Ranger Creek (21W) is a 2,900ft long mountain airfield which is located around 20 miles northeast of Mount Rainier in Washington State. It is quite unusual in as much as it has a paved runway and, for a mountain airport, it is not far from civilisation (Seattle is only 40 miles away). It provides a good introduction to mountain flying for those that feel the urge to give it a try but it is still tricky enough to cause problems.
The west side of the mighty 14,000ft+ high Mount Rainier. Ranger Creek is located on the northeastern side of this mountain.
The 2,650ft field elevation can cause density altitude issues during the summer and its location in the deep and narrow White River Valley can be intimidating but this helps to make it an enjoyable flying destination for many. The best approach is down the valley from the north which is the usual direction of visiting traffic, however there is enough room to approach over the surrounding terrain and then carry out a descent into the valley if the winds are light. There is a cleared camping area infront of runway 15 which provides a nice clear approach to that runway and this also allows you to take advantage of the slope that exists towards the south. However, the prevailing winds in the summer are mainly from the north so the more difficult approach to 33 between and over tall trees, and down the sloping runway, is frequently required.
The Ranger Creek tiedown area on the west side of the runway.
The runway is only 30ft wide so it can give the appearence of being further away than it actually is but the surface is suprisingly good for a remote, unmanaged airport. As I've mentioned previously the runway slopes down to the north and so it is even more important to control your approach speed and stick to a touchdown spot. On our arrival we noticed a number of tire skid marks about two thirds the way down 33, it looked like some previous landings did not go to plan! During our visit a homebuilt two seater aircraft landed and it looked like the pilot had his hands full. He encountered lift and roll as he descended over the tree line and then some very choppy air as he touched down, it was a good reminder how unpredictable conditions can be when flying to these mountain airports.
Looking down runway 33 to the north.
Looking up runway 15 to the south.
Landing runway 33.
To the east of the runway there are plenty of campsites in the trees and at the 15 threshold open camping is available, however visitor facilities are pretty restricted. For a $5 nightly fee a basic 'vault' toilet is provided but wash basins, showers and drinking water are not available. Down from the campgrounds is the fast flowing White River of snow melt from Emmons Glacier on the north eastern side of Mount Rainier. I'm not sure how suitable it would be for swimming as during our visit it felt pretty cold but it's a great place to sit down and get away from the hustle and bustle. Bears are frequent visitors to the camp areas so the usual precautions need to be taken.
Departing Ranger Creek on 33 is straight forward, but as has been mentioned previously density altitude can be a problem in the summer. We had a nice wind from the north that helped reduce our take-off roll but it also created a few bumps and blew the Cessna to the right as we climbed up to the tree line. Departing on 15 is more difficult as the runway slopes up, there are large trees just beyond the 33 threshold and the White River Valley terrain climbs noticeably to the south. If the wind is light from the south the best option is to take off out of wind to the north. There are two windsocks at the airport, one out in the open at the 15 threshold and one of the east side half way down the runway. The one alongside the runway was giving a useless indication when we visited but the one in the open looked correct.
Care has to be taken climbing out to the north as we encountered an aircraft travelling at a similar altitude but a reciprocal heading, he was presumably heading to where we had just come from. It's advisable to make regular radio calls on the journey out of the valley due to the limited broadcast range. On the calmer days flying into Ranger Creek is an enjoyable experience, however, if the winds are blowing at 20 knots or more I personally would not attempt it. The terrain around Mount Rainier, like all mountainous areas, can generate a lot of turbulance and downdrafts and getting caught in the White River Valley with all that going on would not be very pleasent.
Departing runway 33.
Tango Charlie in the tiedown area.