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All of the structures built at the Grand Canyon are fabricated to blend in with the timeless natural beauty of the landscape. Well, most of them. One that is decidedly not is the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass walkway that juts 70 feet out from the canyon wall and permits tour guests to look straight down to the floor of the canyon 4,000 feet below as they shuffle along.
The Grand Canyon Skywalk is found in Grand Canyon West, beyond the boundaries of the National Park Service in the lands of the Hualapai Nation. The Skywalk can not be reached by road fro
m inside the Grand Canyon National Park. Access is by road from Las Vegas (about two hours) or Phoenix (5 hours). Many visitors opt for helicopter tour service to reach the Skywalk – only a 45-minute ride.
It all begins with an idea
A businessman from Las Vegas named David Jin first approached the Haulapai Tribe with an idea for a glass bridge extending out from the canyon wall in 1996. The Haulapai representatives were adamant that nothing be constructed that would compromise the integrity of the canyon and it took seven years of back-and-forth talks before the tribe approved the plan.
Engineers had no prototype from which to work and teams from Lochsa Engineering and MRJ Associates debated about whether to build the skywalk out from the cliff’s edge or fabricate it on the ground and move it into place. The latter plan was adopted as it was believed to cause less disturbance to the existing rock; geotechnical engineers devised an anchoring system that would fasten the walkway to the the top of the cliff without requiring drilling into the canyon wall.
Becoming a Reality
The Skywalk was fabricated in Salt Lake City. The frame required the welding of 40-foot steel beams – so many that welders were on the job for four months. The existence of the Grand Canyon Skywalk is actually the triumph of welding. After the frame was finished 900 pounds of glass panels were adhered to the frame to create the finished bridge.
The entire shebang weighed 1.6 million pounds and had to be trucked from Utah to the remote location in Peach Springs, Arizona. Using a technique pioneered by the ancient Egyptians in building the pyramids, the engineers rolled the Skyway out from the cliff on cantilevered beams, an exacting procedure that required almost three days to execute.
“You feel like you are flying over the Grand Canyon”
Hualapai tribal members, David Jin and guests Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon) and John Herrington (the first Native American astronaut) made the first stroll on the Grand Canyon Skywalk on March 20, 2007 – some thirty months after the ground breaking ceremony.
Each of the 46 glass panels under foot consists of five layers of glass bonded together to a thickness of 2 1/2 inches. Each panel can support 100 square feet and the Skywalk is strong enough to hold 71 million pounds of weight – the equivalent of six-dozen 747 jet planes. Only about 80-120 people are testing the structure’s holding capacity above the canyon floor at any one time.
There is not admission to the Skywalk only. Ticket packages, which include entrance fees to Hualapai Tribal Lands, from the Grand Canyon West Tour Center are required. Tours of Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk can be crafted to include helicopter and ATV experiences. Grand Canyon tour companies like Papillon and Maverick Helicopters offer tours to the Skywalk from Las Vegas.
In the American West it is always horses that are the equines grabbing the headlines. If they aren’t saving the Lone Ranger or ambling along with singing cowboys on their back, horses are sprinting across deserts and mountains carrying mail for the Pony Express. Mules, a product of a female horse and male donkey, on the other hand are relegated to thankless jobs such as hauling supplies for aging, tooth-deprived prospectors.
But there is one place where the mule is a superstar – the Grand Canyon.
The first mules were employed in the canyon by miners in the 1800s. They were perfect for the job. Their horse ancestors provided the beasts of burden with nimbleness of foot (useful on narrow canyon trails) and size (Grand Canyon mules typically weigh between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds and once carried rock slabs with fossil imprints out of the Grand Canyon for the Smithsonian Institute in the 1920s that routinely weighed almost one ton). From their donkey blood comes such valued canyoneering traits as endurance and patience.
Did we say patient? One famous mule named Brighty who in 1890 was said to have waited faithfully at the bottom of the canyon for a year for his missing – and presumably drowned owners – to return. Like his famous horse cousins Brighty got a book and movie with Joseph Cotton made out of his story. A bronze statue of Brighty the burro greets visitors in the lobby of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim.
