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Grand Canyon: One beautiful, bodacious ditch

It was dark outside when I exited my hotel on the “Strip” in Las Vegas to await a van from a local tour company. This van was to transport me to the small “private” North Las Vegas Airport just outside the city. It was atypically cool at 4:30 a.m. that summer morning in 2011. The strip was alive with heavy traffic, even at this hour. Las Vegas really is the city that “never sleeps.”
After a 20-minute ride in the van, I arrived at the airport where, after some paperwork and a security check, I boarded a small prop plane for the short fight to an airport near the Grand Canyon’s west rim. As I settled into my seat, I wondered if I were on the side of the plane that would afford me a view of the Hoover Dam. Years ago, I had driven across this famous dam but today I wanted to see it, as promised in the tour company’s brochure, from the air. My concerns about seating were short-lived, because the plane had single seats on each side of the aisle – so every seat was a “window” seat. The intercom buzzed and the pilot promised to fly in both directions over the Hoover Dam so each passenger could see it perfectly. And what a site it was. I could also see the blue waters of Lake Meade that feeds the dam.

As we flew over this great dam, I reflected upon what humans can do when they apply their talents and skills. This dam is almost beyond belief. These engineers and construction workers used primitive tools, by today’s standards, when the dam was built almost 90 years ago. Seeing this monumental dam that stretches across the Colorado River joining Nevada to Arizona reminded me of the power and ability of humankind.
The flight landed at the small “Grand Canyon Airport” just before 8 a.m. This airport is outside of the great Grand Canyon National Park – a park that is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. This tiny airport is situated on the canyon’s west rim and is part of an area controlled by the Hualapai Indians. Since I had already been to the Grand Canyon several times – both the north and south rims – I chose this area because I had never visited the west rim. The brochure promised that this area was far less crowded. The west rim affords visitors the chance to explore nature trails without the hordes of people that flock to the North and South rims. The area features magnificent, naturally-sculpted rock formations that are waiting to be explored. I discovered numerous spots over-looking the canyon that we perfect for picture taking. The multiple lookout points are spread out over several miles but, thankfully, there are shuttles vans that transport visitors from point to point.

I had bought a ticket that included a helicopter flight to the floor of the canyon. After some preliminary paperwork, I was given a blue bracelet that allowed me to pass through the fencing toward four neatly parked helicopters. As directed, I crawled into the front seat of one of them and found myself sitting right beside the pilot. This particular helicopter had a “see-through” floor!
As soon as the chopper lifted off it went up several hundred feet for a sweeping view of the canyon and river nestled along its floor. The colors reflecting the morning sun off the canyon walls were simply amazing. The descent to the canyon floor took only a few minutes but what an incredible ride it was. As I descended, the colors morphed from one shade to another right before my eyes. I was firing off photos but most are too blurred to see what I experienced during this rapid decent.
From the West Rim, the floor of the canyon is about 4,000 feet down. The pilot explained that temperatures vary greatly within the canyon from the top of the rim to the canyon floor. Sometimes, he said, the temperature can change by as much as 25 degrees. But today the only real change I noticed was a marked absence of the wind when I arrived at the canyon floor.
The chopper put me down near a small dock where several pontoon boats were at the ready. I was about to take my first ever ride on the Colorado River. The water around the boarding area was quite calm, although the guide told me about swirling rapids that were just a few thousand feet ahead.

Eagle Rock

Along with the Rio Grande, the 1450-mile-long Colorado River is one of the principal rivers in the Southwestern United States. This river winds its way through parts of seven states in the U.S. and two in Mexico. There are 11 U.S. National Parks that include sections of this famous river. There were just three of us plus the guide in the small pontoon boat. While I genuinely enjoyed my first-ever ride along the Colorado, I found it quite difficult to focus upon the river itself. The beautiful walls of this famous canyon soared above and my attention was largely diverted to these majestic cliffs.
Once the chopper returned me to the top of the West Rim, I decided to explore an area known as Eagle Point, which was named after a natural rock formation that very much resembles an eagle. This magnificent rock formation is considered to be sacred by the Hualapai Indians. This area also includes a Native American village where I explored the dwellings of some of the indigenous tribes – the Hualapai, Navajo, Hopi, and Havasupai. As I strolled through traditionally built houses, I was amazed to discover the unique architecture and functionality of these structures. The experience was like going back in time to a simpler period of human existence.
Later on I discovered an amphitheater where Native American dances are performed each day at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. There is also a Native American Gift Shop that includes not only the usual “touristy” souvenirs but also handcrafted jewelry and weavings made by the Hualapai, Hopi, and Navajo tribes.
The most popular attraction at Eagle Point is the famous Grand Canyon Skywalk – a 10-foot wide horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that extends 70 feet out over the canyon providing spectacular views of the Colorado River below and an unobstructed view straight down into the canyon. Critics of the this project, however, point out that this cantilevered structure, while itself an engineering marvel, actually extends over a side canyon that is only about one-fifth as deep at the Grand Canyon itself. While you can see the Colorado River down below, the river itself is not directly beneath the Skywalk. Rather, it is about a mile to the west. Of course, the Colorado River can be seen from several other viewing locations that do not require you to purchase the nearly $100 Skywalk ticket. Also, many tourists are disgruntled to learn that no photographs may be taken from the Skywalk bridge. All cameras must be declared and checked before walking out onto the bridge. The official reason being to “protect the surface” should the cameras be dropped. This rule is enforced by security guards and metal detectors.
The canyon itself is noted for its dramatic colors with hues that reflect off its walls as the sun moves across the sky. People stand, as if genuinely awestruck, and take photo after photo of this amazing canyon which is often described as the most beautiful gorge in the world. The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven “Natural” Wonders of the World. This “Grand” canyon puts the grandeur of mother nature on display in a way that few other places on this earth can . Among the country’s first national parks, the Grand Canyon has long been considered a U.S. treasure – and an extremely vast one at that. Its immense size often leaves its more than five million annual visitors speechless. The Grand Canyon had that kind of effect on me, and I would wager that this grand gorge will have a similar effect on you!

Next time: “Venice and its timeless streets of water”

Dr. Watson E. Mills says, “This article is the 20th in a 28-part series based upon the Smithsonian’s List of ’28 Places to See before you Die.’ These 28 places are divided into seven groups of four each. Next time we will venture into the group titled ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.’ This group includes Venice, the Amazon Rain Forest, the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands. The continued existence of places in this group, in the view of some environmentalists, is in danger because of our failure to take proper care of the planet.”

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