A Grand Canyon Experience is sort of on your bucket list, right?
When I say sort of, I mean, many of us think of our bucket list travel destinations as those far off places that we have a fat chance of ever getting to. In the case of the Grand Canyon, it is a destination that many people living in the US want to visit. What is more, unlike many of our bucket list trips, the Grand Canyon is a dream trip we all believe we have a reasonable expectation that we will be able to do so in our lifetimes.
My dream Grand Canyon trip would include the whole shebang.
Rafting on the Colorado, riding the mule to the bottom and camping, would be included.
Maybe spending a few nights at one of the historic canyonside lodges would top it all off. I want to absorb the full experience of the Canyon.
It seems a more likely option than a trip to Hawaii, or Europe for many Americans.
Then I started doing some research, and I learned the truth.
Half of the other residents of the US feel the same way. Then there are all of the frequent travelers from around the world, who yearn to see all of the worlds wonders. Grand Canyon experiences are in high demand! That makes it expensive. That also means that exciting activities such as a rafting trip book up many months, sometimes years, in advance. Quite often those far in advance bookings require payment at the time of the reservation.. My dreams of a Grand Canyon Experience were not seeming so accessible any more.
All I can say with a laugh, is thank God for Las Vegas!
In the realm of travel within the US, Las Vegas is actually a relatively inexpensive city to visit, if you stay away from the gambling tables, and choose some of the amazing free activities. A Grand Canyon day trip out of Las Vegas can often be reserved just a few days ahead. And, a really good trip costs less than $200 per person, without a helicopter option, and with the helicopter, less than $400.
We booked a VIP Grand Canyon Experience through Gray Line Tours and Papillon Enterprises, just 5 days in advance. For me, to experience the Grand Canyon was the highlight of our trip to Las Vegas.
What exactly is a VIP Grand Canyon Experience?
Commencing the Grand Canyon Day Trip
At 05:10 in the morning, a Gray Line Mercedes Sprinter picked us up from our resort. The sprinter is a relatively comfortable 11 seater psuedo-van/bus type vehicle. There is some leg room, and some overhead storage. It was also equipped with a 36” television.
After the members of our group were all picked up, the Sprinter makes a stop at the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.
Every hopped out to get their Instagram and Snapchat photos.
Then we went on to the main bus depot. Our group was shown to a small, private room to the side, with glass walls. A receptionist checked us in, and gave us colored bracelets, depending on which options of the tour we were participating in.
Then we sat and snacked on small breakfast items that were provided, including fruit, doughnuts, croissants, juice, and coffee.
As we waited, we could see the huge lines of tourists in the terminal, lined up, and checking in for a variety of different tours. Many of them were also going to the Canyon, but they had not opted for the VIP Grand Canyon Experience. They did not get to sit and eat breakfast, and it seemed they had to stand in line for quite some time.
I do think we were at the terminal a bit longer than necessary, but it was quiet and comfortable where we waited. There was a television on, and began to make acquaintance with some of our other travel companions.
When the time was right, our group of 10 travelers was shown to the same Sprinter that we arrived in. Seats are assigned though, and we are separated by which activities we were participating in. That seemed a bit pointless to me, since there were only 10 of us in our group. Then our driver boards, and formally introduces herself. She had pretty much been a lifelong area resident, and was very knowledgeable about the history and geography of the surrounding vistas. We would learn a lot from her as the day progressed.
For example, I had no idea that Las Vegas sat at an elevation of 2,000 feet above sea level, in a valley surrounded by different mountain ranges. She told us the names of each of these mountain ranges, and in some cases, the circumstances that resulted in the names.
As we drive she also tells us interesting facts about the things we see along the road, which include everything from creosote bushes, and how they grow, to abandoned gold mines, to on roof air condition systems in suburbs.
A Stop at Hoover Dam
Our first stop was for Hoover Dam viewing on the Mike O’Callahan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.
Historically the dam was the bridge, meaning travelers through this area slowed and narrowed down to a single lane highway along the dam. After the terrorists events of September, 2011, a continuous daily flow of traffic across the dam became too big of a security risk. A breach in the dam would not only cut off the electrical power to Las Vegas, and hundreds of miles in 4 states, it would also eliminate the water supply for much of the area, and California’s Paradise Valley, where the largest supply of US fresh vegetables are grown.
