Craters - Check Weather
UPDATE!! ALL VEHICLES CARRYING PILOTS MUST HAVE A SHOVEL ON BOARD OR WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE!! PLEASE REPAIR YOUR OWN SPIN OUTS!!
The Merriam Flight park consists of two cinder cones on the edge of the Navajo indian reservation and the Little Colorado River Valley or LCR. Merriam and Sheba Crater. These two mountains provide treeless, 360 degree flight possibilities that range from the morning and evening sled ride to long XC's for Paraglider pilots.
From Flagstaff you'll head east on I-40 to the Winona exit 211. After a couple miles you'll come to your first paved road on your right called Leupp Rd. You will turn here. At this point Leupp Rd runs NE. After about 1/2 mile you'll see a restaurant bar called the 2 Bar 3. This is a common meeting point for pilots before heading out to the hill and a great place to wait out the often violent midday conditions. From the 2 Bar 3 you continue out Leupp rd. towards the Navajo reservation. Pay attention to the speed limit, 35 at first then 45 as you pass through a commercial zone filled with a couple wrecking yards a truss manufacturing facility and a few propane distribution tanks. Once past this point the speed limit gets up to a maximum cruising speed of 50 m.p.h.. Do your best to abide by these limits as you probably have some sort of sticker on your vehicle or a glider on top that tells the locals who and what your all about. Keep in mind that we aren't loved and respected by everyone. The miles will pass by and you'll soon be looking at both of the hills. Merriam will be on your left and Sheba will seem to be in the middle of the road. At mile marker 440 you should start paying attention.
You will want to turn soon to get to Sheba's Main LZ .7 to .8 Miles down the road you'll need to turn right, If you get to mile post 441 you have gone to far. Turn right onto the washboards or dirt road. After a few hundred feet you'll come to the main LZ which is basically a bald spot south of the hill with a wind sock in the middle. From here you have a couple options. After getting in a FOUR WHEEL DRIVE VEHICLE you can exploit the benches on the south side or head up to the top. The road up to the benches goes right up between them and is easy to locate as it runs to the NE from the LZ. To get to the top you'll want to head to the east to the road that goes up the southeast side of the hill. Do not be deceived by what looks like a road that goes up the west side as it is impassable.
When driving up any of the hills it is best to be in 4 LOW. When driving down the hills it is best to be in 4 LOW and in a low gear to avoid ruining your breaks. Please stay on the roads at all times to inhibit erosion and keep from trampling vegetation. Park on the downwind side of the hill to allow for maximum space.
When flying from Sheba you have the option of launching in any direction that the wind is blowing from, a rare trait that not all sites have. Yet be careful not to land just anywhere. If it looks like it is someones property it is someone's property. Flights off the east to west can use almost any area south of the hill to land. Please land by a road and if you don't please walk to a road to be picked up. If you're an instructor and your student doesn't make it to a road please DO NOT DRIVE TO THEM IF THEY DIDN'T MAKE IT TO A ROAD. Walk out to them and help them back to the truck.
When launching from the east to Northwest you can use virtually any where to the north to land. The preferred LZ is the Mail boxes. The mail boxes are just what they sound like and are easy to get to from Leupp Rd. Drive down Sheba the way you came. Get on Leupp Rd and go right. You'll pass mile maker 441 and 442, just passed 442 you'll take your next right and you'll see, mail boxes.
Do not attempt to use what looks like a road going up the north side it is not passable.
Getting to Merriam
Now that you know how to get to the Mail boxes you know how to get to Merriam. Instead of turning right to go to the mailboxes you'll turn left just a tad sooner and you're on your way to Merriam.
Turn left and cross the cattle guard on the edge of the highway. Continue to the north driving towards the hill and crossing over all other roads and passing over a rocky section. You will cross a second cattle guard and continue on the same road you have been on. Roughly 1/4 mile later you'll see another bald area on your right that usually has a wind sock in it. On your left is a 2 track road that heads toward the hill. STAY OFF OF THIS ROAD! The land owner does not want us there. Continue to the north until you see a fence and another cattle guard. You'll go left before crossing and follow the fence line up the hill to the west. By the time you reach the top of the fence line you should clearly see the road up to the top. At the base of the steep part of the road is a great LZ for Paragliders and a great meeting place. If you are going to continue up the hill please put your vehicle in 4 Low if it isn't already. If you would like to go to the north bench you can turn around and veer left and cruise around to the north. You'll see a concrete monument with a windsock this is the North Bench.
Flying From Merriam
East to Northwest winds will be easily flown from Merriam and landing for paragliders is pretty easy as you can land by any road on the north side of the hill. landing on the east side of the hill is not allowed until a situation with the current land owner is resolved. The bottom of the steeps, the north bench and below the north bench are the preferred LZ's. Hanglider pilots will most likely want to use the area below the north bench.
Stay on the roads at all costs. The soft cinders can cut a ditch and erode quite quickly.
The vegetation also has a hard time coming back once trampled.
Avoid pissing off the local residents. They have chosen to live far from town because they like to be left alone, so leave them alone and be curtious when you come in contact with them. Not every one thinks our sports are as cool as we would like to think they are.
The simplicity of the round hills and easy access makes for some great options in most any weather situation. Yet it is easy to overlook some more complex scenarios that may exist.
First and foremost is the LCR inversion.
The top of Sheba Crater is the same elevation as the 2 Bar 3, 6400 ft. the resturant/bar you passed on your way to the hill. The top of Merriam is 6800 ft. close to the average elevation of Flagstaff. If you continued out Leupp Rd you would come to the town of Leupp which is a historic crossing point of the little Colorado River which lies at 4700 ft. From this point the road begins to climb up to the mesa's and mountains of the Hopi and Navajo reservations making for a 2300 ft. deep valley that gets deeper as it nears the Grand Canyon. Most nights this valley is filled with cool air and a thick inversion forms. The inversion usually builds up beyond the top of each hill each night. To better understand what is going on the locals look at the Winslow Skew-T to get an idea of what is going on in the LCR. We still look at the winds aloft in Flagstaff but the Winslow data usually shows us the inversion a little more clearly.
If it is a standard high pressure day with light winds aloft you'll find that the day will start out L&V and as the day progresses become more northerly, even if there are light winds aloft from another direction.
If there are strong winds aloft and you get to the hill to find light winds on the surface plan on calling it quits before the inversion breaks. When you start to see a light base flow become still and conditions become switchy the locals have learned this is a warning shot over the bow and you should go home to the wife even though it is your one day to fly.
Ground clearance mid-day.
For the aspiring p-3 or the hungry p-4 this has seemed to hurt more people at the Craters than any other issue I can recall. When thermalling mid-day remember you are not ridge soaring and the closer to the hill you are the smaller the thermals are as you are flying into the base of them. The best pilots at the Craters watch the cycle's cafefully, launch at the end of a lull and fly into the top of the thermals that have traveled up the valley and will be releasing from the top of the hill. They often pass up thermals near launch to get out away from the hill and into a more usable peace of lift. All too often we have had to call the rescue helicopter for the pilot that was scratching near the hill and left their own crater in the Craters.