The Brilliant Idea
The man who is credited with putting tourists on the backs of mules instead of pickaxes and salt pork was an ex-Army captain named John Hance. In 1886 Hance began advertising his hotel on the canyon rim in the Flagstaff Arizona Champion and plugging his guided tours on the back of a mule.
Hance quickly discovered something unexpected. Even though his hotel was perched on the edge of one of the great natural wonders of the world the topic that dominated the dinner conversation among his guests was the ride on the back of a mule. So the mule trips became a fixture at the Grand Canyon.
The mule rides were so popular that brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb built a thriving business out of selling mule trip photographs to tourists. When the nascent enterprise kickstarted in 1903, Emery Kolb would shoot pictures of the riders as they entered the canyon and then sprint some four-and-a-half miles to get the prints developed. He ran back to have them for sale when the riders returned to the rim. The Kolbs were said to have photographed over three million mule riders, including presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Seeing the Grand Canyon on the Back of a Mule
Touring the Grand Canyon by mule remains one of the most popular ways to see the national park. The tour companies are limited to about 10,000 annual trips from the South Rim and 8,000 from the North Rim. Grand Canyon mules are outfitted with special saddles designed solely for their job and handmade at the Canyon. Among their unique features are a high cantle that keeps riders in the seat on the steep inclines. A prominent saddle horn also gives a nervous rider something big to grab onto atop the imperturbable mount.
Beneath the rim there is a small web of long trails that interweave. The most traveled is the celebrated Bright Angel Trail that departs from Grand Canyon Village and traces a serpentine route to Plateau Point, a six-mile jaunt that rewards its travelers with sunsets to last a lifetime. From there the trail continues to the Colorado River and the Inner Canyon. Since 1928 the mules (and people) have been crossing the river on the Black Bridge to link to the North Kaibib Trail from the North Rim.
Another popular descent into the canyon from the South Rim is the shorter, but every bit as spectacular South Kaibib Trail. For those not interested in overnighting in the canyon a three-mile mule trip to Skeleton Point and back is the go-to choice. The world-famous Phantom Ranch inside the Grand Canyon serves as the hub for mule trips below the rim.
There is a new mile ride for the casual rider. The Canyon Vistas ride starts with a shuttle bus ride to the stables near the head of the South Kaibab Trail. From here you a four mile through forest and along the rim near Yaki point. The trail you ride on does not go below the rim and you will run into few hikers if any. The trail isn’t really advertised to people and you won’t find a map of the East Rim trail. The whole tours last about three hours and you spend about two hours actually in the saddle. It is great trip if you don’t aren’t sure if you are ready for the longer ride to the bottom. You must be at least 4’7″ tall, weigh less than 225 lbs with everything on, speak fluent english and not be pregnant.
In many ways the Grand Canyon trails are the mules’ trails. The animals always have right of way on the trail, whether they are walking or resting. Mule trips are considered the safest way to see the Grand Canyon. There is no record of a tourist fatality on a mule in over 100 years of journeying into the Canyon. Whereas horses respond to a rider’s demands, mules are trained never to go over the side off the trail – even if encouraged by a rider. They are, after all, stubborn as a mule.
Since you were wondering, yes, people live inside the Grand Canyon. Supai Village, the capital of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, boasts a population of a couple of hundred residents. Although it is only 35 miles as the California Condor flies from the millions of annual visitors in Grand Canyon Village, Supai is considered the most remote community in the continental United States.
Supai is actually eight miles from the Colorado River, located in Huavasu Canyon, a tributary of the Colorado where the people draw their water from Havasu Creek. There is no road access to the village – you either fly in or walk in. Supai is the only place where the U.S. mail is delivered and carried out by mule.
A True Desert Oasis
Supai Village resides on tribal land and is beyond the boundary and jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The Havasupai value their privacy, as one would living in America’s most remote village, and no camping is permitted inside the village. There are no drugs and alcohol permitted on Havasupai land. The name “Havasupai” translates to “people of the blue-green waters” and it is those magical blue-green waters that draw people into the sphere of the Havasupai.
