One of the things we wanted to do during our stay in Las Vegas was take a few days out to visit the Grand Canyon. We um-ed and ah-ed about whether to hire a car and drive down, or whether to take a helicopter tour, but I thought it would be awesome to fly through it in a helicopter. Ideally I would have liked to have done both.
I also fancied the look of the Sky Walk, which is a glass walk-way that extends 70 feet out from the edge of the top of the West Rim of the Grand Canyon with nothing except a 4,000 foot drop below it and the Colorado river. It looked awesome in the pictures, but a friend who had been and done it told me that she would opt for the helicopter tour instead, largely because it would cost $86 (with taxes) for the two of us to visit the Sky walk, and you were not even allowed to take cameras or phones etc onto the Skywalk to take pictures. The official reason for this is that if you drop them, you could damage the glass beneath you, but as their own website says:
The new glass panes consist of five layers of glass bonded together that measure approximately 2 ½ inches thick. Each panel can support 100 pounds per square foot, equivalent to about 800 people, although only 60 to 120 people are allowed on the Skywalk at a time.
It seems far more logical to assume the real reason is that they also want to make money selling you the souvenir photographs that they sell.
I therefore settled on the idea of a helicopter tour, and thought this would kill two birds with one stone as it also gave us a helicopter tour of the Strip in Las Vegas. I researched helicopter tours, and settled on the only one that allowed us to stay down there and explore the area, we would also have the opportunity to stay on a working ranch.
We travelled with Virgin Holidays and they sold the tour with Heli USA their website currently says that the cost of this is $649 per adult, though I don’t think we paid that much (plus fuel surcharge which is advertised as an extra $50 per person at present, though we were charged $65 each.
We were booked onto the 3pm flight, but the time was pulled forward, and we almost missed it! Thankfully we did get on. Heli USA try to sell you a souvenir video, but we didn’t purchase it. I’m rather glad we didn’t to be honest. They use stock footage for the Grand Canyon rather than what you actually saw, and they make you jump and wave like a fool prior to take off for the camera. I would not have wanted to watch it back without cringing.
I did half consider buying it as I wondered if those who did would be allocated better seats (ie the front two next to the pilot) but they don’t. Each helicopter could have up to 6 passengers (or 3 couples) plus the pilot, with a maximum of four passengers seated across the back seat and two to the left of the pilot. The seating plan is entirely calculated on weight (they weigh you at check in). The lightest couple are allocated the seats in the front next to the pilot (that was us in both directions I’m happy to say).
We flew down over Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, and down towards the West Rim of the Grand Canyon from there. The Helicopter then drops down into the Grand Canyon and flies through it. It is absolutely amazing, and made me feel incredibly small. The pilot gave us a great guided tour the whole way down (we were quite lucky as we had Mike, one of the longest serving pilots with Heli USA, and he is particularly fun and informative).
Flying through the Canyon, it is a little hard to really gain a true perspective of just how huge it is; he told us that you could stand the Stratosphere tower end on end 4 times at the point we saw in the Western Rim, and at it’s deepest point, almost 6 times!
We flew past the Skywalk, which looks vast in the pictures you see of it, and it looked like a tiny tiny structure, barely over the lip of the Grand Canyon! We then flew off to the ranch. From what I had read in the sales blurb of the tour, I had imagined that the ranch would be a very short distance from the rim. I had assumed that our horse ride may even take us into the Canyon or around a part of the rim, but it was quite a distance-certainly too far to see on foot/horse back during our short stay there.
We stayed at Grand Canyon Ranch, which is right next to Spirit Mountain in Arizona. We were met by a wagon and taken down to the Diamond bar, where we were able to buy drinks and were sent to our respective accommodation. Guests can either book a ‘luxury’ pine cabin, or a traditional tipi. The tipi option is cheaper, although we booked it because it seemed like a more fun option… That said, you should be aware that there is a hole at the top, you can see the stars out through the top of it. When asked what happened if it rained-we were simply told “you get wet”. Ha ha! I suppose we asked for that really!
From here, we were left to our own devices for a while to get settled and chill out. It was forecast to rain the night we were there, which is pretty rare in Arizona, though thankfully, it didn’t. The scenery was just beautiful, although it did feel very ‘touristy’. In fact, about 80% of the people on our tour were Brits who had also booked through Virgin.
We booked for the sunset horse ride through the Joshua tree ‘forest’. My partner is not a lover of horse riding, and isn’t an experienced rider, though that didn’t stand in the way of him doing it. The horses at Grand Canyon ranch are so placid and well ridden in, that they have even had groups of blind children who were able to do the ride!