Hoover Dam was built between 1931 and 1935 to control the Colorado River, which was prone to flooding, and often refered to as raging. The river grew to such extremes that it flooded the chasm of the Black Canyon, which now holds Lake Mead, and created a Salton Sea. Franklin Roosevelt ordered the construction of the dam, which took 5 years to complete, "opening" in September, 1935.
This is an area of biggests and firsts. It was the worlds largest dam at that time, spanning 1,244 feet across the canyon. It was also once the world's tallest dam, standing 726 feet high. It was the worlds largest hydroelectric facility at the time of construction, and was for 10 years. It also created the US largest reservoir, which is over 248 square miles, capable of holding in simplest terms, over a trillion gallons of water. Today, the dam supplies water and electricity to significant portions of 3 states, and into Mexico.
US Route 93 formerly ran along the top of the dam. When security risk became a big and legitimate concern, the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge was built to keep traffic flowing smoothly, and to prevent the security risk of continuous traffic flowing over the dam. The bridge was also an engineering feat, and took 5 years to complete. It is now the longest single span concrete arch bridge in the west, and the second tallest bridge in the US.
It also became the perfect viewing location for Hoover Dam.
Security is still a concern, and vehicles must all stop for a security check, before entering the visitors area of the bridge. The visitors area has educational displays about the building of the dam, and the bridge. Several flights of steps must be climbed to get onto the bridge, which is equipped with a wide pedestrian lane.
On our tour, 20 minutes were allotted for visitors to climb the steps up to the bridge, and get their photos of Hoover Dam. While it may seem like plenty of time, it passed quickly. I barely made it back to the van by right on the moment of departure time.
It is also possible to take a half-day trip, to actually tour the dam itself. This tour takes you inside the dam, providing a lot of information, and an opportunity to see the electricity generating turbines in action. However, this was not included in our Grand Canyon Experience. I was happy just for the opportunity to see the amazing dam from such a vantage point.
The Helicopter Flight- The best part of the Grand Canyon Experience
We then begin the long drive to the Canyon, with a stop at Kingman, Arizona, for a necessities break, and to grab a to go snack, for those who need one. Again, this is a very brief stop, giving the driver time to top off the fuel, then we move on. We learned at this point that the true hurry was that our driver wanted to stay ahead of the multitudes of tour buses that were also en route to the Canyon. After the brief stop, there are two hours of continuous driving. We all sit back to relax, and a movie is played on the television. Watching the scenery, gradual shifts in surrounding plant life are clear.
At last we arrive at the airfield, where those of us who are taking the helicopter ride separate from the rest of the group. The main group goes on to the National Geographic Visitors Center, where they have the opportunity to view the IMAX film, the Hidden Secrets of the Grand Canyon. They have lunch, and then peruse the gift shop.
The helicopter group signs in, and gets weighed in. This is necessary for a proper distribution of weight within the helicopter, and to ensure capacity is not exceeded. We then watch a short film and get briefed on safety. Then we wait until our time to board.
We are told where to sit, and board the helicopter in specific order. We belt ourselves in with very secure seatbelts, and put on noise blocking headsets. The headsets have a microphone, so we can talk to other members of the group.
Everyone is surprisingly quiet though. Once we are all secure, we launch.
The ride to the Canyon takes longer than I expected. We cross what appears to be an expanse of flat land, that is lightly forested with Ponderosa Pines, which are the dominant species at this altitude.
Riders are quiet, watching intently, snapping their photos.
Then the Odyssey, 2001 Theme begins playing in our headsets, and we know the approach is fast.
A few of us giggle nervously, and then there it is.
We are coming over the edge of the mile deep chasm that is the Grand Canyon.
Perhaps of all the ways to experience Grand Canyon, this is the most amazing.
A clear view from top to bottom, between the incredible structures.
At least 12 different distinct types of rocks form the Canyon, each with unique structures, densities, and colors.
All of these are clearly visible in the dramatic striations in the walls, and the monumental columns.
The Colorado River flows along below, tiny and blue, and it is hard to grasp this small flow of water created this gash in the plateau.
There is no way to possibly describe in words the majesty.
