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A bird’s-eye view of the Grand Canyon

Soaring over the geological wonder in a helicopter is one of the best ways to experience its vastness

Tourists enjoying the view from Hopi Point in the south rim
Tourists enjoying the view from Hopi Point in the south rim (Photo: iStockphoto)

Queuing up to have my documents verified and weight checked at the Boulder City terminal of Papillon Tours triggers déjà vu. But my mind isn’t playing games. Only a year ago, I had taken an aeroplane tour of the Grand Canyon. So why was I back? I had only caught glimpses of the canyon between longer spells of shut-eye thanks to a hectic morning itinerary, the monotone of the air tour’s pre-recorded audio guide, and the plane’s soft, relaxing music. Such a shame, right?

Looking at the dashing red helicopters lined up on the airstrip beyond the terminal’s glass walls, I brush off those memories and board one of the A-Star beauties for the Golden Eagle Tour of the Grand Canyon.

Our jovial pilot, Chris Palmer, escorts us. Sit. Fasten your harness-styled seat belts. Wear the headphones. Adjust the microphone. Time to fly!

Dusty shrubbery provides green relief to the desert land below. Right outside Boulder, we hover over the reason for the city’s being—Arizona’s Hoover dam. Workers who built it were Boulder’s initial inhabitants. Almost 52 storeys high, this dam isn’t merely famous for providing irrigation water or generating electricity. It holds an important piece of the puzzle about the Grand Canyon’s formation—the flooding Colorado river. Built in 1936, the dam was the first attempt at taming the river.

The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge in front of the Hoover dam
The Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge in front of the Hoover dam (Photo: iStockphoto)

Despite its monumental feat, to my nature-loving eyes all that concrete sticks out like an artificial limb amidst the rugged Black Canyon, also carved out by the river. What does the canyon justice, though, is the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge in front of Hoover. “At 890ft, this bypass bridge is America’s second highest," explains Palmer. Watching vehicles plying on it somehow magnifies the depth of the canyon’s steep cliffs, which prevent sunlight from filtering through, causing shadows to lurk, giving the canyon its sinister name.

About 11km ahead, as we near Lake Mead, the reservoir that resulted from the Hoover dam’s construction, the landscape changes dramatically. The scarred face of the Black Canyon is replaced by soft, sandy sediment. The water too sheds the dark cloak it wore at the Black Canyon, taking on a sapphire shade under the sky. The lake looks tempting. I hope for friendly beaches lining Mead’s shores. Palmer interrupts telepathically: “This lake is one of the world’s largest man-made projects—110 miles long. See the ramps there? That’s the marina for private boats to dock and launch."

Flying lower, we see the stony wrinkles formed on the surface around the lake by the waves and the harsh sun. To our left, the shoreline rises once again into a marathon of darker ridges. A chilling yet fascinating fact I learn later, when curiosity makes leads me to a YouTube video, is that underneath this serene lake, the movement of tectonic plates is stretching the continent. Geophysicists like Marcia McNutt believe it might split North America.

A mule trail up the canyon on the South Kaibab Trail
A mule trail up the canyon on the South Kaibab Trail (Photo: iStockphoto)

The sloping sediment visible on the lake’s eastern side is actually pieces of earth’s crust that have toppled over like a row of dominoes, forming a series of mountains and valleys all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

In the far distance, a seemingly never-ending range looks flattened from the top, albeit unevenly. Is that the Grand Canyon yet? Only a tiny part. It’s the 35m-long Grand Wash Cliffs—also Colorado river’s baby—that cross the Grand Canyon where Lake Mead meets the mother river again. It’s like a natural fortress. How much grander must the Grand Canyon be?

As we near the canyon’s western rim, Palmer tells us about its extinct volcanoes, the blue-green Havasu falls, wild horses and big-horned sheep. Later, my online research offers up more about the hundreds of volcanic eruptions on the western rim over the past two millennia. The eruptions created 100-mile-long lakes and 300m-high lava dams, eventually toppling them too.

I realize we have passed Eagle Point, so named because of the open-wing rock formation visible from the western rim’s edge, only when Palmer tells us about the nearby glass skywalk, 4,000ft above the Grand Canyon.

Also around here is Guano Point, where a cableway was constructed to extract guano from Bat Cave, near the river. Mining stopped six decades ago. This pyramidical formation is famous for offering 360-degree views of the Grand Canyon. Reflecting the reds and browns of the ranges flanking it, or perhaps laden with silt, the Colorado has a muddy complexion here. A chain of cliff-faces, each staring from behind the previous one, create a perspective effect and bunched-up horizontal stripes etch the mountains. The stripes, I discover, have been formed by layers of rock superimposed over millennia, exposed by the river when it carved out the canyon. This is also why the walls of the canyon are countless shades of brown, yellow, red and grey. Some of these cliffs, leading into conical peaks, remind me of the shikhars of Hindu temples. I feel transported to some place ancient, primeval. Apparently, I am not the only one struck by the similarity. In other rims, geologists have named some formations Vishnu Temple, Brahma Temple and Rama Temple, owing to their resemblance to “oriental pagodas".

The Hualapai Indians, Native Americans to whom this land on the western rim belongs, call the Grand Canyon “Kaibab", meaning upside-down mountain. It turns out the name has its basis in science, as TV host Joe Hanson explains in his educational show on YouTube. The oldest rocks at the bottom of the canyon are actually mountains. Though these rocks are only tens of metres high now, some billion years ago they were taller than the Himalayas. A black rock, considered the oldest among them, is called the Vishnu Schist.

On our way back, like most visitors I can’t help but marvel at how a river just about 100m wide carved a mammoth canyon 446km long, 29km wide and over 1.6km deep. And its work is still not done. The river continues to chisel the canyon daily, diligently, writing new lines of this natural wonder’s future.

Of the Grand Canyon’s four rims, the southern one is the liveliest, with two dozen major viewpoints. It’s open all-year round. The 1,000 ft-higher north rim, which showcases the canyon’s vastness, has only three major overlooks. It is closed in winter. On the east rim, the Little Colorado River Tribal Park and the Horseshoe bend are major attractions. The National Park Services website is a great resource (



Aerial tours of the Grand Canyon often bundle other immersive or adventurous experiences like breakfast with champagne, dinner at dusk, all-terrain vehicle rides, and skydiving ($149-329, or around 10,360-22,880).


The south and north rims have several guided and unguided hikes covering the rim, inner canyon, forest trails, natural springs, etc ($50-500). Some paths are wheelchair-accessible too. For biking, try the south rim’s Hermit Road and the woody Greenway trail or the north rim’s Bridle and Arizona trails.


South rim tours are usually two-day affairs to the Colorado river at the canyon floor. The north has hour-long/half-day mule rides along the rim or the inner canyon as well as day-long rides with lunch. Book in advance.


Head south. Explore the scenic Walhalla Plateau, views of Mount Hayden and Marble Canyon at Point Imperial, or Angel’s Window and the Pueblo ruins at Cape Royal in the north. Alternatively, opt for bus tours—some are timed to include sunrise or sunset ($70-100).

Mumbai-based journalist Pooja Bhula writes on travel, food, gender, environment, books and business.

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