The signature hydrospectacular on the Supai tribal lands is Havasu Falls where the water plunges straight down from a wall of red rocks 90 feet into azure blue pools. Adding to an excess of riches, nature has also provided a sandy beach and cottonwood shade trees beside the swimming pools. Unlike other waterfalls in the Grand Canyon, Havasu Falls is fed by an underground spring so the water show takes place year-round. Some call Havasu Falls the most beautiful in the United States and there are not many arguments from those who have seen for themselves.
The Advantages of a Tour
It is places like Supai where a traveler can appreciate all the things a tour operator does. There are the tribal fees that must be taken care of to visit this special place. Those include a $5 per person Environmental Care Fee. There are the permits that must be obtained to travel on this land. There is the transportation that must be arranged to access Supai Village. There are the accommodations that must be booked, either in the campground two miles from the village or at Havasupai Lodge.
Just taking care of all the local regulations and permits and fees is enough to exhaust an intrepid traveler – and that is before the eight-mile trek from the parking area at Hualapai Hilltop even begins. And there is no access to drinking water on that eight-mile hike to the village. Then there is food and provisions that must be taken care of for an overnight or three-day adventure.
Beyond the logistics and safety considerations that tour companies offer there is local knowledge. Havasu Falls gets top billing at Supai Village but Mooney Falls is higher and some say Beaver Falls is even prettier. And there is Supai Falls and side canyons to explore and many more secrets that live in the heads of experienced tour guides. No one wants to make the journey to the most remote village to the Lower 48 and return only to discover something was missed. Excellent tours are offered by Four Season Guides, Wildland Trekking, Pygmy Guides and Just Roughin’ It.
Many people marvel at the sunsets that dance across the Grand Canyon. Then they walk back to the parking lot and head home. But those in the know realize that nature’s real show at the Grand Canyon is just beginning. With its lack of human intrusion for hundreds of miles the Grand Canyon is considered one of the best spots in America to study the celestial sky.
Make sure you come ready with a flashlight and bundle up since it gets cold at night, even int he summer. In fact, to truly be a night time explorer at the Grand Canyon do not use a regular flashlight since white light contributes to light pollution and fouls the natural lightscape. Create a red flashlight with red cellophane or by painting the lens with an erasable magic marker or red nail polish. Many flashlights on smartphones feature filters that can generate non-offending red light.
If it is the time of the month for a full, or nearly full moon, a moon rise above the canyon walls is not to be missed. The fabled Red Planet, Mars, can also be seen during certain times of the year. When the moon is absent the stars blaze above the canyon. You can pick up a star map at any park visitor center or download an app onto your phone and head out to any observation point along the South Rim to see the Milky Way and hunt for other constellations.
Ranger-led Evening Programs
The park staff has certainly not called it a day when night falls at the Grand Canyon. The rangers have a variety of Evening Programs through the years that can include star walks, campfire talks, ghost storytelling and even cemetery tours.
June is a highlight for sky watchers at the Grand Canyon. For eight days astronomers and rangers host a Star Party to make sense of the impossible dark skies above. The Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association handles observation duties on the South Rim and the Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix holds sway on the North Rim. Amateur astronomers from across the country chip in their knowledge of the skies during the Star Party.
On the South Rim, in addition to constellation tours on the half-hour there is a slide show to kick off each evening’s program during Star Party at 8:00 p.m. at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Telescopes are set up and ready for viewing Saturn, Venus, Mercury and more beginning just after sundown. At the North Rim telescopes are positioned on the lodge porch and star talks take place in the Grand Canyon Lodge auditorium.
The Star Party is free with park admission and the shuttle buses on the South Rim run until 10:30 p.m. Most of the telescopes are packed up by 11:00 p.m. but some astronomers, especially on warm nights, will linger for much longer and go on sharing their views. After all, you don’t get a chance to enjoy a Grand Canyon night every day.