In the background the pilot is talking, telling us the names of some of the pillars below, named for Gods around the world, and it is no wonder. I make a mental note to remember them, as I photograph, but I am too awestruck to remember them later.
We point out to our fellow riders particularly amazing views, but mostly we are silent. We hear one another mumbling “wow,” and other such exclamations.
Then we are flying back over the plateau. We stare out onto the horizon. Still we are silent, but we feel somehow connected to the others on our flight. This experience has bonded us.
When we are back at the heliport, we realize that one of our group is not also part of our day tour, and it is emotional. We all feel compelled to shake his hand, to wish him good luck, to bid him farewell.
Bright Angel Lodge
Then we met up with the rest of our group at the National Geographic Visitors Center. We are handed a box lunch as we climb immediately into the Sprinter to move on to our first on land stop, which is Bright Angel Lodge.
Bright Angel Lodge sits at the location that was most popular among visitors from the very first days that the Grand Canyon became widely known, and popular. Travelers came to the canyon by wagon or stagecoach, to this accessible and outstanding viewing point. Yet the lodging options were often miles away, and sometimes, nothing more than tents,
The first hotel on this site was built in 1896, finally providing weary visitors with a way to sleep right at the south rim, and a small community grew up around it. The stagecoach from Flagstaff routed directly to the hotel. It would be a few years later, in 1901 when the railway finally finished laying tracks to Grand Canyon Village. A depot was built a very short distance from the lodge, near what is now the El Tovar Hotel.
With the new train stop, tourism increased, and there was a constant influx of visitors. Bright Angel Hotel was expanded, over and over, until in the 1930s it was a hodgepodge of additions, and run down accommodations. Construction on the Bright Angel Lodge we see today, was commenced soon after.
Painstaking care was taken to preserve the native trees and bushes growing in the area, and to build a facility that would sort of blend in with the natural surroundings. Ultimately the lodge would become one of the most visited locations along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, for those seeking rooms, and those want services at the time of their visit. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are several options for lodging here, for those who are visiting the Canyon for a longer time frame. There are a number of visitor services and amenities including a number of restaurants and coffee shops, gift shops and museums. There is even an emergency car service shop for those who drive to the canyon.
Bright Angel Lodge is one of the most famous and most visited stops along the south rim of the Canyon. The Lodge is in the midst of the Historic Grand Canyon Village. The area can be crowded, however, the various lookouts, attractions, and trails, provide space for people to spread out.
This was the point when my traveling companions and I really understood the benefits of taking the VIP tour. As we climbed out of our little 10 seater Sprinter, we could see other groups climbing out of large busses by the dozens on the far side of the lot, clamoring to get ahead of each other. “I am so glad we are not with them,” one of my friends commented.
“No kidding,” a fellow member of our group responded.
Yavapai Point was our next stop. Technically, this stop is not actually a part of this tour, but our driver made a quick detour, to be sure we had an opportunity to see the canyon from this location. Yavapai was my favorite viewing spot all day, outside of the helicopter. The crowds were thinner than at the other stops, and it was possible to get up “close to the edge,” for some fantastic photos. In addition, the views were the most long and colorful, from my perspective.
Yavapai also has a geology Museum, which explains the history and distinction of each of the rock layers visible in the canyon, from top to bottom. The museum was envisioned just after Grand Canyon National Park was founded, in 1919, to help visitors understand the geological formation of the Grand Canyon so they could more fully grasp the scope of what they saw. Contributors to the museum ranged from the Rockefeller Memorial, the Carnegie Institute, the American association of Museums, the National Academy of Sciences, the national Research Council and the Geological Society of America.
Yavapai was chosen as the site for the museum because every force and factor that was being researched and that would be presented in the museum, was visible from the rim. Yavapai then became known as the Key to the Grand Canyon.
The museum hosts a number of interpretive displays including scale models of sections of the canyon, and others that explain the striation, the tectonic plate uplift and the role of the Colorado River. Native plants and wildlife, as well as the canyons impact on various cultures in the area, can also be learned.
This trip does not allow time to actually explore the museum, but it is an option for those who come on their own. There is also a geological timeline trail, with informational signs and telescopic viewers between Yavapai and Bright Angel.
Mather Point - Final Stop on the VIP Grand Canyon Day Trip.
