David Whitley has his preconceptions shattered when he takes an early morning helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon.
Perception vs Experience
It’s funny how you can have a really skewed idea of what things look like before you actually see them. For example, I expected the Sydney Opera House to be much bigger than it is, the Leaning Tower of Pisa to be out on its own rather than part of a complex and Prague Castle to be a bit like the ones you see in fairy story cartoons.
In a similar way, I got the Grand Canyon all wrong. In my head, it was a bit like the slot where you put the bread in a giant toaster. I was expecting a big canyon, but one where it’s pretty much two steep walls presenting sheer cliff faces to the Colorado River at the bottom.
It’s not like that at all. For a start, at 277 miles long, it is approximately 273 miles longer than I thought it was. Secondly, it’s not a neat toaster slot chasm, but a winding splatter of mini canyons branching off the main one like a splayed millipede.
It is far more spectacular than a big gap to peer into. It’s not just the Colorado River that has carved this geological masterpiece out over the years, but long-dried tributaries and streams. This leads to crags jutting out like clifftop headlands, and the whole thing resembling a complex jigsaw puzzle.
Picking the best lookout at the Grand Canyon is near impossible, but Guano Point is pretty darned special. Named for its previous incarnation as a hub of bat poop mining, it is pretty much at the western end of the Grand Canyon. A rocky red promontory juts out, offering postcard views in every direction. The range of colours is a major surprise–many rubbly slopes are coated in a pale green, whilst others look utterly barren and fiercely stark.
Another of the canyon’s glories is the way that the marks of time are obvious. The canyon has clearly been cut out in stages, with the changing water levels marked clearly in the lines of the rock. The mountains–and they are essentially mountains–left standing by the river all have a series of watermark lines that are reminiscent of the carefully staggered terraces of Asian paddy fields.
Timing it right
Guano Point is our last stop on the Ultimate Grand Canyon 4-in-1 Helicopter tour before we get back on the chopper back to Las Vegas. We’ve unquestionably made the right decision to go with the early morning option. By the time the rotor blades are whirring at 11.45am, the small airport and tour base at Grand Canyon West is under siege with people. Those groups will be filtering out to the highlights we’ve just come back from, jostling for space where we were able to roam free and admire the views undisturbed. Basically, if your helicopter gets you there before the tour buses arrive, you’re going to have a far more memorable experience.
Flight into the Canyon
The day started with limousine pick-up at our hotel and a transfer to the heli hub in the dark edges of Las Vegas McCarran airport. The helicopters are six-seaters and we got lucky–there were only five aboard our chopper, and turns in the front two seats were rotated.
The flight out took us over spectacular desert scenery and a few surprises. You don’t hear the term “the Las Vegas Valley” very often–but Las Vegas is in a valley–the city is almost perfectly flat whilst high mountains surround it. To the west, some even appear to have snow caps on.
We flew out over Lake Mead, the giant man-made lake caused by the damming of the Colorado River. That dam, of course, is the Hoover Dam–one of history’s great engineering achievements, and moments later we were flying over it with perfect overhead views.
The merits of a helicopter over a scenic flight on a normal plane became abundantly clear as we approached the Grand Canyon. The chopper can skirt so close to the canyon walls, providing something of a thrill ride as well as postcard shots.
Boat trip and Skywalk
Descending into the canyon, we were headed for a small landing pad in an area that appeared to be blissfully remote. Hiking down here would have taken serious effort. The only sign of life is a boat jetty, and that neatly segued into the second part of the experience–a 20 minute boat ride along the Colorado River which gave the opportunity to see the canyon from a different perspective.
The third stop–after a helicopter and bus transfer–was Eagle Point. This is home to the relatively new Grand Canyon Skywalk, where you can walk out on thick glass right over a vertigo-inducing drop. It’s not as much of a test of nerve as I initially thought it would be. Looking down once on the glass raises a dizzying gulp, but it’s something you get used to quickly.
In truth, the Skywalk is something of a disappointment. Again, we were lucky to get there early–it apparently gets very overcrowded–but it feels done on the cheap and the photography pricing is little more than an exploitative scam.
But the real reason that the Skywalk is let down is that it is so tame. One of the major joys of the Grand Canyon–including the section at Eagle Point right next to the Skywalk–is that it’s a health and safety officer’s nightmare. There are no guard rails or barriers preventing you from walking right up to the edge or, indeed, tumbling over it. It’s fearsome, wild and utterly memorable for that.
Las Vegas Accommodation
I stayed at the Vdara and Mandalay Bay hotels in Las Vegas. The former is a great option for couples– it’s a modern-but-reasonably reserved joint that has no gambling and no smoking. It’s arguably the most romantic place to stay in Vegas (although that’s very much a relative term in a city that just doesn’t do boutique and homely). The Mandalay Bay has more of a party spirit.