Our Bird’s-eye View Helicopter Flight Over The Grand Canyon
Bob and I had planned our trip to the Grand Canyon so that our helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon was on the first morning after we arrived, hoping that it would give us a great overview of the landscape before we set off on foot to explore it.
We had our alarms set for 6 a.m., but excitement had me waking at 5 a.m. and unable to go back to sleep. After a quick breakfast, Bob and I completed the short drive to Grand Canyon Airport just outside the Park’s boundaries.
Remembering my sister’s experience in Hawaii, Bob and I were eager to be the first passengers on site for our 8 a.m. flight, hoping to secure the two front seats in our designated helicopter. By paying an additional fee, Bob just managed to clinch that deal within minutes of other passengers attempting to do the same.
Before actually boarding the helicopter, a debriefing took place in the main airport building regarding safety and emergency procedures. Then, the pilot ensured that the passengers were loaded for opportune weight distribution, and Bob and I filled the two front seats next to the pilot. I was ready for my ride.
I love the thrill of taking off in an airplane, the heart-pounding acceleration as you race down the runway, but I had never flown in a helicopter before so becoming airborne in it was a new experience for me. The slow and deliberate liftoff is so controlled that I barely felt the craft leave the ground.
When the pilot decided to dip to the starboard side and move out, the fast forward momentum elicited a whoop out of me. Bob behaved in a much more dignified manner, having flown in many different types of helicopters before.
Grand Canyon Airport is only minutes away from the lip of the Grand Canyon. You can see the helicopter’s shadow in the treetops as we flew over Kaibab National Forest in that direction.
From our bird’s-eye view of the surrounding landscape, it was possible to see a forest fire burning just outside Grand Canyon National Park. The so-called Halfway Fire was located five miles east of Tusayan, and had consumed about 220 acres of ponderosa pine and oak brush. These were on national forest and national park lands.
As the helicopter approached the lip of the Canyon, I was expecting my stomach to drop as we crossed the precipitous drop and ventured out over the open abyss. Instead, I was so distracted by the information being shared with us by the pilot, that my vertigo remained in check. Sheba Temple, the tall pink mound of rock on the left side of this picture, was the focus of my attention.
A butte is an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top, similar to a mesa but narrower in scope. The rock butte on the left of centre in our photograph is referred to as Sheba Temple. The buttes, spires, mesas and temples found within the Grand Canyon are but mountains seen from a higher vantage point on either the North or South Rims of the Canyon.
Once the helicopter cleared the rim of the Canyon, a further distance of 1.5 kilometres of air lay between us and the canyon floor. We had our first glimpse of the river, seen at the top of our photo, but the cardenas basalt rock formations just outside our helicopter were far more impressive at this close range. The area is famous for these rock formations.
As we moved deeper into the Canyon, the helicopter was flying southeast towards the rising sun. The blue-green waters of the Colorado River contrasted beautifully against the rust-coloured cardenas lava formations.
With the helicopter still flying in a southeasterly direction towards the Little Colorado River, we approached Butchart Butte. This pile of rock dead centre in the photo shares the same spelling as Butchart Gardens, but there were little to no flowers in this arid world. Named after the pioneering Grand Canyon explorer Harvey Butchart, it was only recently, in 2008, given this new title by the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names.
Butchart Butte is the 2,317-metre (7,601-foot) summit of Coconino Sandstone in Grand Canyon National Park. It sits midway between Cochise Butte and Siegfried Pyre on the North Rim of the Canyon, from which it can be easily seen at Point Imperial. On our explorations days later, we realized that good views of the butte could also be had from Desert View Lookout on the South Rim.
The pilot continued to navigate the helicopter in a southeasterly direction to capitalize on the early morning sunshine on the Canyon’s features.
Temple Butte, seen here, lies on the west bank of the southerly-flowing Colorado River, which is beyond the butte on the canyon floor. The far rim of the canyon is seen in the distance, and that is the location of the Painted Desert, through which we drove a few days later when making our way to the North Rim.
When we got this close to Temple Butte, we could appreciate the enormity of the formation, which has an elevation of 5,308 feet (1,618 metres). In 1956, there was a mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon, and some of the wreckage was later found atop Temple Butte.
The two airliners involved had departed three minutes apart from Los Angeles International Airport in California. The TWA-Trans World Airliner carried 70 passengers and crew. The other aircraft was United Air Lines Flight 718, bound for Chicago with 58 passengers and crew aboard.
At 10:30 a.m. that fateful day, both aircraft collided over the Grand Canyon near Temple Butte. This picture of the severed tail section of TWA Flight 2 was taken by National Park employees shortly afterwards. Of the 128 passengers and crew, there were no survivors.
When finally we came within view of the Colorado River, Bob and I were rather surprised that it was greenish-blue in colour. Originally, the Colorado River (Rio Colorado or “Red River”) was reddish-brown because every day, it carried through the Grand Canyon 500,000 tons of rust-coloured silt and sediment suspended in the water. Now, these are trapped behind Glen Canyon Dam, and so it is possible to see the dark blue-green shade of the water, which is attributable to the travertine and limestone dissolved therein.
