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Walk the sky with the HualapaiWalk the sky with the Hualapai

Grand Canyon West, ArizonaGrand Canyon West, Arizona

Experience the Grand Canyon in four radically different ways: Stand on a piece of glass 70 feet past the edge of the canyon with 4,000 feet of air below you, zip across a wide chasm, helicopter into its depths, or raft down part of the Colorado River. All this and more is possible when you land at Grand Canyon West.

  • Go ahead, take the Skywalk out, look down between your feet, and don’t worry—the structure is strong enough to bear the weight of 70 Boeing 747s. Anyone used to flying in a small airplane should feel secure, but it’s amusing to watch some other walkers—you’ll see the gamut of emotions, from pure joy to terror. Any kid who isn’t scared will love it and be telling his or her friends about the Skywalk for weeks. Photo courtesy usa.utazas.hu.
  • People come from all over the world to walk the Skywalk. Just go into the building and present your ticket. There’s a metal detector, and you must check your bags, including your camera, sadly. You’ll be told it’s to avoid harming the glass or losing things over the side, although skeptics say it’s so you’ll be more likely to purchase souvenir photos like this one. After donning booties to protect the glass, out you go! I enjoyed leaning out over the edge and feeling the strong updraft. A raven soon joined me, hovering just ten feet away on that same updraft, and we shared the beautiful bird’s-eye view. Photo courtesy Sam Jam.
  • Directly behind the Skywalk you’ll find Sa' Nyu Wa, the restaurant that fuses Southwest and Asian cuisine with traditional Hualapai tribal dishes and a floor-to-ceiling view you’ll never see anywhere else. If you’re looking for something less fancy, Eagle Point also offers the Skywalk Cafe and several snack stations. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Resort Corporation.
  • After exiting the Skywalk and collecting our bags, we wandered over to the Indian Village, where Native American dances take place in the amphitheater daily at 1 and 5 p.m., and I was invited to dance along. Usually there are several dancers from different tribes, wearing special clothes they have made—feel free to take photos. Each costume is a riot of different colors, often with rows of shells or tin bells sewn on. Photo by Fred Worthy.
  • No crowds here, just you, the ocotillos, and the barrel cactus, 3,500 feet down inside one of the world’s great wonders. And yes, when you're at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the sky really can be that blue. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Resort Corporation.
  • Take the helicopter/pontoon boat tour and you’ll fly through the canyon and land 4,000 feet below the rim on the banks of the Colorado River, where you’ll board a pontoon boat and ride upstream between the rugged canyon walls. Your river guide will share stories about the area’s history. Photo courtesy Crista Worthy.
  • If you like, you can hop on a bus for the short ride to Guano Point, where the Hualapai have a deli plus an open market in the parking lot selling necklaces, bracelets, and earrings they have made, as well as turquoise rings. Here, Fred Worthy and Wilfred Whatoname enjoy a bit of lunch with a world-class view. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • It’s an easy 5-minute hike to Guano Point, for amazing 360-degree views. Behind it you will see the hulking remnant of a tram that was used to move buckets all the way across the canyon to a bat cave. Guano from the cave was shipped out and used as fertilizer. During the 1950s this system operated for a short time until the cave’s resources were exhausted. Soon thereafter, a U.S. Air Force fighter jet crashed into the overhead cable system and permanently disabled it. The remaining structures were left intact as a monument to the futility of mining in the canyon. Here and elsewhere there are no safety railings along the cliffs to spoil the view (I wouldn’t have it any other way), so watch your step and especially your children. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Resort Corporation.
  • Another short bus ride (about one mile) brings you to the Hualapai Ranch, done up like a Wild West cowboy town; mostly fun for the kids. Meet some Hualapai Tribe members, get a lasso lesson, buy a cowboy hat, or ride the mechanical bull or horse-drawn wagon. The Food Hall serves Western-style meals, accompanied by live country music. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Resort Corporation.
  • Horseback rides are available at the Hualapai Ranch. Thirty-, 60-, and 90-minute rides take you across the plateau and to different areas of the rim, for new views of the canyon. Little kids or other newbies can try a 10-minute arena ride with a veteran wrangler close by at all times. Photo courtesy Crista Worthy.
  • Located at Hualapai Ranch, the Zip Line at Grand Canyon West whizzes you nearly 1,000 feet above the floor of a side canyon at speeds up to 40 mph. Quad zip lines measuring 3,200 feet over two separate runs are each configured with four steel cables running in parallel formation, allowing groups to soar together. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Resort Corporation.
  • At Hualapai Ranch you can stay overnight in one of 26 cabins that face the rim. Make s’mores by the bonfire and gaze at the star-filled sky. Cabins include a queen bed, sofa bed, bathroom with shower and toiletries, hanging space, and front porch with chairs. They are also 100-percent smoke free and pet-friendly. Photo courtesy Crista Worthy.
  • One- or two-day river rafting trips are available; these depart from Peach Springs, the main town on the reservation. Fly in to Grand Canyon West in time to board the 2 p.m. bus to Peach Springs, stay overnight at the Hualapai Lodge, and start your rafting trip the next morning. The lodge, on Old Route 66, has 54 modern, tastefully furnished rooms, Wi-Fi, pool, hot tub, and a restaurant. Fishing, hunting, and off-road trips from the lodge are also available. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Resort Corporation.
  • One-day rafting trips include 12 miles of exciting but not-too-big rapids, hiking at Travertine Cavern Falls, local wildlife viewing, lunch along the banks of the river, and a helicopter ride from the river back up to Grand Canyon West and your airplane. Two-day trips add some paddling to your overnight campsite with a steak dinner. On day two, you’ll have breakfast, board power pontoon boats and float along for nearly 30 miles, with a lunch stop before your helicopter ride up. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Resort Corporation.
  • The development at Grand Canyon West has sparked much controversy. The Hualapai have the right to develop tourism on their land to support themselves, but what about the environment? Even as a pilot (and one who has boated the river many times), I find the biggest offender is noise from air traffic over the canyon, at both ends. And the park, at the canyon’s eastern end, has way more tourists, buildings, and hotels. Plus, the Skywalk is located off the side of the main channel. Any pilot who has flown over the Grand Canyon area knows how vast it is, with hundreds of canyons, not just one. Saying the Skywalk ruins the Grand Canyon is like saying a grain of rice on your floor dirties your whole kitchen; also, only the horseshoe glass structure is visible from the canyon. But don’t take my word for it; if you’re curious, visit the Hualapai yourself and see what you think. Photo courtesy Crista Worthy, taken before restaurant was constructed behind the Skywalk; note airport at upper right.

