There are some places in the world where, if you don’t put your hand in your pocket and do it properly, you’re just cheating yourself. And nowhere is that more true than the Grand Canyon.
It is perfectly possible to drive up to the Grand Canyon and have a peek, or turn up on a cheap tour bus and share exactly the same cheap experience with hundreds of others. But with both options, unless you’re prepared to undertake a strenuous hiking expedition down into the canyon, really limit what you can see and do.
Helicopters, therefore are the way forward. The flight from Las Vegas is a treat in itself, taking in the lakes, dams and desert mountain scenery at a bird’s eye view height. There’s a massive difference between looking at things from a passenger plane and a helicopter. With the former, you feel like you’re just flying over and straining to get a better picture. With the latter, you feel like you’re actually a part of what you’re seeing.
When the ‘copter gets to the canyon itself, however, it comes into its own. It can glide scarily close to the walls, lurching along with the curves that the Colorado River has cut out over millions of years. It’s a grand entrance into somewhere that feels completely wild. There are no cars parked here, no tour groups fighting for space and just the terrace-like lines of the canyon walls to mark the passing of time.
We land on a small dirt helipad, deep in Hualapai Indian territory. A small shack by the waterfront leads down to a boat ramp, where a Hualapai chap with a small boat prepares to take us down the Colorado River. It’s a majestic place; in equal measures peaceful and savage, and you can’t help but be intimidated by your surroundings.
The main joy of the Grand Canyon is that it isn’t fenced off. There are no guard rails inflicted by the health and safety types who rile Daily Mail readers so much, right up until the point when a child dies because there are inadequate health and safety measures in place. You can stand right at the edge, feet perched on precariously crumbly rocks, looking down at one of the seven natural wonders of the world (and certain death). There’s no-one there to stop you falling. Get away from the tour buses and take a moment to yourself on the edge, and it feels like the ultimate privilege.
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After mooching about for a good few hours at the top of the canyon, it’s time for our helicopter flight back to Las Vegas. This time, we’re in the front of the chopper, and everything seems a few hundred per cent cooler. We take a slightly different route back, over mountains, bleak ridges and land that has no roads or trails to sully it. This is the truly wild west.
But it’s where man has put his great big tacky footprint on the desert that wows the most. Flying into Vegas, we don’t head straight for the airport, but for a fly-by of the Strip’s absurd resorts and hotels. It’s a movie star experience; I’m bolt upright, alert, and with the rush of excitement coursing through me. I now understand why people get obsessive about helicopters. The buzz of the blades comes a distant second to the ability to fly right in amongst everything.
Disclosure: David was a guest of Viator. He did their Ultimate 4-in-1 Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour.