Merriam Crater is a northern Arizona site and has launches that provide great flying for new P2 pilots to experienced thermal/XC pilots and has a long history of pilots from all over the world flying here. It is mandatory to get with local pilots prior to arriving due to the unique, highly challenging to forecast and extreme high desert conditions here! It has been an official flight park since 1991 and serves as a memorial to the late paragliding instructor, Dixon White. Merriam Crater is not a USHPA/RRRG insured site, and sits on the edge of the Navajo Indian reservation and the Little Colorado River Valley (LCR). This dormant volcanic cinder cone provides treeless, 180-degree launch possibilities that range from the morning and evening sled ride to long XC's as well as glass off conditions at times for both hang glider and paraglider pilots.
All pilots must be current members of the Arizona Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (AZHPA). Membership info here.
All pilots must be current members of the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA) and have ratings listed below.
All pilots must have a current H2/P2 or higher USHPA rating while launching and flying. All P2 pilots flying after 9:30 AM and before 5:30 PM year round must be accompanied by a local P3 pilot familiar with the site.
All speed wing and mini wing pilots must have appropriate ratings and fly during morning and late afternoon hours. Due to the extreme thermal activity speed wings and mini wings are prohibited from flying during mid day conditions which start as early as 9:30 AM and as late as 5:30 PM.
For all pilots, on-site briefings from a local, qualified pilot are a requirement. This sponsor shall be a qualified pilot that has experience flying that individual site.
Visiting pilots can obtain a visiting pilot pass here and show the registration confirmation as proof.
"TUR" (turbulence) special skill endorsement is required.
Mini wings and speed wings may be flown here in certain conditions with an USHPA M1 or M2 Rating and pilots must contact firstname.lastname@example.org or the GroupMe app prior to get detailed site and conditions briefing from local M2 rated pilots.
Speed wings and mini wings are allowed and do fly at this flying site. All pilots please read the entire site briefing and information below regarding safe practices regarding speed wings and mini wings.
General Rules That Must Be Adhered To By All Pilots
Do not launch anywhere except for the designated launching areas. (See Images Below)
Do not land anywhere except for in the designated landing areas. (See Images Below)
There are nearby one-square-mile parcels of land which are privately owned and not part of the Merriam Flight Park (see image below). Please do not stray off of the main Merriam access road.
Drive slow, keep dust to a minimum.
Do not land in the old hang glider LZ on the east side of Merriam Crater.
4x4 vehicles only on all roads that lead to launch. High clearance vehicles are preferred.
Do not park vehicles directly behind/downwind of launching pilots.
All vehicles carrying pilots should have a shovel on board. Please repair your own spin outs and ruts.
Stay on the roads at all costs. The soft cinders can cut a ditch and erode quite quickly. Vegetation has a hard time coming back once trampled. If you are a visitor and have any questions about access road use or current conditions, ask a local pilot. Don't just "go for it."
Let's all work together to maintain a good relationship with land owners and keep Merriam Crater easily accessible.
Know Before You Go
Be aware of land ownership in the area. Directly south of Merriam Crater is a private cinder mining operation. Three miles to the east is the border of the Navajo Nation. All areas on the Navajo Nation are closed to non-Navajos unless you have a valid camping, hiking, or backcountry permit issued by Navajo Parks and Recreation Department or other duly delegated tribal authority. Failure to have a permit is considered Trespassing on a Federal Indian Reservation. That doesn't mean you cannot visit certain areas. As well, there are other privately held parcels just to the north of Merriam, including the lower bench and the "T" LZ. Respect private property and land in designated areas. See below. A GroupMe chat room called "PG Flagstaff" serves this flying site.
Site Frequency: 151.505 Mhz, DCS code 25: Please note you must turn your DCS on, set the code to 25, and make sure it is turned on for both transmit and receive prior to arrival. Programming instructions for most popular 2 meter radios can be found here.
Latest REV: 2.8.23
Usage: Hang Gliding and Paragliding.
Season: Allowed usage year round. Extreme caution and local insight/sponsors are a must year round.
Affiliation: Arizona Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
Land ownership: Multiple> BLM (Upper Launch, the Y), private (Lower Bench, the T), nearby to east is Navajo Nation.
Other use: Open to the public for sightseeing, hiking, and more.
