Postcards

Walking in the Sky

July 1, 2007

Be one of the first to fly to the Grand Canyon's newest wonder

Arguably, the Grand Canyon is America's greatest natural wonder. Every year about 5 million tourists come to marvel at this World Heritage site, usually from the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park. A smaller number also drive to view its grandeur from the North Rim, a less accessible vantage point that is closed in the winter. The national park covers an immense area of the canyon, but it excludes some of the other spectacular sights west of the national park's headquarters. Now, on the private lands of the Hualapai Indians, comes a unique attraction: Grand Canyon Skywalk — The Glass Bridge at Grand Canyon West.

Located on a remote strip of the canyon's rim known as Eagle Point, about 120 miles east of Las Vegas, this marvel of engineering is open to visitors. And flying is the best way to get there. The horseshoe-shape walkway juts out 70 feet beyond the canyon's edge, allowing visitors an amazingly unobstructed 180-degree view of the canyon, the forever-changing sky above, and, through the tempered-glass floor, the Colorado River more than 4,000 feet below. Regardless of the altimeter setting, you are statically suspended at this dizzy altitude for optimum viewing with a serene over-view of the surrounding canyons and rugged terrain accompanied by the cry of eagles overhead, the faint sounds of the river far below, and the cool embrace of an ambient breeze.

All this didn't come cheap. Construction costs have been put at $30 million for the skywalk alone. The skywalk has been designed to anchor a bigger development. Plans to attach a 6,000-square-foot visitors center and restaurant are under way and a further expansion is to include hotels, more restaurants, and a golf course. And maybe a casino. The construction of this cantilevered, see-through ramp required the fabrication of more than 500 tons of steel designed to withstand winds in excess of 100 miles an hour and a magnitude-8 earthquake within 50 miles, and the ramp has been tested to withstand the weight of 71 million pounds, about 400 times the required safety limit.

Today it is the most conspicuous commercial edifice in the Grand Canyon.

Leave it as is

America's twenty-sixth president, Theodore Roosevelt, said of the Grand Canyon, "Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it." As a keen outdoorsman, naturalist, and activist, he would, no doubt today, have joined voices with those environmentalists who vehemently oppose the skywalk. They advocate that such development adds further commercialization and detracts from the natural experience of the Grand Canyon. They fear that the skywalk development is turning the canyon into a tacky commercial playground. The Hualapai tribal leaders disagree. The tribal leaders say that their extant peoples need the funds to survive, and they see the skywalk as an innovative way to share the tribal home's astonishing landscape and heritage with visitors.

The Hualapai Indians also offer helicopter rides into the canyon. Unlike in the Grand Canyon National Park, where helicopters fly over but not into the canyon, here visitors can fly at low levels into the canyons and land by the river, allowing them to meet waiting boats and continue exploration at water level.

Regardless of your position on this polemic, now is a great time to visit. The development is in its infancy, and mass tourism has not yet arrived. But it's not far off. Visitors are bused in from Las Vegas or fly in on wiry de Havilland Twin Otters. The road in from Vegas is a long trip of about 2.5 hours, a portion of it still on unpaved roads.

Airport improvements

Grand Canyon West Airport, sometimes referred to as Peach Springs Grand Canyon West, serves the skywalk. This should not be confused with Grand Canyon National Park Airport, located 80 miles to the east.

As of this writing, the airport is undergoing substantial improvement. The project involves moving the current runway (17/35) approximately 1,000 feet to the north and widening it from 60 feet to 75 feet. The runway will remain at 5,058 feet long but with a new full-length parallel taxiway and connector taxiways. New lighting, a new terminal, and an expanded aircraft parking apron will replace the makeshift facilities and mobile units currently in place. Also in progress are the upgrading and full development of utility infrastructure, relocation of roads, and installation of airport perimeter fencing. The FAA reports that the new field will remain nontowered. The agency estimates that the upgrades will become functional by spring 2008. The Hualapai Tribe has received Airport Improvement Program grants from the federal government so the airport will continue to operate under FAA purview.

Flying in

Beware, there is a $100 landing fee at the airport, but it is waived if you are taking a skywalk tour. Although it is under construction, the airport continues to function. Currently there are no accommodations or avgas available at Grand Canyon West Airport. Be aware of the numerous sightseeing helicopters that operate from the area. The unicom frequency (122.9 MHz) is alive with helicopter chatter, a strange lingo of situational vernacular. With no taxiways, back-taxiing is required so be on the lookout for landing aircraft or conflicting ground traffic. High temperatures and an airport elevation of 4,825 feet make density altitude an important consideration, especially in summer, as do the frequent afternoon thunderstorms that typically build up in northern Arizona. Peach Springs VOR (112.0) is 25 miles to the southeast and an approach along the canyon edge makes for some great Grand Canyon views. You can best beat the crowds, and the bumps, with an early morning arrival. Although the Las Vegas Sectional covers this part of the country, it is suggested that you also have along a Grand Canyon VFR Aeronautical Chart that covers the Grand Canyon National Park area and is designed to promote aviation safety and facilitate VFR navigation in this popular flight area. The chart contains aeronautical information for general aviation VFR pilots on the front side and commercial VFR air-tour operations on the reverse side. Also check AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner online.

On arrival

Until the airport improvements are complete, visitors will endure temporary infrastructure. However, the Hualapai Indians and staff extend a warm and friendly welcome and the transportation is comfortable and efficient. Large air-conditioned coaches take visitors from the airport and shuttle them to the skywalk at Eagle Point, about 10 minutes along the rim of the canyon. Unfortunately cameras and personal belongings are forbidden on the skywalk.

During your visit, you are free to spend time at the rim of the canyon and on the skywalk before reboarding the bus for the extended trip to Guano Point, a spectacular vantage point farther west. Here a buffet lunch is served and you can sit on rim-side tables and enjoy breathtaking views of the canyon and the Colorado River as it meanders westward toward Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. If time permits, take the High Point Hike and see remnants of a once-operational guano mine (guano is bat and bird droppings used for fertilizer) for an even more spectacular view of the west canyon.

The basic Spirit Package is $50 per person plus $25 to walk the skywalk (the $75 Sky Package includes the walk). Other choices include the Explorer Package for $110, which includes narrated coach transfers, admission to the skywalk, and a tour of the adjacent Indian village and a buffet lunch at Guano Point or at a faux cowboy Western town, and the Journey Package for $200, which includes helicopter and boat tours ( www.destinationgrandcanyon.com). Allow three hours for your visit.

Patrick J. Mathews, AOPA 1134012, of Indian Wells, California, is a 1,600-hour private pilot. A freelance writer, he owns a 1993 Beechcraft Bonanza F33.