Flying the Grand Canyon

Tips for flying over a national treasure

In June of 2021, our family flew a Piper Cherokee Six 1,300 miles from Louisville, Kentucky to Flagstaff, Arizona. The trip was amazing from the start to finish, but the highlight was a scenic flight over the Grand Canyon.

3000 feet over the canyon, looking out over the right wing. Canyon walls are layered with brown, red, and tan. Flat plateau in the distance.
Over the Tower of Ra, Grand Canyon National Park

Sightseeing tour flights and private aircraft often make the airspace over the Canyon very busy. To reduce collision risk and control noise pollution, the FAA designates the Canyon a Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA). Pilots must follow the rules and carefully plan their routes over the National Park.

I spent a few months researching this trip. With a little bit of planning, flying over the Grand Canyon is a breeze.

This article is a companion to 2700 Miles in a Cherokee Six, which covers the entire journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Flagstaff, Arizona.

Disclaimer: Obsolete Information

This article is by no means exhaustive and the information provided should be considered obsolete; but it’s a good place to start.

Pilots should read Subpart U – Special Flight Rules in the Vicinity of Grand Canyon National Park, AZ. The link provided is the current Code of Federal Regulations pertaining to the SFRA.

With every chart update, the FAA can change frequencies and procedures. Make sure to review up-to-date charts before flying into the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area.

Start With A $4.30 Paper Chart

I have embraced the (nearly) paperless cockpit. My airline moved all of its manuals and charts to the iPad and I love it. When I fly our Cherokee Six, my iPad Mini has everything I need. I hadn’t purchased a paper chart in years… until I started planning our Grand Canyon flight.

Buy the paper Grand Canyon VFR Aeronautical Chart. It’s printed on heavy-weight paper in a large scale and is loaded with critical information. You can’t beat spreading out the chart on the dining room table to get the big picture. Charts are valid for 56 days; be sure you have the current version before flying. Sporty’s Pilot Shop stocks current Grand Canyon charts.

Paper navigation chart of Grand Canyon spread out on a desk. terrain is golden, no-fly zones are shaded magenta. 4 corridors are seen between magenta shading.
Use the paper chart to get the big picture. Grab a highlighter and mark it up!

The front side of the chart shows the corridors and procedures for general aviation aircraft. The flip-side has commercial air tour operator routes. The ForeFlight app includes only the general aviation side. Studying both sides of the chart is helpful; it’s nice to know where other traffic will be.

Subscription Form

Download the Chart

The FAA publishes two digital versions of the Grand Canyon chart; a PDF, and geo-referenced TIF. Both files are large and cumbersome to view. I downloaded the PDF early in my research but its size makes it difficult to view on a laptop or iPad. The paper chart is far easier to use for planning. If you still want to give the digital chart a shot, a link is in the Resources section below.

Front and back of Grand Canyon navigation chart.
Both the paper and PDF/TIF chart include the general aviation and air tour operator side.

Four Corridors

There are four VFR corridors that transit the Canyon north and south. Each corridor provides a unique view of the park.

  • Tuckup Corridor
  • Fossil Canyon Corridor
  • Dragon Corridor
  • Zuni Point Corridor

It’s possible to fly the corridors visually with the published VFR Checkpoints. Not being familiar with the Canyon, I found it difficult to identify the visual checkpoints (I was also overwhelmed by scenery). Straying off a corridor into a magenta Flight Free Zone is an FAA violation. A far better way to navigate is to set up a route in ForeFlight and/or your aircraft’s GPS.

the 4 corridors are highlighted on navigation chart.
The four VFR Corridors in Grand Canyon National Park. Magenta areas are flight-free (no-fly) zones.

Setting Up the Route

For our flight, we flew northbound in the Zuni Point Corridor, then southbound through Dragon before returning to Flagstaff. A flight zig-zagging through all four corridors should take about an hour and a half in a single engine aircraft.

Chart close up with Fossil Canyon Corridor highlighted. start and end waypoints have latitude and longitude displayed
Fossil Canyon Corridor is defined by the VFR waypoints VPGCC and VPGCD.

Two VFR waypoints define each corridor. Waypoints have a 5 character ID that will be recognized by most flight planning software and GPS navigators. Coordinates are included if needed. It’s a breeze to set up a route in ForeFlight.

two screenshots of my route on the iPad ForeFlight navigation app. Full route from flagstaff to canyon and back. And closeup of loop going north on Zuni point and south on Dragon corridors
Our round-trip route from Flagstaff displayed on the ForeFlight app. Dragon and Zuni Point Corridors

Programming our flight in the GNS-530W took about 10 minutes. With the route in the navigator, I used the autopilot to fly the course while I enjoyed watching for traffic and scenery.

Point Imperial

Point Imperial is the highest overlook on the North Rim. It’s located just north of the Bright Angel Flight Free Zone. A three mile diameter circle around the overlook is a Critical Noise Sensitive Area; flight over this area is prohibited.

Caution…

Flying a direct route between the northern Zuni Point and Dragon fixes (VPGCI – VPGCG) clips the northern edge of the Point Imperial no-fly area. I altered my course slightly to stay clear of this airspace.

closeup of chart highlighting 3 mile diameter critical noise sensitive area around Point Imperial.
Do not fly within the Point Imperial Critical Noise Sensitive Area

Corridor Altitudes

close up of corridor altitude box on chart.