Our first “visit” here came courtesy of a blown forecast. The ice-laden clouds from a stalled, cut-off low pressure system were supposed to lift long enough to let us scoot beneath them from Lake Powell home to California. Before Lake Mead, however, ceilings were dropping fast, so we dropped in to Grand Canyon West, on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. The tour helicopters were also grounded, so we sat around and made small talk until the clouds lifted enough for us to continue home. Not much else was available for visitors except a bus to the rim. That was October of 2000. Flash forward to our first return in 2007, right after the Skywalk opened, and boy had things changed! And now—this is one of Arizona’s busiest airports and a full-blown tourist destination with a lot of unique activities that can be fun for adults and mind-blowingly unforgettable for kids. How did this happen?

As we know, many American Indian tribes have built casinos on their land, bringing in much-needed revenue and creating jobs. Years ago, the Hualapai opened a small casino, but it soon closed. Who can compete with Las Vegas so near? Besides, the Hualapai have something much grander: the Grand Canyon. You see, for nearly all the western half of the Grand Canyon, the south rim is outside the national park. Most of this land belongs to the 1,500 or so members of the Hualapai Tribe. Instead of a casino, the Hualapai bet their future prosperity on the beauty of the Grand Canyon.

Stand on the Skywalk and gaze at the Grand Canyon’s many layers, which here reveal over half a billion years of geological time. The canyon itself was carved relatively recently—about 5 million years ago—by yearly spring flooding plus catastrophic floods that occurred when ancient lakes suddenly drained, after walls of soil or lava holding back the water gave way. Photo by Crista Worthy.

The Grand Canyon is perhaps the most famous natural feature on Earth. The forces of erosion and time required to remove so much rock are beyond comprehension, and the remaining red, stacked palisades are more beautiful in the changing light than any man-made structure. Chinese tour operator David Jin stood at Grand Canyon West’s Eagle Point, watched birds hovering in the updrafts, and dreamed of giving his clients the same view of the canyon the birds were getting. Enough tribal leaders agreed with his idea, so he assembled a group of investors: $40 million and a million pounds of steel later, the Hualapai opened one of the most unique and controversial structures anywhere—the Skywalk—where you can stand on a horseshoe-shaped plate of four-inch-thick glass, 70 feet out past the edge of the canyon, and look down to the Colorado River, almost 4,000 feet below.

Of course, you’ll want to overfly the Grand Canyon! But you can’t just fly anywhere; fetch the Grand Canyon Special Flight Rules Area VFR chart first via SkyVector or ForeFlight and fly through one of the four allowed corridors, at the directed altitude. Watch out for fixed-wing and helicopter tour traffic. To see the sights on the ground, you’ll need to purchase a Hualapai Legacy Package, about $50. Similar to a national park entrance fee, this ticket also provides unlimited hop-on, hop-off shuttle access to all viewpoints including Hualapai Ranch, Eagle Point, and Guano Point, and photo opportunities with Hualapai tribal members. (Keep in mind that many visitors to Grand Canyon West are Chinese tourists who have never met a Native American or seen the American “West” or the Grand Canyon. This is their opportunity, via a side trip from Las Vegas.)

If you sit for a while, you might get a visit from a large raven like this one. These highly intelligent birds are almost always seen in pairs. They love to hover and dance in the updrafts created by the canyon walls. Photo by Crista Worthy.

Now, it’s time to have some fun. Depending on your interests, you can choose from a huge variety of ticket packages. See photos for more details, but here are some of the things you can do: Walk on the Skywalk, of course, at Eagle Point, where you can also hike along the rim, dine while viewing the canyon, helicopter down to the river, take a pontoon boat ride, or ride the Colorado on a one- or two-day whitewater rafting trip that ends with a helicopter ride back up to the rim. At Guano Point you can hike along the rim, dine on the edge of the canyon, or buy Native-made jewelry and crafts. Stay overnight at Hualapai Ranch, which offers cabins, a gift shop, a restaurant, horseback riding, wagon and stagecoach rides, a mechanical bull, lasso lessons, and two zip lines that let you fly 1,000 feet above a side canyon. Details and final thoughts are in the photo captions.

Want another unique adventure? After you “hang out” over the Grand Canyon, fly to Grand Canyon Caverns, 15.8 nautical miles southeast of the Peach Springs VOR on Old Route 66. Explore the caverns and then sleep in the largest, oldest, deepest, darkest, quietest motel room in the world—220 feet underground—click here for more!

At the Native American Village at Eagle Point, you can walk down a path and see authentic dwellings made by Navajo, Hopi, Plains, Havasupai, and Hualapai Tribal members—you’re welcome to go inside. Several wooden poles have been carved with the likenesses of Hualapai members. Photo courtesy Grand Canyon Resort Corporation.

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Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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