There are days on which it’s inadvisable to fly into the Sierra Nevada. But for anyone still wishing to visit Yosemite National Park, or travel anywhere in the vicinity, the Mariposa-Yosemite Airport is a good alternative. Built during the Second World War as Mariposa Air Force Auxiliary Field, it’s a pleasant strip lying at an altitude of just 2,252 ft. at the foot of the Sierra, surrounded by gentle hills. You can hire a car here (enterprise) to drive further up into the mountains.
The Airport Bar & Grill is only a short distance away to the west on Highway 49. This Western-style restaurant serves simple cuisine at fair prices.
Around 8 miles from Mariposa-Yosemite Airport, there’s a cozy B&B called the Mariposa Farmhouse. Guests are picked up from the airport free of charge.
Lee Vining Airport lies on the shore of Mono Lake, to the east of the Sierra Nevada. A saline soda lake, Mono Lake is one of the most interesting natural phenomena in California. Mono Lake is believed to have formed at least 760,000 years ago, and the lack of an outlet has caused high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake over the course of the millennia. This has resulted in an extremely unusual ecosystem in which only a few species of animals and plants are able to survive. One of the few animals to thrive, the brine shrimp, is a staple food for the migratory birds. These shrimps feed on single-celled planktonic algae. In the early spring, when winter runoff brings nutrients to the surface layer of water, these algae reproduce so rapidly that the water of the lake turns as green as pea soup.
Its shoreline is dotted with bizarre limestone formations called tufa towers. These were exposed when a 350 miles long aqueduct was connected up to the lake in the 1940s to meet the growing water needs of Los Angeles. This has caused such serious ecological problems that efforts to slowly raise the water level again have been ongoing since the 1980s.
There are several ways you can approach Lee Vining from the west, but the most spectacular route is definitely down the Yosemite Valley and across Tioga Pass (almost 10,000 ft. high). Every pilot is aware of the careful attention that must be paid to the route and weather for such a flight. Your reward, however, will be one of the most thrilling aeronautical experiences to be encountered in the whole of North America.
Anyone who wants to know what a mining town looked like during the California Gold Rush, and how the “forty-niners” prospected for gold there, should definitely pay Columbia Airport a visit. In the 1850s, Columbia was regarded as the most productive gold-mining town in the West. Although the boom quickly fizzled out after 1858, Columbia was able to avoid the fate of other mining communities and never became a ghost town. There are a number of carefully restored historic buildings dating back to this period. Today, you can stroll along the main street and admire old-style shops and tradesmen’s premises while a stagecoach rumbles past you. You can even try to pan for gold yourself and learn how difficult it was to wash the precious metal out of lumps of solid clay. Maybe you’ll find enough gold to pay for your aviation fuel!
There’s a small footpath leading from the airport into town, and it takes about 10 minutes to walk. If you catch a severe dose of “gold fever”, there are several places in town where you can stay overnight.
Shelter Cove Airport is a jewel among the airports of Northern California. The airfield is perched on a small promontory that juts out into the Pacific, and both ends of the runway are only a few feet from the water’s edge. The best way to approach the airport from the south is to fly along the coast. Depending where you start, try not to miss the Buddhist temple complex, with splendid buildings and golden domes, situated about 2 miles inland from the sea, almost exactly on a level with Healdsburg (KHES). It’s marked on the charts simply as “temple”, but this hardly does justice to this huge set of buildings.
In Shelter Cove, you land practically in the middle of a 9-hole golf course. The old Cape Mendocino lighthouse, dating back to 1867, is only a few minutes’ walk away. The whole area is a haven of solitude and tranquility. Shelter Cove owes its relative isolation to the steep cliffs that caused the constructors of Highway US1 to leave out this section of the coast. To this day, it remains only accessible by means of an extremely narrow, winding mountain road, by boat, or by air.
If you’d like to spend more time enjoying the peace and rugged charm of Shelter Cove, there are two places to stay overnight situated right next to the airport, Ocean Front Inn and Tides Inn.
Although it’s hard to believe, there really is a general aviation airport right in the center of Los Angeles, in Santa Monica to be exact. Santa Monica Municipal Airport is located just 5 miles north of Los Angeles International (KLAX). How long Santa Monica airport will continue to be there is pretty hard to predict though. Due to the premium location, the land it stands on is of immense value to real estate investors as well as pilots. This uncertainty about its continued existence is one more reason to fly there as long as you are still able to. It’s only a short trip from the airport to downtown Santa Monica or Venice Beach.
Due to the complicated airspace structure, it’s always advisable to obtain flight following for landing at Santa Monica. Pilots approaching from the south can take the Mini Route directly across the threshold of LAX’s runway 25. For detailed information about the VFR routes through LAX’s airspace, please consult the Los Angeles TAC. Make sure you also comply with the noise abatement regulations governing take-offs. You will need to pay a landing fee to use this airport.
This fee is payable in the administration office in the terminal building. Here you will also find one of the best airport restaurants in California, the Typhoon, serving mostly Asian cuisine. If you’re planning to eat there on the weekend it’s best to reserve a table beforehand. On the opposite side of the road from the terminal building, there’s a second restaurant called the Spitfire Grill. This is a great place to have breakfast. Right next door to this restaurant is the Museum of Flying, a place that’s really worth a visit.
Kern Valley is a real gem of an airstrip, located at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada around 37 nm north-east of Bakersfield. It’s an ideal starting point for budding backcountry pilots. Nestling between the mountains, the strip lies next to a lake and has its own campsite immediately adjacent to the runway. What more could a pilot ask for? And you won’t go hungry either! A small rustic cafe next to the airport serves delicious burgers in a cozy backwoods atmosphere. It’s best to approach the airport from the south, simply following the Kern River right to where it joins Lake Isabella. You will then be able to see the airstrip directly on the shore of the lake.
The hire car available at the airport has the same rustic charm as the cafe building. It’s probably about 25 years old, but still well capable of taking you anywhere you want in the vicinity. 3 miles north of the strip is Kernville, a small Western township with several restaurants and great opportunities for kayaking on the Kern River. So why not enjoy a different type of trip with your “crew”!
One thing to note: The last time I visited Kern Valley, the Avgas station wasn’t operational, but there were plans to re-open it in the immediate future. However, you might want to check on this beforehand.