Sure, you could sit on a bus for the better part of a day, listening to a screaming child a few rows ahead of you, breathing in the sweet tang of sewage every time the lavatory door swings open. That’s how most people get to the Grand Canyon. And why wouldn’t they? It’s cheaper, a lot less scary for some and doesn’t really require you to leave your comfort zone.
Or, you could decide to be a rock star in your own vacation memories and take a helicopter. Yep, it’s going to cost a little more and you may need to pop Dramamine like they’re Tic Tacs, but it’s only going to take around 4.5 hours RT and you’re worth every “trip of a lifetime” penny. There are lots of ways to cut vacation costs, but this isn’t the place to skimp. You wouldn’t buy sushi from the gas station, right (seriously – that’s gross)?
If you’re like me: secretly terrified of flying, slightly claustrophobic and prone to motion sickness – you’re probably thinking I’m nuts for even suggesting something so heinous. But from one sissy to another, I’m here to tell you why you should throw your hands up and scream “YOLO B*%#$@S,” and take that helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon. Here’s what happened when I flew on the Dream Catcher tour with Maverick Helicopters:
We met our funny and confident pilot Dan Bentley near the tarmac and the knots that were waging war in my stomach settled on a momentary cease fire. That is until Dan strapped us in with as many harnesses as a child-safety seat and lifted off the ground. Tea time was over – the war raged on. The helicopter hovered and swayed back and forth until our bodies rattled like bobble-head dolls.
“Everybody okay?” Dan radioed through our noise-canceling headsets. That question is usually a surefire way to know you’re experiencing vomit-inducing activity. We all mumbled or nodded various forms of nervous approval and the helicopter lurched forward.
We rose above the impressive Las Vegas Strip, still giddy with excitement for some and disbelief for others (mainly me). The Maverick helicopters looked like a flock of geese on the horizon, flying single-file toward the Grand Canyon. Vegas looked a lot like a Monopoly board stacked with houses and hotels. Once out of town, we skimmed over the tops of ancient volcanoes (I only know this because Dan is a geology school dropout – just kidding – he’s a former professor) and caught our first sight of the brick-colored peaks in the Valley of Fire. The mountains looked like they bubbled right out of the ground, bright and rich in the barren desert. I’ve driven through this ridiculously beautiful state park, but nothing prepared me for a bird’s-eye view.
It was awesome to see that there was so much untouched land still left in Nevada. That there were still places that hadn’t been spoiled by suburban sprawl (albeit explainable because there’s no friggin’ water). There were no trails, no roads and no civilization; we never would have been able to see these places without the helicopter.
OMG that meant there was nobody to rescue us either! See how quickly we went from looking at the pretty desert to the vice tightening in my tummy again? I was the only manic person onboard. Everyone else was ogling over the vivid blue Lake Mead below us, which I couldn’t help but notice was so dreamy from this vantage point. I turned my personal air-conditioning vent straight on my face like I’d been told to do and willed myself to relax. By the way, this is a good time to tell you if you start to get motion sickness, focus on a fixed point on the horizon and turn your personal air-conditioner vent on your forehead. Thumbs up, Dan.
Our excitement spiked when we cleared the lip of the West Rim and began our descent to the canyon floor. The mountains are deeply chiseled and sprawl out as far as the eye can see, like knuckled fingers reaching for the horizon. Maverick boasts that they go farther and deeper in than anyone else (ba-dum bum), and it’s true – the Grand Canyon is about a mile deep.
We (and by we, I mean Dan) squeezed the helicopter onto an impossibly small piece of earth that was wedged into the canyon wall. When we hopped out, we were almost completely alone. There were other Maverick helicopters much farther down the canyon, but they weren’t even within earshot. In fact, the only thing we could hear after the rotors were shut off was Russell the Raven (seriously, the pilots named him), who lives in the canyon. He apparently came for the champagne too, but there was no way I was sharing – I had earned my glass fair and square.
Dan warned us all to be mindful of the sheer cliffs that dropped into the rushing Colorado River below. And after seeing how far down it was, we all kept a safe distance and decided to soak up our tiny slice of seclusion at the picnic table instead. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of life tucked inside the canyon. Animals, flowers and some gnarly cacti that are nearly as tall as a house.
It’s surreal to sit there and stare up at the interior walls of the Grand Canyon, definitely not something you feel when you peer down over a guardrail at the rim. This is really what sets this experience apart from others. You see the vastness of the canyons and the solitude of being slipped into a secluded cliff-side. The lack of tourists in one of the most famous and heavily visited attractions in the world is amazing. There wasn’t even anyone to photobomb us. You can actually appreciate Mother Nature without the hoards of elbowing people, all fighting to take the same picture.
We snacked and sipped, then regretfully packed up to return to civilization. But not before we flew over and landed on protected Hualapai Indian lands to refuel. “I didn’t even know what a Joshua tree was until the U2 album came out,” remarked an Aussie tour mate. Funny thing is, I hadn’t either. Thank you, Bono.
Flying into the warmth of a sunset is also an experience you will never forget. On our way back, we all switched seats and flew over sites like the Hoover Dam, the hot springs and a mountain called somebody’s nipple (Martha maybe?). They were tiny and grand all at the same time, so were we (insert happy emotional tear).
We reached the Las Vegas Strip right at sundown and came so close to the top of the Stratosphere, I got the urge to wave at the people standing on the observation deck. The lights were brighter, more vivid and completely unreal. There was a huge contrast between the scorched desert lands and the man-made glitz and glamour on the Strip, they were awe-worthy and unforgettable. Now I know how a mosquito feels when it’s being drawn to the lights of a bug zapper – without the gory ending, of course. I can confidently speak for the wonderful English and Aussie pairs that were with us when I say, it was over way too soon.
Remember this: you’ve got three or four days to make the most of your Vegas vacation. Which means you’ll probably have to choose between living it up on the Strip or finally scratching the Grand Canyon off your bucket list after all these years (and it’s hard to say when you’ll be on this side of the planet again). If you don’t want to be one of those people, book the helicopter. It was one of the best experiences in my life and I have a feeling unless you own your own helicopter, you’ll feel the same way.
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