The helicopter skimmed above the earth, high enough so that we could see the desert landscape dotted with cacti and scrub bushes for miles in front of us, but low enough so that the shadow of the red Papillon helicopter was visible above the ground. The helicopter banked to the right for its initial descent, and then, suddenly, there it was: The Grand Canyon.
I’d been to the Grand Canyon several times before, both on the North Rim and the South Rim, but I’d never actually been in the canyon (though not from lack of trying; I’ve applied for back country passes to hike rim to rim but have not been selected). When given the opportunity by Papillon to take the Grand Celebration Tour, a Grand Canyon helicopter tour, to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, about five miles from the West Rim, I was ecstatic.
Sometimes it can be hard for me to fully appreciate a destination if I’ve been there time and time again, but this was an opportunity to see a common destination (for me) from an entirely new perspective … and I got to share the moment with our foreign exchange student, which made it even more awesome.
Our morning started off ridiculously early with a pick up at Palms hotel at 5:00 a.m. Like many tour companies in Las Vegas, Papillon sweeps the Strip with a comprehensive hotel pick up so that people don’t have to worry about renting a car. At long last, we finally reached the Boulder City Airport, a small, regional airport, where we boarded our helicopter. We were given the front seats next to the pilot, which meant we had awesome views on the sides and in front of us. After a series of safety checks, our helicopter lifted a few feet off the ground and hovered for a few moments as we got permission to lift off. It’s been years since I rode in a helicopter, and I’d forgotten what a weird and unnatural sensation it is to hover above the ground. Admittedly, we were both giddy with excitement as we lifted off from the ground.
The ride to the Grand Canyon passes over the Hoover Dam and the giant bypass bridge. From the ground, they’re impressive; from the air, they’re almost even more impressive because you can see the whole package, which provides an entirely different perspective of how massive this man-made wonder really is. I know the Southwest is barren and expansive, but from a helicopter, that fact is made abundantly clear. En route to the Grand Canyon, we flew over an abandoned desert airstrip and a place where two bodies of water meet. The desert, though dry and dusty, is colorful and vibrant.
Our pilot pointed out highlights along the way, and some people asked questions over the shared headset system, but for the most, we all rode in silence, taking in the entire experience—the landscape, the sites and the helicopter ride itself—until we rounded a rocky bend and began our descent into the Grand Canyon.
There is a spot about five miles from the West Rim where all the helicopters land in the canyon. It is a part of the canyon that isn’t as wide or deep as that section found in the national park. The Colorado River didn’t seem to be moving as fast either, and when we touched down at the bottom of the canyon, I felt more like we were standing in Zion National Park than in one of the world’s most famous natural features.
The only people who reach this part of the canyon are those who take a helicopter tour or happen to be floating down the river, so it’s very quiet compared to other canyon visitation options. There were two other helicopters in the canyon while we were, and with only six or eight people in each vehicle, it meant we basically had the area all to ourselves.
Papillon’s Grand Celebration Tour, like the other similar helicopter tours that land in the canyon, stops for about 20 minutes. When I read the description of the experience, I didn’t think this would be nearly enough time for a stop—this is the Grand Canyon, after all—but it’s actually the perfect amount of time to snap a few photos, enjoy the picnic snack or lunch provided by the tour companies and wander around the small landing area before piling back into the helicopter for the ride back to the airport.
The flight route from the airport to the Grand Canyon is circular so as to alleviate air traffic, which means the views on the way back to Boulder City were different. At one point we flew over a huge, desolate area of land that had been partitioned into plots. Rumor is that these huge desert plots would be a great city escape for the rich and famous, and they were put up for sale for top dollar. No one bought in, and today people can supposedly have the plot of land for free (with no water or electricity) if they agree to live there.
Before too long, our helicopter began to descend toward the airport and then hovered above the tarmac before landing. We disembarked, high on the adrenaline of riding in a helicopter and seeing the Grand Canyon from a new perspective. It was an awesome opportunity, and an exciting, interesting way to explore a place that I feel like I’ve gotten to know really well since moving to Las Vegas.
If you go:
> High helicopter tour season runs from the late spring to early fall. Book early to ensure you get the tour you desire.
> The hotter the air, the more turbulence you are likely to experience.
> Come prepared to take pictures … lots of them!
> There is no cell phone service in the canyon.
> This is a great Grand Canyon tour option if you don’t have time for a day or weekend trip.
I was a guest of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters but all opinions are my own.