Having an airplane truly transforms our outlook on life. The ability to travel to remote and exciting places with ease is an awesome privilege. As the summer flying season approaches, I’ve already started creating a bucket list of places to visit for 2023.
In my 10 years as a pilot, I’ve learned that you’ll never discover some destinations unless you know somebody. Meet your internet aviation friends! Go to new places! Travel to a new state and have that friend show you around. It’s an amazing world out there. I don’t know about you, but I get a kick out of being somewhere I’ve never been before. I’ve gathered some of the awesome places I’ve been to throughout the years, just in time to get excited for the summer flying season! I tried to steer away from the more popular destinations and narrowed in on some of the lesser known. If any of these sound like your cup of avgas, be sure to check them out and put them on your list.
Hatteras, North Carolina—Billy Mitchell (KHSE)
One fine summer day in 2013, when I was 17, I vividly remember flying my C-150 down the coast of the Outer Banks to KHSE. I parked the airplane on the ramp, which sits next to the beach, walked a grueling 400 feet to the ocean and jumped in (with a safety buddy, of course). To this day it is one of the coolest and most freedom-filled days I can recall, although I had to spend a couple hours vacuuming sand from the carpet when we got back. Worth it!
The best part about KHSE is the remoteness; you’ll find fewer tourists here than other parts of the Outer Banks. Watch out for cacti as you walk to the beach! There are restaurants within walking distance and a few campgrounds nearby. If you don’t plan on staying, make sure you depart before 30 minutes after sunset, as night operations are prohibited. If you do decide to stay, however, the stars on the Outer Banks can be unbelievably bright! If you are hopping around the Outer Banks, make sure you also visit Ocracoke (W95), First Flight (KFFA) and Manteo (KMQI) for rich history and a wonderful beachy time.
Bar Harbor, Maine—Hancock County (KBHB)
Maine is a pilot’s paradise and the mini-Alaska of the Lower 48. My love for Maine is proven by the four times I have gone there, and I keep finding reasons to go back. Even if you don’t have time to explore the whole state, Bar Harbor and nearby Acadia National Park are absolute must-sees. Rocky islands, striking blue waters and beautiful rolling hills make up the area. Before you land at KBHB, take some time to fly around the park to aerial sightsee, being mindful of altitude over park boundaries and the wildlife refuge. Grab a rental car and explore Acadia to your heart’s content. There are lots of hiking trails. I recommend visiting Thunder Hole. If you are wondering why it’s called that—well—you’ll certainly find out when you see it. If you’re not from Maine, and even if you are, be sure to grab a Moxie and some fresh lobster!
Tangier, Virginia—Tangier Island (KTGI)
My favorite getaways tend to be the ones off the tourist path, and Tangier offers just that. While you will find that ice cream, golf cart rentals and seafood restaurants are available, the ambiance of the town is that of a no-frills, hardworking coastal fishing community. The only way to get to Tangier is by boat or plane. The temptation to file a flight plan is great, due to the extended water crossing, but be aware that flight service will be difficult to reach in the air once over Tangier, and there is little to no cell reception on the ground. Plan on approaching a local or going to a restaurant to call flight service and close your flight plan—or just carry a personal locator beacon instead of filing. Landing on the 2400-foot runway feels much like I imagine landing on a carrier would. Beware for gusty winds. I took my aunt there in 2018 for a little bit of a girls’ getaway. Although it was March, we loved the cold and enjoyed our time there. Golf carts are available for rent to explore the island. It truly is a great getaway, with big beaches everywhere and gorgeous channels and canals.
Edenton, North Carolina—Northeastern Regional (KEDE)
OK, I’m biased on this one. Edenton is where I learned to fly! Edenton is a historic town, established in 1712 with loads of historic sights and places to visit. The town itself is quaint, with small country shops and stores—to me it feels like the fictitious Mayberry. Nestled on the Albemarle Sound, the scenery is breathtaking, the architecture is fantastic and it’s a wonderful getaway with more bed and breakfasts than you can shake a stick at. While the town is small and quaint, there’s no lack of high-end restaurants as well. You’ll be welcomed by the long, smooth 6000-foot runway and by all the locals thereafter.
Millbrook, New York—Sky Acres (44N)
Sky Acres airport is aptly named. In my mind, it is the Catalina Airport of New York—an “airport in the sky.” When I passed through in 2015, I was unaware that rural New York was a thing, but I can assure you that it is, and it is positively beautiful. The airport sits atop a hill, but once you land, you must taxi up yet another hill to get to the ramp! It’s a gorgeous stop. There was an operational restaurant when I passed through as well.
Sylva, North Carolina—Jackson County (24A)
The “Sky Acres” of North Carolina! I Flew to Jackson County in October 2015 after a recommendation from a friend. I recommend visiting pretty much any airport in the Appalachian Mountains during fall, as it is positively beautiful and there is no shortage of activities to do and things to see, including zip lines, breweries, the Smoky Mountain Railroad and the Biltmore estate—or just do what I did and hike a little trail to relax. Next time, I’d love to stop and explore the nearby town of Sylva, which started life as a post office in 1880 and was later founded in 1889.
