Updated: Jul 20
Why do you think people visit the Grand Canyon? Think it’s because it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you heard about it as a kid and have been meaning to visit since you were in those red corduroys. Or maybe you’re heading to Las Vegas, and thought you’d take a Grand Canyon trip since you’re so close by. Whatever the reason, the pull is enough to draw millions of people a year, making the Grand Canyon one of the most visited national parks in the United States, according to the National Park Service.
Except the West Rim isn’t a national park at all. It’s managed by the original Native American inhabitants, the Hualapai tribe, which means it’s a completely different experience (and richer, might I add) than the other rims. It doesn’t receive federal funding, so they have more flexibility to enhance your experience like the glass SkyWalk or the new zip line spanning across the canyon. There are so many different ways to see the Grand Canyon, but if you’re going to scratch it off your bucket list, there’s one way that stands out above the crowd: and that’s by helicopter.
Why you should take a helicopter on your Grand Canyon trip
Now, hear me out…especially if the idea of getting in a helicopter makes you want to pee a little. If you really want to feel like you’re living, not just alive, you have to do something that scares you every once in a while. That’s how we grow. Sure, you could sit on a bus for the better part of a day, listening to a screaming child a few rows ahead of you, breathing in the sweet tang of sewage every time the lavatory door swings open. That’s how most people get to the Grand Canyon. And why wouldn’t they? It’s cheaper, a lot less scary for some and doesn’t really require you to leave your comfort zone.
OR- you could remember that you have one single, solitary life and become the action hero in your own vacation memories. Yep, taking the helicopter is going to cost a little more and you may need to pop Dramamine like they’re Tic Tacs, but it’ll save you a ton of time (around 4.5 hours round trip) and you’re worth every “trip of a lifetime” penny. If you’re concerned about your budget, there are lots of ways to cut vacation costs, but this isn’t the place to skimp. You wouldn’t buy sushi from the gas station, right (seriously – that’s gross)? Well this is the same scenario; you get what you pay for.
If you’re like me: secretly terrified of flying, slightly claustrophobic and prone to motion sickness – you’re probably thinking I’m nuts for even suggesting something so heinous. But from one wimp to another, I’m here to tell you it will be one of the best things you ever do for yourself.
What happened when I flew in a helicopter on my trip to the Grand Canyon
We met our funny and confident pilot, Dan from Maverick Helicopters, near the tarmac and despite the knots that were waging war in my stomach, he managed to distract me and settle my nerves a little (a momentary cease-fire if you will). That is until we climbed aboard and were strapped in with as many harnesses as a child-safety seat. Teatime was over – the war raged on. The helicopter hovered just off the ground and swayed back and forth until our bodies rattled like bobble-head dolls.
“Everybody okay?” Dan radioed through our noise-canceling headsets. That question is usually a surefire way to know you’re experiencing vomit- inducing activity. We all mumbled or nodded various forms of nervous approval and the helicopter lurched forward into the sky. We rose above the impressive Las Vegas Strip, still giddy with excitement for some and disbelief for others (ok, mainly me). The helicopter tours looked like a flock of geese on the horizon, flying single file toward the Grand Canyon. Vegas feels a lot like a Monopoly board stacked with houses and hotels from this vantage point.
What you’ll see on your Grand Canyon trip
Once out of town, we skimmed over the tops of ancient volcanoes and caught our first sight of the brick-red peaks in the Valley of Fire. The mountains looked like they bubbled right out of the ground, bright and rich in the barren desert. I’ve driven through this ridiculously beautiful state park, and you should too if you haven’t, but nothing prepared me for a bird’s-eye view of the mountain ranges. It felt as if we could skim our fingertips along the bumpy ridges.
One thing that will surprise you is to actually see how much land is still completely untouched in Nevada. It was truly awesome to see that there were still places in nature that hadn’t been spoiled by suburban sprawl (albeit explainable because there’s no friggin’ water). There were no trails, no roads and no civilization out there; we never would have been able to see these places without the helicopter and neither would you. OMG that meant there was nobody to rescue us either! See how quickly we went from looking at the pretty desert to the vice tightening in my tummy again?
It feels like a good time to mention that I was the only manic person on the helicopter. Everyone else was ogling over how vivid blue Lake Mead was below, which I also couldn’t help but notice was so dreamy from this vantage point (sounds lame, I know). I turned my personal air-conditioning vent straight on my face like I’d been told to do and willed myself to relax. By the way, if you start to get motion sick in a helicopter, focus on a fixed point on the horizon and turn your personal air- conditioner vent straight on your forehead. Thanks for that super valuable nugget, Pilot Dan.
What happens when your helicopter lands inside the Grand Canyon
Our excitement spiked when we cleared the lip of the West Rim and began our descent to the canyon floor. The mountains are deeply chiseled and sprawl out as far as the eye can see, like knuckled fingers reaching for the horizon. Maverick boasts that they go farther and deeper in than anyone else (ba-dum bum), and it’s true – this part of the Grand Canyon is about a mile deep.
We (and by we, I mean Pilot Dan) squeezed the helicopter onto an impossibly small piece of earth that was wedged into the canyon wall. When we hopped out, we were almost completely alone. There were other helicopters much farther down the canyon, but they weren’t even within earshot of us. In fact, the only thing we could hear after the rotors were shut off was Russell the Raven (seriously, the pilots named him), who lives in the canyon. He apparently came for the champagne too, but there was no way I was sharing mine – I had earned my glass fair and square.
Dan warned us all to be mindful of the sheer cliffs that dropped into the rushing Colorado River below. And after seeing how far down it was, we all kept a safe distance and decided to soak up our slice of seclusion at the picnic table instead. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of life tucked inside the canyon. Animals, flowers and some gnarly cacti that are taller than one-story houses.
It’s surreal to sit there and stare up at the soaring interior walls of the Grand Canyon, definitely not something you feel when you peer down over a guardrail at the rim. That is really what sets this experience apart from others. You see the vastness of the canyons and the solitude of being slipped into a secluded cliff-side. The lack of tourists in one of the most famous and heavily visited attractions in the world is amazing. There wasn’t even anyone to photobomb us. You can actually appreciate Mother Nature without the throngs of elbowing people, all fighting to take the same picture.
We snacked and sipped, taking in all the majesty around us, then regretfully packed up to return to civilization. But not before we flew over and landed on protected Hualapai Indian lands to refuel among a grove of Joshua trees. “I didn’t even know what a Joshua tree was until the U2 album came out,” remarked one of our Aussie tourmates. Funny thing is, I hadn’t either. Thank you, Bono, for everything.
Your helicopter flight back to the Las Vegas Strip
Flying into the warmth of a sunset is also an experience you will never forget. It feels like a warm pat of butter has melted around the helicopter, casting everything in a golden glow. On our way back, we all switched seats and flew over sites like the Hoover Dam, the hot springs and a mountain called somebody’s nipple (Martha maybe?). The sites were tiny and grand all at the same time, and so were we (insert happy emotional tear).
We reached the Las Vegas Strip right at sundown and came so close to the top of the Stratosphere, I got the funniest urge to wave at the people standing on the observation deck. The lights were brighter, more vivid and completely unreal. There was a stark contrast between the scorched desert lands and the man-made glitz and glamour on the Strip. At risk of sounding highly cheesy, it was truly awe-worthy and unforgettable. Now I know how a mosquito feels when it’s being drawn to the lights of a bug zapper – without the gory ending, of course. I can confidently speak for the wonderful English and Aussie pairs that were with us when I say, it was over way too soon.
Still debating on booking your own Grand Canyon trip?
Remember this: you’ve got three or four days to make the most of your Vegas vacation. Which means you’ll probably have to choose between living it up on the Strip or finally scratching the Grand Canyon off your bucket list after all these years (and it’s hard to say when you’ll be on this side of the planet again). If you don’t want to be one of those people, book the helicopter. It was one of the best experiences in my life and I have a feeling unless you own your own helicopter, you’ll feel the same way.
More things to do after your grand canyon trip
Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last nine years and is a regular contributor for Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.