In Death Valley National Park, north of Barstow, California, is Rainbow Canyon. It’s not especially remarkable, just one canyon in an area full of them, all but indistinguishable from its neighbors in an area populated mainly by snakes. But stand on one of the canyon tops for long enough and a fighter jet will suddenly roar into the valley below you, flying fast and very, very low. It will be visible for only a few seconds before it turns hard and disappears behind the next hill. But during those few moments, anyone with a camera has a brief chance to take a spectacular picture. Rainbow Canyon (or Star Wars Canyon, as some call it) is part of the R-2508 restricted airspace complex, host to a busy, low-level training route for combat aircraft.
Military pilots train to fly low and fast, hiding behind hills to fool radar and going fast enough that they can’t be shot at. Since flying is a perishable skill, every fighter or attack pilot periodically has to practice such low-level flights. Rainbow Canyon is in the desert of eastern California, where the population is sparse and the airspace wide open. It’s also surrounded by military bases, bombing ranges, maneuvering grounds and radars—an ideal spot for military pilots to hone their skills. Among the nearby facilities are Edwards AFB, Naval Air Station China Lake, and Plant 42 (where Lockheed and Northrop build advanced aircraft).
If the desert’s not your thing, EA-18 and F-15E crews from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, and Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho often take their jets low down Visual Routes 1350 and 1355, which run through national parks in the beautiful Cascade Mountains. The routes are colloquially called the “million dollar ride” for their scenic views and fun flying. The routes are long, with plenty of mountains and hills in the National Park to stand atop. The area around Bumping Lake (and the Bumping River) underneath VR-1355 hosts a popular camping ground that pilots use as a visual reference.
If you really want to get remote, vast parts of Nevada (north of Las Vegas) and Alaska (mainly east of Fairbanks) are reserved for high-speed, low-level flying, including even supersonic flight, which is normally forbidden over land. The area also regularly hosts massive air exercises with a wide variety of combat aircraft. But those tend to occur in the most remote and inaccessible spots, and since most of the land in Nevada belongs to the government, an unannounced civilian showing up to watch the flights might be arrested for trespassing.
Military jet viewing isn’t restricted to the United States. In remote Wales is the Machynlleth Loop (better known as the Mach Loop), which hosts a famous low-level training route for U.K. military flight crews (and U.K.-based American aircraft). Spectators on the surrounding hillsides get an excellent, if brief, view of the airplanes zipping past—photographs often show the crew and cockpits in great detail.
What makes the Mach Loop, Rainbow Canyon and other areas so enticing is both the frequency of aircraft roaring overhead and the relative ease of seeing them. In fact there are hundreds of military low-level routes in the U.S., but few are so picturesque, and many are empty most of the time. Many bases publish when major exercises are taking place so they can alert civilian pilots to avoid the airspace. So look up your local base; they won’t tell you the specific routes the airplanes will overfly, but with a little luck and some guesswork you might be able to pick a spot and watch the jets buzz over all day.