As our helicopter hovered over the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado Rivers, a stark difference was visible in the colours of their merging waters. The waters of the Little Colorado River are turquoise because of calcium carbonate and copper sulfate minerals in the water as opposed to the darker waters of the Colorado River at the top of the picture. The Little Colorado River flows into the Colorado River at Marble Canyon, at the eastern end of Grand Canyon.
From our position above the Little Colorado River, the pilot turned our helicopter northwest and headed towards the North Rim, seen at the top of this photograph. Bob and I couldn’t get over how desolate the canyon is and yet ruggedly beautiful. Words are not enough to describe the jaw-dropping scale and grandeur of the Canyon. For as far as the eye can see, over 1,900 square miles of precipitous cliffs and towering buttes have been carved into the rounded mountain known as the Kaibab Plateau.
It was interesting to learn that many of the myriad red buttes, that look like large-scale temples, have, in fact, been assigned temple names. Geologist Charles Dutton, who carried out detailed geologic studies of the canyon in 1882, held the belief that the Canyon is such an important feature on the planet that the names of its buttes should reflect all the world’s cultures. As a sign of his reverence for their magnificent beauty and monolithic stature, Dutton used names taken from mythologies and legends around the world. We flew over such features as Venus Temple, Apollo Temple, Solomon Temple and even Thor Temple.
One of the most impressive temples that we approached on our helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon was Vishnu Temple, the pointed rock butte in the centre top of our snapshot. This prominent rock formation is located on the north side of the Canyon near Cape Royal. It was a few days later that Bob and I drove to Cape Royal on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to see the Angel’s Window.
Vishnu Temple is more than 5,000 feet high and is believed to be one of the most beautiful buttes in the Grand Canyon. It is because it resembles an oriental pagoda that Dutton gave it this appropriate name.
The Grand Canyon represents a portion of the Colorado River Basin, which has been carved over the past 40 million years. About 17 million years ago, the Colorado River forged its path through the Canyon, and because of all the resulting erosion, the area holds the most complete geologic columns on the planet. By analyzing the horizontal strata, scientists have been able to retrace the geological history of the Earth over the past 2 billion years.
Our overview of the canyon confirmed to Bob and me just how forbidding and unforgiving that world of red burnt sands really is, and yet, the constant flow of the Colorado River has sustained life within the canyon walls for centuries. As harsh as the environment seems, there are traces that confirm adaptation by prehistoric humans known as Archaic cultures dating as far back as 8,000 BC.
When the pilot told us that we would next be flying over Point Imperial on the North Rim, we were very excited. Bob and I had plans to drive to Point Imperial while staying at Grand Canyon National Park, but in truth, only 10% of Grand Canyon visitors ever go to the “other side”.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is, on average, 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim with the elevation being about 8,000 feet (2,438 metres). Just off of Point Imperial is the remarkable sandstone spire known as Mount Hayden. It perches over Nankoweap Canyon and has a lofty summit at an elevation of 8,372 feet. It is the remnant of a vast desert that once covered this region some 260 million years ago.
Mount Hayden is the most frequently photographed scene in Grand Canyon National Park, as well as the summit most often climbed by skilled rock climbers. This spire of Coconino sandstone is named after Charles T. Hayden, an Arizona pioneer who originally arrived in Arizona in 1858 on the first overland stagecoach to Tucson.
It wasn’t until 1919 that President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill creating Grand Canyon National Park and designating it as a protected area for recreation.
Today, more than 6 million people visit the Canyon each year and are mesmerized by the gargantuan sprawl of the Canyon and the colossal buttes that rise from its depths.
On our return approach to the South Rim of the Canyon, in the vicinity of Hopi Point, the pilot made sure to draw our attention to a well-named formation called Battleship Rock. A few days later, when we visited Hopi Point, we were informed that a nesting pair of California Condors has a nest cave in the southern face of Battleship Rock. We were lucky enough that day to spot the pair of condors, and knew, firsthand, the difficulty they would have searching for food when soaring at such a high altitude. Being skyborne had given us the bird’s-eye view.
Battleship Rock is a formidable hunk of rock that does resemble a battleship, and because of that, it is the most recognizable butte in the Grand Canyon.
It is possible to hike to the summit of Battleship Rock from a diverging trail off of the Bright Angel Trail, but Bob and I had no intention of undertaking that pursuit.
Battleship Rock closeup…
Our return back to the South Rim through Dragon Corridor had us gaping in disbelief at what is the deepest, widest and most open part of the Grand Canyon. On the right of our picture is the body of what they call the Dragon Formation. It juts out into the middle of the Canyon.
The knob at the end of the Formation is referred to as the head of the dragon. Only moments after skirting the Dragon, we left the Canyon behind and soared over the Kaibab National Forest once again.
In that area of the forest, a road cut a swath through the dense stands of firs, pines and aspen trees, but that landscape was easy on the eyes. It gave us a chance to reflect on all that we had seen and to ponder the challenge that we had set for ourselves. Bob and I knew that our work was cut out for us. We planned to descend into the depths of the Canyon by hiking one of the few rare trails, the Bright Angel Trail. We would have to choose our day wisely.
Only moments passed after I spotted the airport buildings…
until we were back on terra firma. The flight had taken one hour, and definitely set the stage for the rest of our vacation. There was so much to explore and what seemed like too little time, but we were off to a good start.