HG and PG Launches
Orientation of Upper Launch: Treeless open summit at 6,791' MSL. (2,070m)
Orientation of Lower Bench: Treeless open area at 5,981' MSL. (1,823m)
Type: Flat slope cleared area.
GPS Coordinates Upper Launch: 35.3388°, -111.2863°, Google Maps
GPS Coordinates Lower Bench: 35.3476°, -111.2823°, Google Maps
Winds: No-wind to moderate surface winds are preferred. W, NW, N, NE, E (see above). HG 5-15 mph. PG 5-15 mph. Gust differential 5 mph in 5 seconds. Be extremely aware of conditions. Gust differential can and will change rapidly. Thorough weather forecasting mixed with local weather and site knowledge is mandatory. Always study conditions 30 minutes minimum before setting up to launch. Arrive early to watch conditions develop.
Driving Directions: From Flagstaff, head east on I-40 to the Winona exit 211. Go left at the top of the ramp and continue to the northwest on that highway. After a couple miles you'll come to your first paved road on your right called Leupp Rd. Turn here and head 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 small commercial zone. Once past this point the speed limit is 50 m.p.h. The miles will pass by and you'll soon be looking at two cinder cones: Merriam Crater will be on your left. At mile marker 440 you should start paying attention.
Just before you pass the mountain entirely, and before you get to the mailboxes on right, turn left at the break in the fence with a cattle guard (see image). 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.
Roughly 1/4 mile later you'll see another bald area on your right. On your left is a two-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 (on right of road) 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 the “Y” (or “East”) LZ. 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 Lower (“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.
Road Conditions: Rough dirt and depending on time of year and recent weather conditions, could be soft in places and challenging. When you contact the local sponsor, they will know the road condition.
Parking: Cleared areas for parking up to 10 cars away from launch.
Set-up Area HG: Generous flat area behind launch. Do not park directly downwind of vehicles
Set-up Area PG: Generous flat area behind launch. Do not park directly downwind of vehicles
Flying and Local Weather Wisdom
The simplicity of the round hill makes for some great options in the right conditions. Yet it is easy to overlook some more complex scenarios that may exist. First and foremost is the LCR inversion.
The top of Merriam Crater is the same approximate elevation as the 2 Bar 3 restaurant-bar you passed on your way to the hill: 6,400 ft. The top of Merriam is 6,800 ft., close to the average elevation of Flagstaff. If you continued out Leupp Rd. you would come to the town of Leupp which is an historic crossing point of the Little Colorado River (LCR) which lies at 4,700 ft. From this point the road begins to climb up to the mesas and mountains of the Hopi and Navajo reservations making for a 2,300 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 Merriam each night. To better understand what is going on, the locals look at the Winslow and surrounding Skew-T charts to get an idea of what is happening in the LCR. We also look at the winds aloft in Flagstaff and for around a 50-100 mile area but sometimes 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 sometimes start out light and variable 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 early before the inversion breaks. When you start to see a light base flow become still and conditions become variable/switchy, the locals have learned this is a warning and you should go home to fly another day.
Ground clearance mid-day: For the aspiring P3 or the hungry P4, this has seemed to cause more incidents at Merriam than any other issue. When thermal flying mid-day, remember you are not ridge soaring and the closer to the hill you are, the smaller, sharper and less organized the thermals are as you are flying into the base of them. The best pilots at Merriam watch the cycles carefully, launch at the end of a lull and fly into the top of the thermals that have traveled up the valley and thus are farther away from the mountain and launch area. They often always pass up thermals near launch to get out away from the hill and into a more usable piece of lift. You don’t want to be the pilot that was scratching near the hill and left their own crater in Merriam Crater.
Some wonderful glass-offs can kick off as the shadows get long in the late afternoon. Time it just right and you can be floating in soft, buoyant air well above launch until sunset. Conditions just before and after sunset can quickly change, go catabatic and go variable at times.
Finally, keep in mind that Merriam Crater is somewhat featureless and round, so it's easy to forget what "side" of the hill you are on. Always be cognizant of wind direction to avoid getting pulled into side-hill venturi and sink. The cinders are a little softer than dirt, but not much.