The key to separating air traffic over the Grand Canyon is altitude assignment. Air tour operators fly lower altitudes. General aviation aircraft fly above the air tours.

To further separate traffic, different altitudes are assigned for northbound and southbound traffic.

Northbound general aviation corridor altitudes are 11,500′ or 13,500′; southbound altitudes are 10,500′ or 12,500′ [as of June, 2021 – check a current chart for changes].

Altitude Caution

Flying a normally aspirated (non-turbocharged) aircraft? Density altitudes can be high over the canyon in the summer. A pressure altitude of 12,500 feet can easily exceed a density altitude of 16,000 feet. Some general aviation aircraft simply won’t climb that high at any weight. Be sure you know your aircraft’s capabilities.

Oxygen Caution

Although it’s legal to fly without supplemental oxygen at 12,500 feet pressure altitude, expect to see signs of hypoxia.

A fingertip pulse oximeter is useful for monitoring oxygen levels of pilot and passengers. We also carried disposable oxygen canisters.

video clip: looking out our front windshield. Propellor spins as we fly over the edge of the canyon.
Northbound Zuni Point Corridor – crossing over edge of the South Rim

Communication

The image below shows the three VHF frequency regions of the SFRA as published on the 17 June 2021 Grand Canyon chart. Check a current chart for updated boundaries and frequencies.

Grand Canyon chart highlighted with VHF frequency zones.
VHF Frequency boundaries over the park

Don’t confuse frequency boundary lines with isogonic lines (magnetic variation); the symbols are similar. I was fooled the first time I looked for the frequency boundaries.

Isogonic Lines and Frequency boundary lines are both indicated by a dashed line making them confusing.
VHF Frequency boundaries look similar to isogonic lines.

Communication in the canyon is straight forward. Monitor the frequency for your sector and report your position and altitude in the corridors. Example:

  • “Piper 123 entering Zuni Point Corridor, northbound at eleven point five.”
  • “Cessna 321 abeam Gunther’s Castle, Zuni Point Corridor, northbound at eleven point five.”
  • “Piper 123 exiting Dragon Corridor southbound at ten point five.”

It’s similar to flying at an uncontrolled airfield. Report your position and monitor to keep track of other aircraft.

view out left cockpit window over left wing. Over the canyon with flat, green plateau in the distance.
Northbound on Zuni Point Corridor over Gunther’s Castle

Grand Canyon Airport Class D

Keep an eye on the Grand Canyon airport (KGCN). The tower and Class D airspace operate in the daytime. Transiting the Class D requires a call the tower to say hello. Although the Class D only extends up to 2500 AGL, there is a parachute jump area within the Class D that extends up to 17,500 MSL. Don’t fly over the GCN airspace without monitoring tower. Colliding with a skydiver will ruin your vacation.

chart showing location of Grand Canyon airport, airspace around the airport and the parachute jump area shown as a yellow dashed circle around the airport.
Grand Canyon Airport (GCN) is surrounded by Class D airspace and a PJA

Communication Strategy For an Emergency

While monitoring and transmitting on the proper sector frequency, I kept the Grand Canyon tower frequency on standby. If needed, I could quickly switch to tower for help.

Fly In The Morning

Wake up early (I know it’s vacation, but it’s worth it). We took off from Flagstaff at 6:25 and were over the Canyon by 6:55.

Grand Canyon peak season begins in early June. I was surprised that we were the only aircraft over the canyon when we arrived. It was amazing. I suspect most general aviation folks aren’t interested in a 5 a.m. wakeup call. Commercial air tour operators start flying at 9:00.

Flying the canyon early provides cool, smooth air. Good for aircraft performance and a better experience for passengers. If you are early enough to catch the golden hour (right after sunrise) your photos will be stunning.

After our early morning flight, we hit the Galaxy Diner in Flagstaff for a dynamite brunch.

Highlights of our 1.5 hour flight to the Grand Canyon (six minutes)

While You’re In the Area…

The Grand Canyon is beautiful by air, but be sure to experience it from the ground. Take a hike along the South Rim, enjoy a historic restaurant, and shop for cool souvenirs. Grand Canyon Village is accessible by car, but backups of two hours are not uncommon during peak season. There’s a better way…

View standing on south rim looking north at the canyon. Canyon is a about a mile deep. walls are stripes of red, orange, yellow, brown layered sedimentary rock.
Grand Canyon from Rim Trail across from Verkamp’s Visitor Center

Take the Train

The Grand Canyon Railway is a painless way to reach the South Rim. Several classes of service are available for the round-trip (they’re all fun). All coaches include live entertainment and access to drinks, snacks, and restrooms. Best of all, no lines to enter the park. Round trips depart daily from Williams, AZ.

video clip looking out the window of our moving train. A cowboy rides along side the train shooting his gun in the air.
Your train might be boarded by “robbers” telling corny jokes and looking for tips.

Resources

Read More

Our flight over the Grand Canyon was a small part of our trip to Arizona. Read about the entire journey: 2700 Miles in a Cherokee Six.

Map of United States showing our route from Louisville Kentucky to Arizona.
2700 Miles in a Cherokee Six

2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Captain Ken, for yet another brilliant post. We took the tour by commercial aircraft a few years ago, so it’s fascinating to see what navigation procedures were being followed. Thanks also for the beautiful video – yes, the very early start certainly paid off for you in terms of colours. Our flight was early afternoon (we were staying in Las Vegas) so the contrast was much less by then.

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