Grand Canyon tug of war

March 19, 2012

By Bob Galbraith

A light dusting of snow has just landed on the farthest peaks of the southwest reaches of the Grand Canyon, viewed from a clear glass, horseshoe shaped skywalk on the Hualapai Indian Reservation in northwest Arizona. Bus loads of domestic and foreign tourists, many arriving from Las Vegas over bumpy dirt roads scraped out of the desert scrub and Joshua Trees of this remote stretch of the American West.

As tourists hurry off the buses and scramble for prime snapshot locations along the rim of the canyon, most make their way along a temporary, covered boardwalk to the polished glass protrusion that provides a view to the snow covered peaks in the distance and the muddy Colorado River flowing below.

Photographers snap pictures of visitors with outstretched arms, all wearing protective slippers as to not scratch the glass. The view is stunning as the canyon and river appear in sight lines below and the white peaks above. Many meander at the top of the horseshoe for the penultimate view and feeling of being suspended in mid-air.

After taking off their protective slippers visitors walk into a large building, which is the foundation of the skywalk and what had been planned as a visitor center, restaurant, gift shop, and additional place to view one of America’s great wonders.

But unfinished rooms, bags filled with insulation lying on the concrete floor, construction equipment, exposed ducts mean the promise of a restaurant and a warm drink seem a long way off. What was once envisioned as a center for a hotel, restaurants, even a golf course, now relies solely on the glass skywalk for visitors.

This part of the Hualapai Indian Reservation was left on its own when the Interstate highway system bypassed it, leaving the Tribe looking for means of self sustenance.

Many tribal members who work at the skywalk travel from the heart of the Hualapai Tribe in Peach Springs, which requires a 2.5 hour commute each way on those dirt roads carved from the desert floor. On our trip (about 8 hours from our base in Las Vegas) our windshield was broken on two occasions in a single day.

Historic Route 66 runs through the center of Peach Springs; it, too, a relic of days gone by. An abandoned gasoline filling station in the center of town, homes and buildings too numerous to mention that have fallen into disrepair are within sight of the highway.

Small homes, many lined with chain link fences — one still decorated for the holidays — line the neighborhoods above Route 66 where children play in a yard and others in a park. Newer buildings appear in the center of town, a sign of progress. A new juvenile detention center has been built, and the tribe struggles to contain alcoholism.

The isolation of northwest Arizona has left the tribe with no choice other than to open its land to visitors, an estimated 3,000 per day once the visitors’ center is completed.

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