Keep site briefing and situational awareness in mind at all times and give extra safety margin due to high desert conditions. Conditions can change rapidly, especially during the summer monsoon season when either nearby overdevelopment, virga, or gust fronts from distant thunderstorms, can kick up nasty unpredictable and non-paragliding type flying weather quickly. Please be an active pilot. Keep final glide/approach to landing zone over land-able terrain. Clear the LZ immediately. Dust devils are not just a phenomenon of the lower desert. The high country gets them, too. Kiting is not allowed in the entire area, especially launch, past 9 AM and before 6 pm for obvious reasons.
Hot days in the summer and below-freezing weather in winter are extremely unforgiving on unprepared pilots, outdated equipment and pilots not giving extra margin of safety within their operating limitations. Adequate preparation, a sufficient understanding of local weather forecasting and a local on-site briefing is required. Dehydration is a real possibility even during winter months. Give yourself an extra margin for error due to the terrain and weather conditions.
Special Note on Thermal Flying:
Thermal conditions create a demand for pilots to not only have solid ground handling skills with a connected feel to their glider, but also a thorough understanding of how the local weather conditions play into the forecast models in order to be sufficiently prepared for a short launch window that demands certain launch techniques. Proficiency in high-wind-with-gusts kiting, no-wind forwards and light-wind dynamic reverse launches on shallow slopes are crucial for many of our sites and conditions.
Please be aware that strength of conditions will determine if it is better to a.) launch between the thermal cycle, when speeds are zero or light, to then fly away into the next thermal approaching the hill with ample clearance from the terrain, or b.) pull glider up and launch glider directly into the thermal cycle blowing into launch.
Many times launching during a zero- or light-wind cycle between the stronger thermals is not only a safer window, but a better plan to capitalize on the launch cycles as well as the flight plan.
It was common to see many pilots "waiting for the wind" (which is the thermal) to cycle through launch because they are not comfortable and/or proficient with forward and light wind launch techniques, only to experience a stronger cycle than anticipated once their glider was overhead.
Pilots most accustomed to launching in prevailing winds, onshore winds and lighter thermal ridge lift need local, and perhaps local professional, expertise and guidance to gain the needed insight to fly our sites safely.
All pilots must read the General Site Guidelines prior to arrival.
Restrictions: No airspace restrictions in the immediate area. Know where the Navajo Nation begins to the east of launch. Please refer to the “Know Before You Go” section on this page, above.
HG and PG Designated Landing Zones
Landing zone information has been covered above. Do not overfly cars and spectators. Do not scratch, especially during thermic parts of the day.
Mini/Speed Wing Rules and Guidance
Merriam is a rather flat glide to any LZ, as such, true speed wings should only be flown from the upper North side and with caution regarding shallow launch. Mini wings with reasonable glide may be flown from either upper North or East launch areas. Low-glide wings will need to choose either the North Bench LZ or attempt to glide around northeast ridge for East LZ. However, due to few obstacles, landing may be reasonable anywhere.
As with all mini/speed wing flying, proximity flying should only be attempted by those familiar with the practice. The shallow slope of the terrain demands situational awareness at all times.
High pressure may create significant low-level thermal turbulence. This is of special consideration to small wings flying low, as sudden sink may cause ground contact/impact as well as severe unpredictability in collapse behavior. Early morning and late afternoons that show appropriate conditions are the allowable times to fly small wings here.
Due to generally low clearance flight conditions, barrel rolls are not advised unless pilot is able to establish adequate ground clearance. "Swooping" may be acceptable given close attention to LZ traffic. "Carving" type flying may be acceptable due to terrain angle which can be matched with smaller wings.
It is imperative that the mini/speed wing pilot understands and respects all flight and landing patterns as well as the fact that these wings generally travel faster than standard paragliders. It is generally accepted that the slower wing always has the right of way, and the faster wing must yield.
Beware of any hazards and keep situational awareness at all times. Hazards include crowded LZs with automobile hazards, sagebrush in non-established landing areas, sharing airspace with other pilots, low slope angle, and challenging launches due to low slope angle.
Do not fly when there is any chance for potential of "ground effect" thermal activity.
Mini/Speed Wing, HG and PG Designated Landing Zones
Landing zone information has been covered above. Do not overfly cars and spectators. Do not fly close to the terrain, especially during thermic parts of the day.
Note: Pilots must familiarize themselves with this information before arriving, and this information does not replace the need for an in-person site briefing from a qualified, local pilot or instructor familiar with the area and experienced in flying the site.