A Grand Plan

With The Spectacular New Skywalk Added To Helicopter Rides And Pontoon Trips, The Hualapai Hope To Lure More Visitors To Their Side Of The Canyon

April 15, 2007|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,Los Angeles Times


Ladies and gentlemen, boys, girls and bored gamblers: Let me remind you of a new opportunity to be among the first (thousand or so) to slide on booties and tread upon the Hualapai Nation's wacky new tourist attraction, the glass-floored Skywalk, which juts out over a western edge of the Grand Canyon, about 120 miles east of Las Vegas.

Of course, if you don't find the Wile E. Coyote perspective or the $74.95 price tag tempting, you may be inclined to turn away.

But walk with me anyway, for a few miles, in Hualapai booties. Because this isn't just about the Skywalk, a steel-and-glass viewing platform that has been cantilevered 70 feet out over the canyon at a cost of more than $30 million. It's about zooming in a helicopter below the canyon rim. And it's about floating on the Colorado River in a Hualapai boat, from which you see great red canyon walls towering above and are surrounded by silence, maybe, or maybe the distant buzz of some other tourist zooming above in a helicopter.

The Skywalk, which opened March 28, is the biggest gimmick in a many-pronged Hualapai plan to make the canyon pay. Add in the reservation's other attractions -- some up and running, others promised -- and they amount to a sort of alternative-universe Grand Canyon experience. The Hualapai call it Grand Canyon West. And from some angles, it looks pretty good.

"On the South Rim, it's wonderful to stand there and look over," said Kim Schoening, of suburban Phoenix, who sat by me on a Hualapai pontoon boat for a recent 20-minute foray on the river. "But this is just incredible."

In this alternative canyon, the helicopters can dip deeply because they've been excused from federal restrictions that keep other canyon flights higher up. The boats and rafts float more frequently too. Being a sovereign nation helps a lot with federal red tape.

Yet as recently as last month, there were no overnight lodgings handy, no fancy restaurants, no Imax theater, no guardrails at the busiest viewpoints, no rangers, no electricity, no sewer system. The place runs on generators. Trucks carry food and fuel in and waste out, and the Bureau of Land Management road into Grand Canyon West concludes with 14 unpaved miles that aren't much fun for anybody in a tour bus or a rental car with low clearance.

Given all this, it's not surprising to learn that in 2006 the Hualapai drew about 800 visitors a day (many of them foreigners on buses), versus about 10,000 a day who turned up at the South Rim. This is not your National Park Service's Grand Canyon.

But it is closer to Las Vegas than the park is -- about a 2 1 / 2 -hour drive, half the time it takes to reach the canyon's South Rim.

Hence the Hualapai's partnership with entrepreneur David Jin, who made his fortune operating tours for Asians to Las Vegas and sees Grand Canyon West as a chance to expand that empire. Instead of aiming for the roughly 4 million people who visit the South Rim yearly, Jin and the Hualapai are aiming for the 38.6 million who visit Las Vegas. This year, they hope to double the number of visitors to Grand Canyon West.

If this all seems strange, consider the Hualapai perspective: You are a native nation, about 2,000 strong. You need cash. You've already tried gaming, back in the early '90s -- and failed, because who wants to gamble in a fledgling Indian casino when Las Vegas is so close?

So here you sit on a million dry Arizona acres, competing with a natural wonder (the Grand Canyon) and an unnatural spectacle (Las Vegas). Along comes Jin, proposing an unnatural spectacle on a natural wonder. Of course!

Canyon lands

So, I got myself to Las Vegas and scheduled a 6:40 a.m. pickup for a daylong tour to the Hualapai's canyon lands.

The plan was that a guide from Big Horn Wild West Tours (which has an agreement with the Hualapai) would take me on a daylong excursion to the reservation, with sightseeing and dirt-road adventures along the way, then a quick flight and float in the canyon.

Then guide Scott Rivers rolled up in a Chevy Tahoe instead of the advertised Hummer -- it was in the shop -- and I wondered just how much those plans would change. But Rivers was companionable and full of information, and things smoothed out.

By 8 a.m., the dusty scrub of northern Arizona was flashing past us along U.S. 93 and we'd climbed to 4,000 feet, entering a world of rolling hills thick with 20-foot Joshua trees.

Those rugged final miles were no problem in the SUV, and the moment we hit Hualapai territory, the blacktop resumed. A sign warned of "low-flying aircraft." And then the ground fell away to my right. Far away. And I realized that the Grand Canyon had just sneaked up on me.

Now it was time to check off my touring checklist -- no simple task, because the Hualapai have scattered their attractions among four sites atop the rim, each at least 2 1 / 2 miles from the next. To travel among them, visitors park their cars and take shuttle buses that run every 15 minutes.

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