Skywalking at Grand Canyon West

August 8, 2010

First in a series


To be honest, I didn’t look down. Not at first. I edged out a few feet rather gingerly, keeping my gaze focused on the far side of the canyon wall. It didn’t help that there were bratty, snotty kids, bouncing playfully up and down on the glass around me, like they were on some kind of high-altitude trampoline. And the young woman happily lying stretched out on the glass up ahead, staring downwards into the canyon, gave me serious pause.

What the hell, I finally decided. I had come to Arizona looking for adventure. Wanting some thrills. So I looked down.

I was skywalking.

The Grand Canyon West Skywalk is a relatively new attraction, jutting out 4,000 feet above the Colorado River, owned and operated by the Hualapai Indian tribe. First open to the public in 2007, Skywalk is 120 miles south of Las Vegas, accessible by car, bus, and–thanks to the new airport terminal–helicopter and plane.

Or, it’s a 9-hour drive over from San Luis Obispo, following the well-worn Bakersfield-Barstow-Needles-Kingman autobahn. Be sure to gas up in Kingman, because the last 70 miles are through desolate, open countryside.

Skywalk is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with the last tour shipping out at 5:45 p.m. In the summer time, believe me, best to go early and beat the Arizona heat.

If you drive, be prepared for adventure. The smooth, paved, two-lane road ends abruptly and you suddenly find yourself on a winding, dusty, gravel and dirt road. Be careful to avoid the occasional cow or the onslaught of oncoming traffic as you ascend upwards.

After about 30 minutes, you reach the summit and the road flattens out, becoming a mixture of pavement and pot holes. Someone said that it costs $1 million a mile to pave in Mojave County, so I don’t expect the road will be upgraded in the near future. Doesn’t really matter. It’s an adventure. Just keep repeating that.

Suddenly, after about two hours of open road from Kingman, clear signs of life appear up ahead. Helicopters landing and taking off. Buses rumbling by, crammed with tourists. Signs pointing towards the Visitors’ Center, which stands side by side with the small airport terminal (about the size of the San Luis Obispo County airport terminal).

A Work in Progress

Grand Canyon West is, to be fair, a work in progress. Central Coast readers would find the Hualapai way similar to how things work at Hearst Castle. You park your car, go inside the Visitors’ Center–housed in a temporary building–figure out which package you wish to purchase, buy something from the gift shop (good prices!), and wait to board a bus.

However, there is the rather delicate question of pricing. Skywalking isn’t cheap. There are deals to be had if you come down from Las Vegas as part of a tour, but if you just show up on your own, better bring that plastic with you.

Doing the Skywalk

Grand Canyon West offers three packages: Hualapai Legacy ($29.95), Legacy Silver ($41.95) and Legacy Gold ($70.95). Tack on about an extra $11 to each ticket for impact fees and energy surcharge.

Here’s the kicker: The first two packages don’t include Skywalk–unless you want to pay an additional $29.95. So, depending upon your interests that day, Skywalking is going to cost anywhere between $60 and $81 per person.

On the bus you go, hearing a mixture of international chatter among the other passengers. Skywalk seems to be drawing big with European and Asian tourists. The bus ride to Eagle Point, home of Skywalk, takes just a few minutes.

Eagle Point derives its name from the rock formation on the other side of the canyon, which does amazingly seem to resemble an eagle with spread wings.

The actual Skywalk structure is housed in a building still under construction. The rules are made very clear up front: Nothing is allowed to be brought out on to Skywalk. No cameras. No purses. No food. Nothing. All personal belongings must be stowed (no charge) into personal lockers. The Hualapai want nothing being accidentally dropped over the side, or scratching the glass.

Visitors go through an airport screening device just to be sure and then the line forms up the ramp. The wait that morning was about 15 minutes. As you get closer, you’re asked to slide paper shoes over your real ones, again to protect the sensitive glass.

The mythical eagle spreads its wings

In terms of actual dimensions, Skywalk is U-shaped, with an overall width of 65 feet. The length extends out about 70 feet. The outside deck is made with six layers of low iron glass, with a width of about 10 feet, 2 inches. Maximum occupancy at any one time is 120 people.

As I took those first baby steps out on to the glass, none of the statistics mattered. I had come a long way for this moment. As I’ve already confessed, it took me a few minutes before I was willing to look down through the glass.

Skywalk doesn’t go out too far, but it was far enough for me. We were above the birds swooping down below, hunting for food in the canyon. That felt strange. Beneath us was the earth-tone mosaic of the canyon wall and a perspective you can’t get on land. It was cooler than I expected. The others out there with me seemed to agree–the “ooh” and “ah” quotient was quite high that morning.

There is no time limit as to how long you can stay on the glass. Staff photographers snap away to capture the moment (Of course, available for purchase in the crowded gift shop as you leave).

I did my 20 minutes, conquered my fear, and decided it was time to move on. Outside the building is a short walk among sample historic Hualapai teepees. Then time to get back on the bus.

On to Guano Point

Admittedly, the idea of hiking around a place named after guano was not all that appealing initially, but the second stop on the tour was actually quite fascinating. The name comes from earlier in the 20th century when they mined the area for guano to make fertilizer.

The first item of business at Guano Point was to eat. There are food stands at all three stops, but everyone advised waiting to have lunch at Guano Point. I can now understand why. The Hualapai cooks heaped generous portions of chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas on my plate–all as my friend Sara would say, “delish.” Really good stuff. Sit down outside, enjoy your food, and gather your strength. You’ll need it.

The view from Guano Point

There are two rock formations at Guano Point. The first, is right next to the food stand and an easy walk up for anyone, even me.

Only then, do you see the larger formation looming down below. The path down hugs the edge of the canyon, so there’s plenty of opportunity to stop and enjoy a peek over the edge.

When you finally reach the larger formation, it’s best to start by walking around to the rear. One tall, green, metal structure is left standing from the guano mining days. There’s also a giant boulder where tourists took turns standing for a most majestic background.

I’m told if you look over the edge at one point you can see what’s left of a car that was pushed over the edge for a scene in “From Here to Eternity” down below, but I chose to take everyone’s word for it.

I was more interested in the rock climbing. I am out of shape and overweight and probably should not be stumbling around giant rocks overlooking the Grand Canyon. But I had come all this way. I would not be deterred. Pacing was the key and I made the summit in about 15 minutes, pausing along the way to catch my breath in the Arizona heat.

Sitting at the top of Guano Point, the view is pretty incredible. It is a totally different experience than Skywalk, though in some ways more satisfying because you’re experiencing the fruits of nature and not something manmade.

I was in no hurry to leave.

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Nice article, Dave. A good trip.

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