Batavia, Ohio—Clermont County (I69)
Clermont County Airport is home of the famous Sporty’s Pilot Shop. Everyone should have a photo of their plane next to the iconic building. Compared to the massive online store, you’ll find the storefront to be modest, but rest assured they can get you anything from the warehouse! It’s a great place to try out new tech and headsets or build a custom RAM iPad mount. On your way to or from, stop at the Grimes airport (I74) for some good food and excellent pie.
Natchitoches, Louisiana—Natchitoches Regional (KIER)
While it looks like “Na-chit-oches,” the locals all know it’s pronounced “Nack-a-dish.” If you are looking to experience rich bayou culture, you’ll find it in historic downtown Natchitoches. You may also find a souvenir ’gator head you just can’t live without while perusing through Kaffie-Frederick, the oldest general store in Louisiana (established in 1863). Many will suggest trying a meat pie, and while I don’t know about that, I can strongly suggest finding a good shop for coffee and beignets. Stroll through downtown and enjoy the rich and slightly eccentric culture! It’s a great time. My friend and I flew in from Ruston and grabbed a rental car for the day. What a blast it was!
Rapid City, South Dakota—Rapid City Regional (KRAP)
Who doesn’t want the chance to say their flight went straight to KRAP? There are really two ways to plan a getaway to the area; one is via KRAP if you fancy a bigger airport and spending the night in the glamorous yet affordable Hotel Alex Johnson, complete with spectacular views from the 11-story rooftop bar. Or keep it slightly more backcountry and fly into Custer County (KCUT). Either way, the local attractions include Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park—which also has its own landing strip, 3V0. Nearby to the east, you can also explore Badlands National Park. I could seriously spend a week here.
Copalis, Washington—Copalis State Airport (S16)
Copalis State is a bit of a different airport for sure. The runway comes and goes with the tide. Yes, you can make your ultimate fantasy of landing on a beach come true! My recommendations are as follows: 1) Pack a lunch. 2) Fly in with a buddy. 3) Study the tide tables when planning your trip! 4) Be proficient at short- and soft-field combination landings. Make sure you overfly Copalis as beachgoers may leave behind FOD, plus much driftwood will appear naturally.
Astoria, Oregon—Astoria Regional (KAST)
If you’re looking for a kooky seaside adventure on the West Coast, you can find it at Astoria. In 2019, during a U.S. Coast Guard patrol, our cutter broke down, giving me an opportunity to explore the town for nearly two weeks. I still didn’t get around to seeing it all! I found Astoria to be a very eccentric but strikingly beautiful town—especially the Riverwalk. Even the old buildings had beautiful character in what is truly a photographer’s paradise. It is also home to several museums and features a great hike to the Astoria Column, an observation tower. I can’t wait to fly back in someday!
Eastsound, Washington—Orcas Island (KORS)
You could land at any airport in the San Juan Islands and make an adventure of it, with Friday Harbor (KFHR) arguably being the most famous. At Lopez (S31), for example, you’ll find a lovely campsite complete with firewood, grill and running water. While I have not had the fun of utilizing the site at Lopez, I spent a wonderful evening at Orcas Island in August 2020 with several other airplane campers. My Montague folding bike was the icing on the cake. It is such an amazingly simple and beautiful getaway, you have to give it a try!
Leadville, Colorado—Lake County (KLXV)
I previously wrote an article (“Wandering With Woodstock,” April 2022) about flying Woodstock, the GlaStar, into Salida and Buena Vista, hinting at how I was inching up the valley closer to Leadville. In January 2022, my fiancé Eric and I finally made it all the way to Leadville, the highest-elevation public-use airport in North America. I consider flying into KLXV (and back out) to be a distinguished accomplishment and so does the airport, since the FBO will print off a certificate you can showcase on your kitchen refrigerator. Seriously though, Leadville density altitude is no joke and should require careful planning. We flew in on a bluebird calm 35° F January day and while the actual elevation is 9934 feet, the density altitude was nearly 11,000. The GlaStar, as expected, performed beautifully. There is a courtesy car (van) available and many places to visit in town. We went to the Silver Llama for coffee and had an irresistible “Llama Mocha.” The airport itself sits in a wide valley, and density altitude truly is the greatest enemy. Departing to the south offers an added layer of safety with downsloping terrain.
The airports I mention here are a small sampling of the places I have flown. I take excitement in knowing that there are many more undiscovered gems remaining to be found. I especially want to visit the Idaho backcountry, Montana and Yellowstone, as well as the western reaches of Colorado and Arizona, now that I live in Denver. Take a look at the map to see all the places I have landed an airplane. I hope it gives you ideas of the places you can go!