Grand Canyon morning tour

First light in the west rim of the Grand Canyon

First light in the west rim of the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon morning tour: An early helicopter flight


It was 4am and I was bone tired and yet excited about this trip. The shuttle was picking me up exactly at 5am for a morning ride, and the drive to the airport was still another 30 minutes outside of the Las Vegas strip. Did I mention it was taking an early morning helicopter tour over the Grand Canyon and the surrounding landscape? I was totally psyched for my first experience flying over the West rim of the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and other highlights around Las Vegas.  It was an amazing experience to see the canyon in different views, angles,  and perspective unlike typical visits to the Grand Canyon which are limited to views from the rime and driving long distances. What a real treat this would be to see everything from above!


Grand Canyon Helicopter Tours terminal

Grand Canyon Helicopter Tours terminal


5 am pickup time 

The early pick up was a necessary evil and processing a slew of other visitors for their Grand Canyon morning tour was efficiently orchestrated with Papillon Sightseeing Company tours. The whole process from pick up, check-in to watching a safety video and assigning us to our pilot is perfectly timed. Eric, (our pilot) calls our names and herds us into a group pow wow of 5 lucky people coming for the morning flight. He explains all the rules including walking out on the tarmac, entering the helicopter and putting on our safety belts. I’m so excited and giddy knowing that I get the primo seat in the front middle with big bubble windows in front and offering panoramic views of everything.



Morning vista of the nearby range close to by the airport

Morning vista of the nearby range close to by the airport









Sitting next to our pilot Eric - primo seats with a view

Sitting next to our pilot Eric – primo seats with a view



We follow a small white line flight path and slowly ascend into the cloudy skies – (Oh, I’m hoping, please make this a nice sunny day) or even just enough sun peeking through to make the landscape interesting and we can we also get some golden light into those canyons when we pass by this morning?



Dramatic skies and Nevada landscapes

Dramatic skies and Nevada landscapes

The majesty begins

In no time we are crossing some desert landscape and we see the watery path of the Colorado river snaking through limestone canyons and the almost empty looking Lake Mead. It’s very sad to see the water depth of the lake dropping to its lowest levels in over 30 years straight. I wonder what will happen to all the Las Vegas strip and California farming if this all disappears – I’m shocked to hear that there really is no plan B when the crises reaches dire conditions with the water crisis. My attention drifts quickly to our next iconic attraction which is the impressive Hoover Dam and the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial bridge looming into view.  I’m giddy with these amazing views to photograph and I really hope that I capture it well since we are whizzing faster than you can blink an eye. There is no time to fuss with the settings and buttons so it has to be perfect! I glance at the image viewer and breathe, whew… it looks good so far, take more pictures now!




Looking down on Hoover Dam and Lake Mead

Looking down on Hoover Dam and Lake Mead




Another view of Hoover Dam from above

Another view of Hoover Dam from above


 Gorgeous landscapes around Lake Mead


A view of Lake Mead and the water level table

A view of Lake Mead and the water level table

Amazing landscapes unfold before us

The landscape is alive with undulating curves, jagged peaks and etched lines denoting centuries of erosion on limestone, sandstone and other geologic features that I can’t easily remember since my high school Geology class. Unusual forms and colors project from various segments of Lake Mead and finally we see the opening from the mouth of the Colorado river into a green oasis below. ‘ That huge green pastureland used to be underwater less than a month ago’, our pilot shares, ‘ In fact many of the islands around the lake were under water less than a few months ago and now they are islands peeking out everywhere’, he adds.



Colorado River opening to Lake Mead

Colorado River opening to Lake Mead



In another minute Eric adds ‘ Welcome all to the Grand Canyon – we are entering the western rim of the Canyon and if you can see to your right, there is a small building with a glass platform projecting out from the cliffs’ This we later find out is the Indian reservation belonging to the Hualapai Indian Tribe which generates a lot of visitors and income from visitors driving up from Las Vegas (about a three hour drive) to walk on the glass platform and view the canyon floor below. It’s a spectacular view I’m sure from the overlook, but nothing compares to looking above them and getting a 360 degree view around and into the canyon while we continue flying through the area. Did I mention I’m still giddy with excitement seeing this from above from my perfect front row seat?



Early morning entering the Grand Canyon

Early morning entering the Grand Canyon


West rim views of the Grand Canyon – Hualapai Indian Tribe region


West rim of the Grand Canyon first morning light

West rim of the Grand Canyon first morning light

Close up detail of Hualapai Indian Tribe look out point


Hualapai Indian Tribe visitors center close up

Hualapai Indian Tribe visitors center close up




Grand Canyon and Colorado river morning views

Grand Canyon and Colorado river morning views




Ochre and reds light up the Grand Canyon

Ochre and reds light up the Grand Canyon


The flight path continues through the canyon for a bit longer and then veers off to a tributary canyon on the right. The sun’s morning rays magically light up the canyon walls into colors of ochre, reds and dusty oranges.  I get to take a series of colorful detailed shots of the stunning landscape and I’m so happy the lighting just changed for the better at this moment. In no time, we exit the canyon and fly through more undulating forms, plateaus and mountain ranges some with strange black lava rock striations forming these rippling patterns.


