Arizona is marked by incredibly rugged terrain, rustic beauty and insanely brilliant landscape. In fact, there are three National Parks in Arizona: The Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and Saguaro. Arizona typifies the Old West seen in movies over the last 75 years. Fortunately, that rustic Old West look and feel is still very much alive today throughout the state. The remote location and vast expanse of the Grand Canyon warrants five general aviation airports within sight of the rim and several others close by. This is an incredible opportunity for pilots. This month, the focus is on Marble Canyon (L41) in the Canyon’s northeastern corner.
Marble Canyon is an incredibly unique location, smack dab in the Grand Canyon. While the majority of the Grand Canyon is off-limits to lower-level flight without a tour operator permit, approach and departure from the Canyon’s few airports is exempted from the Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA). The airport is strategically located within walking distance of the Navajo Bridge in the Glen Canyon National Monument and just down river from Lees Ferry.
Marble Canyon was placed on the map back in the 1870’s. Settlers from Utah began to cross into Arizona and found the Colorado River nearly impassable. The Glen Canyon area provided relatively easy access by wagon and a ferry service opened in 1873 that would shuttle settlers across the river on what became Lee’s Ferry. In the 1920’s, the ferry began to shuttle cars across the river, and while this worked well for several years, it became inefficient as the traffic increased. In 1927, construction of what is now known as Navajo Bridge was begun. Ironically, the ferry was used to transport bridge building materials across the 800 foot wide stretch of the Colorado River. Unfortunately, the ferry sank on one such trip and killed three people in the process. The ferry service was discontinued immediately. With the bridge under construction, and the ferry service canceled, the only remaining option was an 800-mile trip around the Grand Canyon to get to the other side. In 1929, the bridge was opened as the highest steel arch bridge in the world and was a welcomed with a festive celebration.
As vehicles became larger and the bridge aged over the following 60+ years, planning for a larger bridge began. In 1993, construction started on a new and wider bridge only feet away from the existing bridge with nearly the same style. In 1995, the new bridge opened and is now the primary means of crossing the Colorado River on AZ 89a. The original bridge is still open, but only to pedestrian traffic. These bridges offer breathtaking views of the river 500 feet below with sheer cliffs opposing each bank.
While the Navajo Bridge alone is worth the visit, the Marble Canyon Lodge is a great hub for activities and food. It doubles as a resting point on AZ 89a with a gas station, trading post, hotel and restaurant. The lodge boasts efficiency-style apartments or motel-style rooms with a rustic flair. Though the airstrip records date prior to 1959, the history of the airstrip is not clear.
Local river rafting and kayaking outfits service the lodge and most include free shuttle service to the river. Multiple spectacular hiking trails are nearby for the able-bodied. While the Lodge makes for a great breakfast trip, plan to stay at least the full day, and if time allows, stay overnight to get the full experience and take in the beauty of the Grand Canyon through the local tours and excursions. Arrange for a rafting trip.
Navigating to L41 is straightforward, though there are some airspace considerations. It lies approximately 190NM North of Phoenix. The Sunny MOA lies between Flagstaff and Marble Canyon, so it is imperative to remain vigilant for low-level military flights. Additionally, the southeastern boundary of the Grand Canyon SFRA comes within 3 1/2 miles of the Sunny MOA, leaving a relatively narrow corridor to transit North. Again, vigilance for traffic is vital.
Though the SFRA generally prohibits operations within 3000’ AGL, exceptions are made for takeoffs and landings to the Canyon airports. Specifically noted on the Grand Canyon VFR Aeronautical Chart, “Landings/Take-off operations below 3000’ above airport elevation within 3NM of the airport are authorized by the 14 CFR section 93”. L41 is included.
Arriving from the South, the terrain gently slopes upwards to about 6700’ MSL before abruptly dropping near vertically to form the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. L41 sits at 3600’ MSL, and because of its location within the SFRA and the above-stated 3NM rule for altitude, the descent will be brisk. Because of the canyon wall, there may be significant updrafts or downdrafts in the vicinity of the wall. Runway 3/21 is on a 1.3° gradient with the approach end of Runway 21 being the high point. The runway is 3715’ x 35’ and has been recently resurfaced. While the pavement is in good condition, the underlying surface is bumpy. Approaches are typically made on Runway 03 due to the upslope. The terrain before and after the runway is not suitable for over or underruns, so pilots should become proficient in go-around procedures. Also, the elevation of the airport combined with Arizona summers leads to significant density altitude considerations.
Once on the field, taxi to the far end of Runway 3 for tie downs. There is room for several aircraft both on the ramp, or pushed back onto the surrounding dirt. Keep in mind, this area is used as a turnaround for charter and tour aircraft, so push back as far as possible. There is no FBO and no fuel available on the field. Page (PGA) is only 13NM Northeast and has fuel available. A short walk across the street brings you to the Marble Canyon Lodge for food and supplies. There are $5 and $10 landing/tie-down fees for singles and twins, respectively. $5 allows for a helicopter. Some pilots report the fee is waived with a food purchase, but others report having paid the fee.
After breakfast or tours are complete, departure is typically down Runway 21. This allows for a downhill departure. Of course, best judgement is needed for prevalent winds and traffic. Keep in mind, the SFRA altitude restrictions on departure. Depending on aircraft performance, a gentle climbing spiral over the airport may be necessary to clear the canyon walls without exceeding the 3NM distance from the airport. Again, use best judgement.
After departure, there are multiple nearby sights best seen from the air. The Vermillion Cliffs, the Goosenecks and Monument Valley are a few. If time, weather and fuel permit, these should not be missed. Marble Canyon should be on every Arizona pilot’s bucket list. Get out and fly!