Upon entering Grand Canyon National Park through the main park entrance, Mather is the first lookout point from the rim, that you will come upon. It is a primary stop for most visitors. It is also where one of the Grand Canyon national Park signs is located, which many visitors, including us, sought out to get their Facebook photos.
Mather was by far the busiest location we visited all day. There were at least 15 buses in the lot, and it seemed that every tour group was wrapping up their day in the same location. Again, everyone in our group noted how pleased they were to NOT be a part of one of the large tour bus groups.
It was actually necessary to wait to climb down the steps to the viewing areas, as there was such a crowd. My friends fought the crowd and got a spot, while I walked along the side at the top, and found some other views. This also enabled me to creep them for a few minutes, and get a couple impromptu shots of them as they viewed the canyon.
Mather has a visitors center where food, gifts, and facilities are available, to the south of the main parking area, and several new features for visitors including a rimside amphitheater for ranger programs. There are two primary lookout points, which seem to emerge out into the canyon for amazing views. Both also have secure fencing which not the case in every location visited.
The sun was beginning to descend by the time we were at Mather Point, so the shadows were deepening, and the colors were profound.
Ending Our Grand Canyon Experience
After Mather Point, we again climb into our van for the long ride back to Las Vegas. A movie plays. Some of us doze off, others talk to their newly made friends, people from all over the world, who we shared this experience with. Our group included 7 of us from the eastern US, and 3 traveling from India. The odds are we will never see any of them again, but we shared a once in a lifetime experience together.
I pondered how grateful I was for the experience, and all I had learned on the Grand Canyon Day Trip. One of the things which completely surprised me was the altitude of the Canyon. I had always imagined it being very little above sea level, and very hot. While this is the case at the base of the river, which is a mere 125 feet above sea level, the south rim is actually over 7,000 feet above sea level. This is a thousand feet higher than Klingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokey Mountains!
Along those same lines, I imaged the canyon flora to be a combination of cacti, Joshua Trees, and intermittent barren landscape. In fact, the rim is relatively forested, with various species of pines, with Ponderosa Pines being a fairly dominant feature.
Lastly, I expected the wildlife to be a mix of snakes, lizards, and scorpions, what we envision as typical desert animals. I failed to realize that altitude changes the desert, fromt he plants, to the animals that live there. Animals abundant in the rim area include squirrels, bighorn sheep, mule deer, bison, and elk.
We make the stop in Kingman, Arizona again, this time for a to go dinner. The Sprinter is mostly quiet through the remaining 2 hours back to the city. Then we are amidst the bright lights of the strip again.
Stops are made at each of the resorts that members of our group have come from, and we bid them all farewell, as they depart, wishing them all the best, and many future adventures. It is after 9 when we arrive back at our hotel, and we are worn out from our long day.
Experience the Grand Canyon, on a Grand Canyon Day Trip!
If Grand Canyon is on your bucket list, I encourage you to find that opportunity to spend a couple nights along the rim. Schedule time for Hiking the Canyon, making the climb to the bottom, or rafting down the river. If you are traveling with a family, you want to give children a a longer period of time to experience the wonder, and to take it all in. Consider scheduling in advance to lodge in the park, and check out these tips for the Grand Canyon with Kids.
If you have a longer period of time for your vacation, make the Grand Canyon part of a Great American Road Trip, or an American National Park Road Trip. Maybe see some of the other natural wonders in Arizona, or nearby Utah.
But, if all of those seem like a far off option, consider a Grand Canyon Day Trip, out of Las Vegas.
There are a number of providers offering a similar trip, but I give the highest recommendation to Papillon Tours, and Gray Line Tours, who offer this tour in conjunction. You will now find this tour listed as the Platinum South Rim Tour. And, by the way, they had no idea I was a travel writer, or planning to write this story.
If you don’t want to go to Vegas, a Grand Canyon Day Trip can also be arranged from Flagstaff, Sedona, or Phoenix. Papillon Tours also offers tours from these locations.
Seeing the Grand Canyon, is an experience of a lifetime, no matter how it is done. I hope to go back, and do a more extensive excursion some day. But, I feel a tiny bit more complete as a human being, having stood on the rim, and seen this wonder of the world. An inexpensive day trip is a great way for our hard-working readers, to make that happen!