The rotor blades’ whirring noise was surprisingly muffled inside the Eurocopter AS350B2 helicopter. Without so much as a bump, we quickly found ourselves suspended a few meters above the ground. Swaying gently from side to side we waited until an arriving helicopter landed safely. “Are you okay?” I asked the Polish lady sitting next to me. Before boarding I found out it was also her first time to ride a chopper. Her brow furrowed in concentration, she nodded at me. She was clutching the edge of her seat tightly, fear written all over her round face. I couldn’t help smiling, admiring her feigned confidence. Before I knew it, we were already up in the air quickly leaving behind Boulder City and the sprawling Nevada desert. Wow, that was smooth. Much smoother compared to many airplane liftoffs I’ve experienced. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 5 star helicopter tour of Grand Canyon,” our pilot beamed, interrupting my thoughts.
The helicopter dipped for a second and then soared. Only a few minutes after departure, as we raised our eyes the most spectacular view greeted us – the arid, rose-red crags of the Grand Canyon West Rim. Located in Arizona, USA the Grand Canyon sprawls across 1,217,403 acres and is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Believed to have been carved by the Colorado River over the past five million years, it is home to some of the world’s oldest exposed rocks, almost 1.8 billion years old. The Colorado plateau was once a sea bed but as the land rose, the sea receded leaving fossilized sea corals, shells, etc., at the rim. Although Grand Canyon is not the only canyon in the world and not the deepest either, its dramatic landscape is unmatched anywhere relished by at least 5 million goggling visitors every year.
As we flew below the rim, the turquoise waters of Lake Mead gleamed in the the sun’s piercing glow. America’s largest reservoir and the world’s 16th largest man-made lake, it zigzagged through the western canyons and valleys, glistening amid the gray-brown landscape. Where the lake flowed placidly was once occupied by a bustling pioneer settlement in the 1860s named St Thomas. The town was once thriving with farms, homes and stores. But as the Colorado River’s water continued to rise filling St Thomas, the residents were left with no other choice but to evacuate. Mother Nature once again claimed what once was hers. “On your right is the Hoover Dam,” our pilot’s barely audible voice cracked on my earphone. Also known as Boulder Dam, the arch-gravity engineering marvel stands at 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long and was once one of the largest man-made infrastructures in the world. It was built in the 1930s to prevent flooding and provide irrigation and hydroelectric power to the hardscrabble region. Today it remains a magnificent sight to behold albeit incongruous in juxtaposition to the gaping gorges.
Seemingly competing for attention was the black-topped Fortification Hill, an extinct volcano at Lake Mead. As we flew through and up the canyons, we saw more flying buttresses, soaring pillars, spire-like rock formations, steep slopes that I would otherwise have missed completely had I taken a bus tour. If there is one place in America that will surely take one’s breath away, this is it. But nothing beats catching a glimpse of the serpentine Colorado River snaking through the canyons on the return flight as pièce de résistance.
5 star helicopter tours, www.5starhelicoptertours.com, price starts at USD 399.
Papillon, www.papillon.com, the website says price starts at USD 229 but it’s never available. Worth a try though, you might just get it.
Maverick, www.maverickhelicopter.com, price starts at USD 409
Sundance, www.sundancehelicopters.com, price starts at USD 410
Remember, haggling is the name of the game. Who knows, maybe you’ll get a better deal.
For those who have enough time, you can take a bus tour with any of the companies mentioned above. The trip takes at least 9 hours but does give you more time to enjoy the sweeping vistas and is much more affordable. Greyhound buses also ply the Las Vegas – Flagstaff route. Rate starts at USD 27 depending on the time of booking. The sooner you book the cheaper the rate. From Flagstaff you can catch the free shuttle to and from Grand Canyon National Park. For more transportation options please check here.
Camping in Grand Canyon and watching the sunrise (or sunset) is by far the best option. There are campgrounds within the Park but booking must be made in advance. Please check here for details. There are plenty of things to do and guided tours are available, check here for details.
For accommodation choices within the park, visit here. Do note that rooms get booked way in advance, sometimes 6-12 months in advance so timing is key. Price starts at USD 80++.
Good to know: The Grand Canyon West Rim Helicopter Air Tour offered by 5 star does not give you time to go to the rim. It does land at the Hualapai Indian Reservation but the 30-minute pit stop is not enough to get you to the rim for a photo op. Make sure to ask for a tour that takes you to the Guano Point and come back with a panoramic photo that will make your friends’ jaws drop. Just kidding but it would really make a fantastic keepsake.