Morning sunlight on the Grand Canyon

Morning sunlight on the Grand Canyon


Dark stormy clouds throw shadows and adding drama to the landscape


Beautiful clouds and patterns over the Nevada landscape

Beautiful clouds and patterns over the Nevada landscape

An urban grid peeks out from the desert floor


An isolated community outside of Las Vegas

An isolated community outside of Las Vegas


It’s so fascinating see the landscape and minute details from above, the landscape is more three dimensional and alive compared to seeing this from a plane which is typically higher and flatter in dimension. At this level, you really get to see more delineated forms, patterns and details to these scenic wonders. The rest of the travelers stop taking pictures, but I am really mesmerized by all the other things you see from above – the golden light and amazing clouds that are adding even more exciting drama to the landscape – why is no one else from this group seeing this at all? I think more so because I’ve trained my eye to observed any details carefully and look for any magical light or highlights that come into view.  I also got lucky getting the front middle seat which provides amazing vistas (thank you also to to someone who cleaned the windows before we took off)


Dramatic clouds over the desert plains outside of Las Vegas

Dramatic clouds over the desert plains outside of Las Vegas

A brief canyon landing 

We lucked out on this flight because one of the passengers was signed up for an outdoor ATV excursion which required a canyon landing in one of the easy to access areas close to the Colorado River. This gave us an opportunity to get out and walk around while we wait for the driver to arrive. I get out and eagerly scout the terrain and look for interesting angles in the landscape, cool cactus forms and old derelict buildings that were one old mining structures now left solitary and decaying slowly into the landscape. What fun, we had ample time to explore and enjoy the landscape around us.


An exciting pit stop canyon landing alongside the Colorado River

An exciting pit stop canyon landing alongside the Colorado River

A pilot and helicopter waits with dramatic landscape


Pilot and helicopter view and landscape

Pilot and helicopter view and landscape

The desert landscape is stunning with these stormy skies above


Canyon landing close to the Colorado River

Canyon landing close to the Colorado River



It takes a very long time for the ATV guy to show up so we have more than enough time to walk around and explore a bit further than we were allowed initially. I spot some cool barrel cactus with flowers forming and make a beeline for them, not easy since the sloped landscape was tricky with the gravel landscape giving way easily to any steps. I  make it to my cactus target unscathed and marvel at the sculptured forms and colorful buds, wow these can actually bloom in these harsh and desolate environments, and all of these plants are thriving with little nutrients and resources.


 It’s wonderful to enjoy nature in this amazing environment


Dramatic skies and cactus landscape

Dramatic skies and cactus landscape

Fascinating desert flora and blooms


A barrel cactus in bloom

A barrel cactus in bloom

An endless landscape of thriving cactus and living plants in the desert


Rugged landscape and cactus just outside of Las Vegas metropolis

Rugged landscape and cactus just outside of Las Vegas metropolis


The pilot belts out that it’s time to head out with the sighting of the ATV driver, the one passenger loads up on atv and leaves with a huge dust trail behind us. We take off the dusty plain in no time and I scout the horizon quickly for interesting landscapes,  knowing that we will be landing soon in no time.  I spot some more interesting scenery to shoot and happily put my camera in burst mode. ‘Why not’ I(‘m thinking), I can always delete those 1,000 extra pictures easily to find the one or two magic moments from this entire adventure. Surprisingly, I was able to get more than a few pictures worth presenting to you from the entire helicopter adventure.



Flying along the Colorado River from Lake Mead

Flying along the Colorado River from Lake Mead

Re-entry to Las Vegas

We land the same way  as we started and follow the small white paths back to our landing zone and then quickly follow Eric back into the building and not surprisingly to the gift store and photo gallery where images of each tourist taken with the pilot is displayed for purchase ( I pass on my shot). You can take your time at the gift store, purchase some snacks or you can immediately schedule a return trip to any of the casinos or hotels on the strip. I think the entire operation run by the Grand Canyon tours is well done and smooth from the start to the end and the service was impeccable and well orchestrated.


Pose with our helicopter at the canyon stopover

Pose with our helicopter at the canyon stopover


I hope you enjoyed this Grand Canyon morning tour and seeing some of the amazing landscapes to the surround areas around Las Vegas. Thanks for visiting and if you enjoyed the post, please do share it with any of the social media buttons below. If you are interested in finding out more information on helicopter and airplane flights over the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas, visit the Papillon website here.

