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!
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.
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?
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!
Gorgeous landscapes around Lake Mead
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.
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?
West rim views of the Grand Canyon – Hualapai Indian Tribe region
Close up detail of Hualapai Indian Tribe look out point
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.
Dark stormy clouds throw shadows and adding drama to the landscape
An urban grid peeks out from the desert floor
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)
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.
A pilot and helicopter waits with dramatic landscape
The desert landscape is stunning with these stormy skies above
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
Fascinating desert flora and blooms
An endless landscape of thriving cactus and living plants in the desert
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.
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.
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.
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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.