Why Was The Skywalk Built?

Hualapai pronounced wa-la-peye“People of the Tall Pine”.

The Skywalk Grand Canyon West was built as a tourist attraction to help rebuild the Hualapai Nation. The Hualapai own 108 miles of the south side of the Grand Canyon at the west end, where the Colorado River is backed up by Hoover Dam to form Lake Mead.

Way Before They Could Build Skywalk

The Hualapai people lived in the Mojave Desert area and around the Grand Canyon for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

grand canyon hualapai people of tall pines
Grand Canyon, Hualapai Nation, People of the Tall Pines

In the distant past, the Hualapai – the “People of the Tall Pines” – were hunter-gatherers who lived in an expanse of more than 5 million acres stretching from the Grand Canyon south to the Santa Maria River (Arizona) east of Lake Havasu; and from the Black Mountains east to the San Francisco peaks around Flagstaff, Arizona.

Today the tribe lives on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, which was established in 1883 through a treaty with the United States government, and it covers about 1 million acres.

Their only village is Peach Springs, Arizona. Peach Springs is the capital of the Hualapai Nation, on Historic Route 66, between Kingman and Seligman.

One border of the Hualapai reservation is in the middle – the ‘meander line’ – of the Colorado River.

So it turns out, the Hualapai have access to 108 miles of the south side of the Colorado River near the western end of Grand Canyon. Some of their land is in a barren desert, some is in the mountains with alpine forests and old-growth timber in the higher elevations.

And some of it is at the edge of the Grand Canyon.

As a Las Vegas tour guide, I have taken guests from around the world to the North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, as well as to the Hualapai Nation’s Grand Canyon West, and each of these places offers stunning and remarkable views for visitors – many of my own favorites are at Grand Canyon West. Marty McUber, Las Vegas Tour Guide

The Hualapai tribe was very poor. At one time there was a sawmill at Peach Springs that provided jobs to a few of their people, but it eventually closed because it was too expensive to transport the logs to the markets that were so far away.

peach springs tribal forestry building
Peach Springs Tribal Forestry Department, Closed

They decided to create limited access to their land in a small way in 1988. They invited a couple of people they knew who owned small tour companies in Las Vegas to bring guests out to their land on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

big horn wild west tours from las vegas
“Bill – The Boss” – Owner of Big Horn Wild West Tours from Las Vegas. He helped open the doors to Grand Canyon West: First Tour Company Allowed Entry

Specifically, to Quartermaster Point, down a one-lane dirt road that developed from a deer trail. Quartermaster Point is now off-limits to all visitors.

It was not really open to the public – the only people allowed to see the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai land were the guests of these two particular tour companies.

And then there was Robbie Knievel.

Robbie Knievel Jumps Grand Canyon West

robbie knievel grand canyon jumps quartermaster point hualapai nation
Robbie Knievel jumps Grand Canyon at 100 mph. He traveled 228 feet, on Hualapai land, at a side-canyon called Quartermaster Point. He broke a distance record, and he broke his leg.

You may remember Evel Knievel, the man who stole motorcycles and became famous for jumping them over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace and Snake River Gorge. His son, Robbie Knievel, broke a motorcycle-jumping record when he jumped a small ‘side canyon’ of the Grand Canyon. That side-canyon was Quartermaster Point, on the Hualapai land.

Developing Grand Canyon West

It was a slow beginning. No services, no buildings, no water, no restrooms, just a dirt road with flour-fine dust. Thirteen miles of bad road from Pierce Ferry Road down Diamond Bar to the edge of Grand Canyon West at Quartermaster. Each-way.

diamond bar road at pierce ferry to build skywalk grand canyon west
Pierce Ferry Road at Diamond Bar Road to Skywalk Grand Canyon West as it was then; now Diamond Bar is paved and smooth.

The tribe earned some money from this and found that despite the dirt road and lack of amenities, people were interested in visiting because of this. With the help of their friends who owned the tour companies, they began to promote their part of the Grand Canyon in a new (old) way. It was an untouched piece of land where tourists could come and experience the Grand Canyon without the development and without the crowds commonly found along the North Rim and especially, at the South Rim National Park.

Years later, today, these tour companies still drive their guests to the West Rim of the Grand Canyon.

As a Las Vegas tour guide, I worked for each of these companies, for the original owners – they still own and operate their tour companies.

diamond bar road to skywalk grand canyon
Diamond Bar Road back then; barely two lanes, 13 miles of fine-powder dust each way.

To Build Skywalk

In 1996, a Chinese man named David Jin was living in Las Vegas, and he was operating a couple of Las Vegas tour companies, taking guests primarily to the National Park at the South Rim.

Mr. Jin loved the Grand Canyon, and as a visionary and businessman, he thought it would be an unforgettable and profitable experience to be able to walk out over the Grand Canyon.

He envisioned ‘a Skywalk – a glass platform to stand on’ – with nothing but air between himself and the next solid object, the floor of the canyon, thousands of feet below.

Skywalk Grand Canyon West: A scary, irresistible, almost unimaginable sensation.

An experience that people would willingly pay the price of admission to see and feel for themselves, unlike anything else in the world.

He knew the National Park Service officials of the Grand Canyon South or North would never approve such a venture; it ran counter to the National Park’s mission of preserving the Grand Canyon in as close to its natural state as possible.