For more articles on Las Vegas check these out:

Las Vegas night scenes

Cool places to visit in Downtown Vegas

Night tour of the Neon Museum

Outdoors activities at a ski resort in Las Vegas

A stay at the Monte Carlo Hotel in Las Vegas



Thank you Papillon Sightseeing tours for hosting me, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own and I really enjoyed the tour and recommend their services completely.

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43 Responses to Grand Canyon morning tour

  1. Heather September 15, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

    Wow, these photos are breathtaking! What an incredible experience this must have been! The morning light makes it look like a dream!

  2. Mary @Green Global Travel September 15, 2014 at 4:47 am #

    Wow, I love the way the early morning light streams in over the canyon. You captured the light perfectly!

  3. Lillie - @WorldLillie September 13, 2014 at 3:49 pm #


  4. Dan @ A Cruising Couple September 12, 2014 at 3:06 am #

    What a spectacular ride! We’ve visited all of these places, but the view from above certainly puts in into a whole new perspective. Your Grand Canyon photos are absolutely amazing!

  5. Terry at Overnight New York September 11, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    I love that you were able to photograph Hoover Dam from the helicopter. A very different perspective from the one you get on the ground!

  6. Micki September 11, 2014 at 5:38 am #

    Gorgeous! I’m so glad you took these, as I’m extremely unlikely to wake up that early in the morning 🙂

  7. JENNIFER September 10, 2014 at 3:19 am #

    Ah, how epic. I actually love that it was a cloudy morning for this “photo shoot,” because who needs yet another postcard shot of the Grand Canyon under the bright blue sun? Everyone’s seen that replicated hundreds of times; these photographs are different, hence, preferable.

  8. Lauren September 9, 2014 at 5:57 am #

    Incredible photos – what a view! It looks so amazing from up high! I am also a bit worried about the water level….and there is really no back-up plan :/ Yikes. Hopefully people can start conserving water better! Thank you so much for linking up with #WeekendWanderlust!

  9. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family September 8, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

    Definitely putting this on my bucket list after our recent helicopter trip over Kauai. I’m addicted now!

  10. Gran Canaria Local September 8, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    Now that’s what we call morning glory, Noel.

  11. Ashley and Alex September 8, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    Such amazing photos! It must have been so amazing to take a helicopter ride over the canyon. We are hoping to visit next May and camp so we can get some sunrise photos, hoping for some dramatic cloud action just like you had!

    • Noel September 8, 2014 at 11:31 am #

      Yes, clouds really make and add so much to the texture and layering of a landscape throughout the day but even better during the morning hours. Although the canyon is dark at different spots in the morning timeframe so I was just lucky in this instance.

  12. Natasha Amar September 8, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    Wow that’s a spectacular landscape and some amazing photos!

  13. Valen-This Way Paradise September 7, 2014 at 10:49 pm #

    Gorgeous photos. Still can’t believe I haven’t been.

  14. travelnwrite September 7, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Fabulous tour, Noel. We’ve driven the route past the dam a number of times and been amazed at its construction but your photos make it come to life with its grandeur! I think your whole series of shots are stunning in this post.

  15. Britany September 7, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    gorgeous! I’ll be visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time later this year. I hope it lives up to your pictures. 🙂

  16. Heidi Wagoner September 6, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    Noel, you never disappoint! Absolutely stunning photos and what an experience. I would love to see the Grand Canyon like this. The last time I was there, I was just 6 years old, but I still remember it vividly.

  17. Jessica @ Independent Travel Cats September 6, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    Wow, so many amazing photos! Sounds like getting up at 5am was definitely worth it for such a great ride and such amazing views. I have been missing the desert landscape of the Southwest and I think we are going to do a roadtrip to the Grand Canyon next year. We’ll have to think about a helicopter ride!

  18. Paul (@luxury__travel) September 6, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    Great shot of the Grand Canyon, Noel! I love how the light reflects off the river…

    A helicopter flight must be an amazing way to have seen it all… lucky you! 🙂 How long were you up in the air for in total?

  19. Marisol@TravelingSolemates September 6, 2014 at 6:00 am #

    Hi Noel, that’s a spectacular helicopter ride! Thank you for sharing these incredible and dramatic landscapes you witnessed from above. I’m deeply in awe of the images you captured. I loved the play of light and shadow, and the depth and texture. I’d never seen Hoover Dam looking that photogenic before. Really great job, Noel.

