyoming Range in left horizon)
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Flights: Rainbows & Sunsets

This post is a collection of sunsets and rainbows taken from the airplane in the past 5 weeks or so. For those that don’t know, I have a bit of a sunset fetish, stopping my day to do the sun druid thing, staring at the ball of light going down over the horizon. It’s a painting in the sky on a daily basis where no two are the same.

There are a lot of technicalities around sunsets. If you take the time to watch them for a while, it will become evident that they can be predictable to some degree. Its all about light quantity, tone, and reflection. About half the time I can call in advance if the sunset is going to be explosive or dull.

That leads to a problem when it comes to aviation. By the time I make the call, it has historically taken too long to get the airport. No pictures for me! With the airplane off the doorstep, there have been many, many mad scrambles to go up before the sun goes down and try to capture the light.

A secondary problem is that I cannot fly past sunset due to lack of lights. Hence, the blazing ball of nuclear light has to be above the horizon, making it hard to point the camera right at it without bleaching it out. I then focus on flying up to 10,000 feet and capturing pre-sunset evening light bathing on snow clad peaks. In effect, I am photographing in the opposite direction of the sunset, and before it happens, a new challenge. So far I am pleased with the results. If you’re observant, you can see the snow line receding as summer approaches.

The rainbows speak for themselves. Chasing rainbows is about as annoying as a fickle mistress, glorious displays of color showing up and disappearing by the time I take off. I had to outsmart these things so I could capture them.

Swan Valley, ID & Snake River Range

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Ferry Peak
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Swan Valley, ID
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Alpine Airpark, WY
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Greys River Road, Salt River Range, WY
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Salt River Range (Left), Star Valley, WY (Right)
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Alpine, WY & Palisade Reservoir
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Caribou Range, ID
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Palisade Reservoir & Caribou Range, ID
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Salt River Range, WY
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Northern End of Salt River Range, WY, Snake River Range in Background, Palisade Reservoir to the Left
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Salt River Range, WY
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Palisade Reservoir & Caribou Range, ID
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