I had a beautiful, majestic proud looking horse called ‘Sunday’, and much to my amusement and my partner’s dismay, he ended up with a dog-eared, grumpy little horse named ‘Crabby’ after his temperament. My partner was told that Crabby was not allowed to ride in front of other horses, as he didn’t like other horses, and would kick them. He had to ride at the rear of the tour, whilst my horse’s pecking order was at the front.
The views through the ride were amazing, the Joshua trees are quite bizarre. One thing that did creep me out as an arachnophobic; was learning that there were tarantulas in the area. One of the other people on the tour with us, took a picture of a tarantula that they saw sitting in a shallow hole. All of a sudden, sleeping in a tipi with a hole at the top, no proper door (just a flap) and gaps underneath the canopy didn’t seem quite so ‘fun’ after all… Snakes dont bother me, but there are also rattle snakes in the area too.
We arrived at a clearing, to watch the sun setting over Spirit Mountain whilst Mike, the resident ‘singing cowboy’ played his guitar and sang to us as we each had a glass of champagne. We were sat next to each other in couples for this part, and crappy lived up to his reputation as he kicked the cowboy who led my horse up to him so that I could sit next to my partner. I wanted to giggle, as my partner was sat there looking distinctly embarrassed and awkward on this stroppy little horse with it’s bad attitude problem, as the cowboy cussed and cursed; but I managed to restrain myself as the poor guy was actually in considerable pain, and already had a bad knee from an old injury.
It was probably the most uncomfortable saddle I have ever sat in, and if you have knee problems, I am pretty sure this would have exacerbated them. Everyone coming off at the end of the ride was complaining that their knees hurt!
That said, I am actually rather glad we did pay the extra to do the horse ride, as I think we would have been a little bored with nothing to do back at the diamond bar area if we hadn’t.
After that, we ate supper, which was Steak, jacket potato and corn. The steak was beautifully cooked. Wine or beer was provided at dinner, and you ate as a group. After this, the normal routine is a sing song, led by Mike the singing cowboy and continued drinking around a campfire. However, on the night we stayed it got too cold and the air was too damp to do this, so we sat insider the bar and sang/drank instead.
The sky in the desert is amazingly clear at night, and you have no light pollution, so if you like star-gazing, this is an amazing night sky to look at. That said, we were far too cold to do this for long, and even slept fully dressed because it was too cold to undress.
In the morning, we all sat in a group again for breakfast, and were served a traditional working cowboy’s breakfast. When the plates came out, most people looked at their plates with slight concern. It didn’t look
particularly appetizing. In fact, it was okay. I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it again, but I’m glad that I tried ‘biscuits and gravy’…
The ‘biscuit’ actually reminded me of bread, but with a biscuity texture (a bit like stale bread actually) and the ‘gravy’ was a floury sauce made with bacon-dripping… It was served with bacon, scrambled egg and a slice of melon… All in all, ‘random’ is the most apt description I could give it.
After wards, the wagon came back to collect us and take us up to the heli-pad area. We watched our helicopter arrive and flew back to Vegas. The flight home for us was rather less spectacular, as we did not get to fly through the Grand Canyon, but over a lot or rather barren looking landscape instead. That said, we did get to fly in low over the strip on the way back to the airport.
Grand Canyon Experience rating – 7/10 – It was a lovely experience, but I had the misimpression from the sales literature that the ranch was a lot closer to the Rim of the Grand Canyon; so our expectation of exploring a part of the Canyon on foot was not realised. I also didn’t realize that there were NO washing facilities at all for the tipi guests at the time of booking. We didn’t get to do the camp fire thing, and the whole thing felt very set up for tourists.
The scenery and the location (aside from being slightly further from the canyon than we anticipated) was stunning, and the sun setting over the backdrop of Spirit mountain was beautiful, but the tipping culture made the experience feel a little tacky. Mike the singing cowboy was great fun, and really got us into the atmosphere though, and overall I would definitely recommend it, as long as you know what you’re going for.
If I could improve on the experience, I would probably opt for a hire car in one direction to avoid the boring flight home, and give us the opportunity to explore the Grand Canyon with a car to get the best of both worlds.
- You can book the horse ride at the ranch, and when we went, Im pretty sure it worked out cheaper to book at the ranch rather than via Heli USA.
- Although it is hot during the day, it can get very cold at night in the desert. I wore a vest, a long sleeved tee-shirt and a fleece and I was still cold!
- There are no wash facilities if you stay in the Tipi lodgings, so if you like your creature comforts, opt for the cabin
- Even though it’s noisy in flight, don’t be tempted to make any quiet remarks to your partner that you wouldn’t want to share with everyone on board-you will all be wearing headsets and microphones, and your microphone will feed everything you say directly into the ears of everyone on board.
- Do take WARM clothing if you sra staying past sunset in the desert. It can get extremely cold at night.