Is helicoptering across, around and over the Grand Canyon the magic carpet ride to end all magical carpet rides?
Yes. Certainly for me, having just experienced it in Arizona last week.
I first visited the Grand Canyon in 1981, trekking down to the bottom and camping next to the Colorado River on my 19th Birthday. The memory has always stood out as one of my favourite highlights of travelling in America.
I distinctly remember the dramatic descent from the lip of the Canyon down the sheer cliff as the Bright Angel Trail crossed the mid-station plateau before curling down to the Colorado River. A torrent of sandstone brown water twisting its way through the deep valley below. Equally memorable was the contrasting change in day-to-night temperatures and brilliant Milky Way glinting in the night sky.
However strong those memories are, I don’t think I really appreciated the true scale and beauty of this ‘Wonder of the World’ until last week, 33 years later, when I embarked on a 50 minute Grand Canyon helicopter ride.
From above, like an ‘eye-in-the-sky’, this wondrous phenomenon of nature appears even more impressive. The bird’s-eye view sets out its true size, shape and stature in all its glory – despite the fact that its true size doesn’t make it any easier to see where the Grand Canyon starts and ends.
Approaching the Canyon rim after take-off, you fly at speed above impressive woodlands with glimpses of rivers, trails and evenly stretched flora – before the mind-blowing, stomach-dropping moment that sends you on the magic carpet ride of all time. Travelling at approximately 200kph you shoot out from above the tree line over the two billion year old, 1,800m sheer drop of the Canyon’s rim and into the open majesty that is the Grand Canyon itself.
The vast chasm below (29kms/18 miles in width, and 446kms/277 miles in length) rolls away in all directions to the horizon as effortlessly as the high seas from a ship deck. The difference is that instead of a flat horizon, you have a 3-D movie panorama playing out below you, seemingly as deep, distant and dazzling as the night skies themselves.
Shooting over the floor of this World Heritage site, you are aware that the level below drops, in an instant, away to the Colorado River, with a 1,218,375 acre mosaic curtain of red and pink rock unfolding in every direction. As your jaw drops your eyes soak up the myriad of different desert-scape cliffs, canyons, columns, caves, ridges, plateaux, gullies and flat-pack-peaks. Your gaze moves across the landscape like a child surveying a gigantic sweet shop.
As the enormity of the landscape becomes more apparent, you start searching out the details of each canyon and cliff, across the different fault lines and ultimately deep down to the snake-like formation of Colorado River itself. Pressing your forehead closer to the glass, you can make out white water rafters who appear like specks of dust below, as the roller-coaster curtain of cliffs and ridges dive down from the Canyon rim in every direction imaginable.
The vast sprawling scene plays tricks on your ability to adjust to the depth of field; it becomes apparent that the tiny machine you are travelling in might as well be a flea travelling through space. So far below is the drop, that the lack of copter-shadow, and sense of your own minuteness, gives you the impression you are hovering like a bird.
After the euphoria of the flight path over the rim, you drift off into a dream, just as the rock layers drift off into the distance. Gently circling the vast hole in an anti-clockwise direction, you follow different ridges, paths and patterns and imagine trying to navigate routes from the top to the bottom, as well as how best to follow the Colorado River as it winds its way from Utah North East, to Arizona South West. I found myself wanting to visually explore one vast canyon after another.
As we crossed momentarily out of the Canyon, over the northern rim woodlands, fifteen buffalo appeared below. Sunbathing, among the regenerated post-fire pine forest.
Then back across the northern rim, over the northern cliffs, and the dramatic drop unfolds again. Craning left and right, up and down like many a Native American, Spanish explorer and tourist before me, I return my gaze to the vast expanse below, trying to fathom the baffling variety of exposed high pinnacles, precipice ledges and sun-baked canyon valleys below.
I wanted the flight never to end. And am from now on urging every one of our Nomadic Thoughts’ Grand Canyon visitors to embark on this helicopter flight-of-your-life. Seeing really is believing.