Sky-walking over the Grand Canyon

The Skywalk's Precarious Balance

The Skywalk’s Precarious Balance

Not many bridges are in the shape of a horseshoe, which brings to mind the fact that most bridge engineers have not dealt with the problems of building one. And, most bridges aren’t see-through; they are usually constructed of metal, or, at the worst, layers of sturdy wood. And, most are free of controversy, especially of the built-on-sacred-tribal-grounds variety. So, standing on the Grand Canyon Skywalk on the southwestern side of the world’s grandest hole in the earth is no task to be taken lightly. But what a rush!

Truth be known, the Skywalk isn’t over the Grand Canyon but over the edge of an off-shoot, such that standing on the deck bridge-goers get a fantastic view to their north. The drop beneath, at its most ominous, is a mere 800 feet, but were you to fall those 800 feet, gravity would quickly pull you into a tumble leading to a much deeper plunge into the abyss. The word around the draftsman’s table is that the Skywalk could hold upwards of seventy Boeing 747s, and withstand a massive earthquake — or a sneeze from Zeus. I think that’s all worth remembering.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Without much more to say, going to the Grand Canyon should be on everyone’s list. It’s a consensus top natural wonder of world.
  • The Skywalk offers a chance to actually stand over the canyon. As opposed to tiptoeing nervously to the edge and peering across, you look between your feet.
  • It’s a great destination for safety-valuing thrill-seekers, nature lovers, history buffs, families (possibly with children on those little harness leashes), cross-country road-trippers, campers, hikers, and the like.

Out in Desert

Eagle Rock across from the Skywalk

Eagle Rock across from the Skywalk

The Skywalk is a tourism project undertaken by the Hualapai tribe, which has long called the south rim of the canyon home. While some environmentalists have shunned them for being hypocritically cruel to a natural wonder, and though the Native American-themed theatrics cross the border between cultural and contrived, it’s still something to appreciate. The drive out requires several miles of dirt road, a complete departure from gas stations and Targets, and puts you deep into a reservation, literally letting you toe your way to the lip of the Grand Canyon.

My wife Emma and I kept looking at each other, at the gas gauge, and at the vast cactus garden around as we idled further away from the highway system. Then, just as everything had eerily disappeared miles back, an oasis of chartered coaches, air-conditioned buildings, and pathways grew up from the desert. In the emptiness that surrounded it, the Skywalk and its accompanying attractions looked tiny, but I knew there would be sights to see, signage to read, and possibly an ice cream to cool us down. More importantly, we’d made it.

At the Oasis

Teepee on the Rim

Teepee on the Rim

Without a doubt, the Skywalk is the major draw of the Hualapai’s otherwise modest attraction. Standing from a lookout point just south of it, the Skywalk looks freakish, the curve of the horseshoe extending out far past what seems physically possibly. Heads look tiny bobbing above the railing because the backdrop is so immense, and as I inched further towards the edge to get a better perspective, I became very aware of how loose the rock was beneath my feet.

Other points of interest included a short trail north of the Skywalk, where it’s possible to clamber over boulders and tiny plateaus to reach higher viewpoints. In the gulch, helicopters whirl and dance with ample propeller-room. Nearer the complex, there is a walkway leading to full-scale models of Native American shelters and plaques explaining ways of life. It’s even possible, though a pretty Buffalo nickel, to stay overnight at the Hualapai Ranch with a change-of-direction cowboy motif.

Into the Great Wide Open

No Safety Rails on the Reservation

No Safety Rails on the Reservation

I had been to the Grand Canyon as a child. My father had driven us all through the night to somewhere on the north edge, and I remember quickly glancing from behind the railing of designated lookout points. Then, we went to McDonald’s and paid three times as much as normal for an extra-value meal. It had not been what I’d imagined, a picture built largely from Chevy Chase ambling through the desert in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

This time the experience resonated. Regardless of the tour buses and poorly plotted sage-burning ceremonies, the Skywalk was a cool concept. The canyon seemed larger and more canyon-like, and the desert around it, arid and sprawling into the horizon, was equally as grand. Emma and I scaled up to the highest point we could find, looked for a comfortable rock, and stared, the air still, hot, and silent. Finally, unlike an overpriced value meal, the place just defied dimension.

Practicalities

  • The trip can be a day tour from Vegas, or an overnight thing, which can include the Hualapai Ranch, Skywalk, white water rafting and helicopters. Money is everything, so try winning a jackpot first.
  • Driving out: It was seriously close to off-road when we went (I’ve heard some rent-a-car places don’t cover for this), and it definitely took an act of faith at times to believe we were heading in the right direction.
  • Desert rules apply. Make sure to have extra water and mind the environment. Clark W. Griswold can tell you: Folks tend to get parched in rural Arizona.

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