  20. Ryan O'Rourke September 6, 2014 at 3:06 am #

    Wonderful job in capturing the majesty of the Grand Canyon from the air, Noel! The morning light really adds a warm glow to the landscapes that visiting during the day never could. Totally worth the 4am wake-up it would seem!

  21. Rhonda Albom September 6, 2014 at 2:54 am #

    Wow Noel, these area amazing photos, worth getting up early in the morning. Lake Mead and hoover dam are amazing from the air, as is the Grand Canyon.

  22. Mary {The World Is A Book} September 5, 2014 at 8:31 pm #

    What an amazing experience for you, Noel! I have always wondered about these helicopter rides but just can’t bring myself to go on one. Thanks for the virtual tour for now. The photos and views are just incredible.

  23. Vanessa September 5, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

    This is really nice. I realized it is indeed that the best time to look and view places is in the morning where everything is fresh. I don’t have to bet that you actually enjoyed the tour. I want to take that helicopter ride too and see the Grand Canyon through a different way.

  24. Brittany @ Paws for Beer September 5, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

    Stunning photos and great vantage point from the helicopter.

  25. Elena September 5, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

    I can see why you were so giddy! And –I am so thankful that you are able to appreciate the light, shadows and colors… and so wonderfully share them with us!

  26. Chris Boothman September 5, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    Stunning! That’s the only word that can describe the Grand Canyon. I have yet to be fortunate enough to visit this amazing attraction and after reading this and seeing your spectacular pictures, it just makes me even more eager to check it out and experience it. I have a co-worker that actually walked all the way down the rim and into the canyon itself before walking back out in over 100 degree weather, all in the same day! Can’t say I envy him but I would certainly love to check this out ASAP.

  27. Erin of No Ordinary Nomad September 5, 2014 at 11:58 am #

    What stunning pictures! I’d love to make it to see the Grand Canyon someday, it looks like such an awe-inspiring place.

  28. Karen Dawkins September 5, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    WOW! These photos are breathtaking. I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon yet, and was considering a boat tour. I may have to rethink that and treat myself to a helicopter tour. Thanks so much!

  29. Marilyn Armstrong September 5, 2014 at 10:00 am #

    These are among the best pictures I’ve ever seen of the Big Hole. We’re hoping to go back next year and add Monument Valley to the excursion. This time, I will be photographically better armed … though I have to say that a helicopter probably helps considerably in getting a really good shot!

  30. Kate O'Malley @ Vagrants Of The World September 5, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Fantastic photos of what is truly a harsh and wonderful area. It is great to have the opportunity to enjoy both perspectives of the Canyon, from the air and on the ground.

  31. anna parker September 5, 2014 at 9:24 am #

    Wow – they have to be the best photos I have seen of the canyon – the early morning light and the cloud reflections are quite fantastic! The first photo – surely you’ve sold it to National Geographic magazine!!…

    • Noel September 5, 2014 at 10:34 am #

      Thanks for the vote of confidence Anna, appreciate it!

  32. Michele {Malaysian Meanders} September 5, 2014 at 8:39 am #

    You’ve really outdone yourself with these photos. They’re fantastic — both the ones from above and also the cactus on the ground. I especially like the first photo, and you probably lead with it for a the same reasons why it appeals to me. I’ve always been curious to try a helicopter ride but I get very motion sick and wonder if that would happen.

  33. eileen @ FamiliesGo! September 5, 2014 at 5:01 am #

    We did a scenic plane ride over the canyon when we were in Vegas. Being up in the air really is the best way to get a sense of the “grandness” of it.

  34. the cape on the corner September 5, 2014 at 5:00 am #

    amazing! i’ve done a small (scary!) plane ride over, but not a helicopter, and not in the morning. wow!

  35. Corinne September 5, 2014 at 3:13 am #

    Wow! Lucky you…a helicopter sunrise in the Grand Canyon…jealous! Love your photos…they’re stunning.

  36. Rajlakshmi September 5, 2014 at 1:14 am #

    ohh my it looks so dreamy… like a picture. Gorgeous captures. The helicopter ride looks so fun.

  37. Phoebe @ Lou Messugo September 4, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

    What an amazing experience. I think those stormy skies make it even more perfect. Such beautiful pictures.

  38. budget jan September 4, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

    The green of the Hoover Dam is something you could only appreciate from above – possibly the best way to view dams 🙂 I love that you captured the little spot of light on the country near the rim. I always get a thrill when I successfully capture a fleeting moment. What a great ride.

  39. Michelle | Lights Camera Travel September 4, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

    Wow. I was lucky enough to do this on a family holiday when I was 16 so it takes me back. It’s a bucket list item for sure! Your photos are incredible.

  40. Mary Calculated Traveller September 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    Wow. What an amazing opportunity! I’ve always wanted to do this…I’m so jealous and your photos are incredible!


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