But there was an area of the Grand Canyon where those limitations did not apply; he had been on tour to the Hualapai Nation’s West Rim of the Grand Canyon, where tourists could have the kinds of experiences that National Park visitors could only dream about.

Plus, Mr. Jin expected the Hualapai people and their leaders would welcome the revenues that such an attraction would bring in, and only on their land, at the Western Rim of the Grand Canyon.

When David Jin’s concept to build Skywalk Grand Canyon first began to take shape, the Western Rim of the Grand Canyon was isolated in many ways. The only access was a dusty dirt road; water was hauled up in tanker trucks; portable restrooms were trucked in, sewage was trucked out.

Part of his arrangement with the Hualapai was investment capital, and in order to generate this, he used his connections in China to bring Chinese travelers to Las Vegas. He filled the planes, booked the hotels, chartered the buses to bring his Chinese tourists to the West Rim, even before the engineering studies had been completed. And he made money from each of these parts – transportation, lodging, entrance fees – Jin had a piece of the action, from every step.

During those days, there were more buses on the road than ever – during the days around the Chinese New Year, there might be 10 buses a day full of Chinese visitors to Las Vegas driving through the dust on Diamond Bar Road to Grand Canyon West.

The traffic on Diamond Bar became intense, driving down Diamond Bar became an adventure. Before, there were only a few Chevrolet Suburbans and Ford Explorers and Hummers on Diamond Bar Road. With the additional bus traffic, the dust became a cloud, visibility could become poor quickly, and more than a few crashes occurred.

I have driven down that dusty road – Diamond Bar Road – more than three-hundred times. I have taken guests from around the world to places that are now off-limits. And I watched the development of what is now a major tourist attraction in the world – I saw them build Skywalk Grand Canyon. Marty McUber, Las Vegas Tour Guide

In addition to the dust, timing the tour became important. The tour guides knew that if we didn’t leave Las Vegas before the buses did, our guests would be stuck in a line at Skywalk that could take 90 minutes sometimes, which would totally screw up our schedule and get our guests back to Vegas late. So getting down Diamond Bar in front of the buses was a serious consideration.

skywalk grand canyon west las vegas tours twin otter
Twin Otter, Tours from Las Vegas to Skywalk Grand Canyon West

Somewhere in the 1990s, maybe earlier, the Hualapai created a small dirt airstrip that would allow planes up to the size of a DeHavilland ‘Twin Otter” to land, and bring guests to their land.

One of the owners of the tour companies above kept a Hummer there, and a driver, to pick up the fliers and take them to the viewpoint. With the growth and development, the dirt strip has been extended and paved, and now a 40-passenger plane can land there.

They have also added helicopters and boat rides on the Colorado River.

And all of this is totally under control of the Hualapai. No fast food operations, a few contractors for services, good-paying jobs for their people.

Designated as reservation lands of the Hualapai Indian Tribe in 1883, the desert plateau near the rugged edge at the West end of the Grand Canyon was virtually untouched desert and saw very few visitors.

Route 66 was bypassed when Interstate 40 was built in the 1970s; this left Peach Springs, the tribe’s only town, essentially isolated and cut off from the world. Unemployment and poverty were widespread.

As seen above, in 1988, things began to change. A couple of desert rats who bought a Hummer and Ford Explorer created businesses for themselves, and created opportunities for visitors to Las Vegas who wanted to see the Grand Canyon. All they had was a couple of vehicles and a single dirt road that led to the West Rim, and the proximity to Las Vegas, a couple of hours away.

A few people, including David Jin, along with the leadership of the Hualapai people, finally began to see this desolate, forgotten edge of the Grand Canyon as the amazing and untapped resource that it was.

“Grand Canyon West” was born.

Without the restrictions of a National Park, Grand Canyon West would make a name for itself by giving Grand Canyon travelers what they wanted.

Now visitors to Las Vegas can:

  • Drive on a lovely smooth-paved road to the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West
  • Get a feel of the Old West at the Ranch
  • Fly from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon West for a Skywalk experience
  • Fly on a helicopter to land at the bottom of the canyon
  • Get off the helicopter at the canyon floor and get on a boat for a short ride up the Colorado River
  • Raft rides on the Colorado River that requires only one day, not seven days.

The Skywalk Grand Canyon Skywalk became a great success.

Jin’s partnership with the Hualapai Tribe created a new attraction, a new business for the Hualapai. The Grand Canyon Skywalk would redirect and improve the lives of the Hualapai.

The final cost of the structure came in at approximately $30 million. There are ideas and plans for related services – a hotel, restaurants, a golf course, casinos, and maybe a cable to ferry visitors from the canyon rim to the Colorado River – in the fifties there was a cablecar that took workers across to the north side of the canyon into a guano mine.

The Grand Canyon Skywalk officially opened to the public on March 20, 2007, with astronauts Buzz Aldrin and John Herrington taking the ceremonial ‘first walk’ on the glass.

The Skywalk is now on the “bucket lists” of tourists from around the world; over 1 million a year as of 2015.

The paved road makes it easy for Drive-It-Yourself travelers.

And Skywalk Grand Canyon West tours from Las Vegas by bus, van, airplane, and helicopter continue to be the most popular method for visiting this one-of-a-kind attraction.

This really is something you must do.