The Worst Family Travel Destination in the West
It is with great embarrassment and shame that I admit I never had visited the Grand Canyon before this month.
It is with even greater embarrassment and shame that I admit I tried to rectify this sad reality with a road trip to the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a South Rim attraction far away from the Grand Canyon National Park entrances that everybody knows and loves.
Let’s just say I was sorely disappointed.
It wasn’t the view that bummed me out—so long as you’re actually looking at the 4,000-foot-deep chasm in our continent, you pretty much can’t go wrong there.
No, instead I was disappointed by the underdeveloped facilities, the poor signage, the terrible food, the overrated and overblown “skywalk,” the price, and—perhaps most egregiously—the complete and total lack of safety precautions, considering that the attraction sits on the edge of one of the steepest cliffs in North America.
Put differently, I’m glad I didn’t take my kids to the Grand Canyon Skywalk because (they would have been bored out of their minds and) at least one of them surely would have fallen to her death.
To be fair, the idea behind the attraction is great. The Skywalk itself is a semicircular glass walkway cantilevered out over the edge of the South Rim of the canyon. The Hualapai Tribe built the place in 2007 as a way to get tourists to their reservation—a massive parcel of land far from the national park sites but close enough to be a day trip from Las Vegas. Because it was the first of its kind at the Grand Canyon, the Skywalk got major attention when it opened. It has been a pretty well-known tourist attraction ever since.
Execution, on the other hand, is lacking. Now visitors must park at a visitor center and board busses that stop at three spots along the way: A recreated (and supremely contrived) Old West village, the Skywalk, and Guano Point—the site of an old guano mining operation.
Of these three stops, the Skywalk is the main attraction. It is attached to an elaborate building with a small museum about the Hualapai tribe. It is surrounded by food trucks. Off in the distance, there’s a modest amphitheatre. Rules on the glass walkway are bizarre. You must wear booties on your shoes so you don’t scuff the glass. You have to stick your bags in lockers before you head out—nobody can carry anything with them. Also, and most annoyingly, you’re not allowed to bring cell phones out onto the walk. If you want pictures, you have to pay (a ton of money to) the Annie Leibovitz wannabes on staff.
Also peculiar: the lack of safety protocols.
Outside of the main Skywalk building, there is absolutely no fence or security system preventing visitors from falling over the edge of the canyon. Sure, the tribe employs a few folks who walk up and down the path near the edge warning people to stand back if they get too close, but if you go with a kid who’s quick and doesn’t listen, you could lose your kid forever. (If you go with a stupid grownup, you might lose him—the dumb ones always are men—forever, too.
The Guano Point area is infinitely more interesting than the Skywalk. There’s history in the remnants of a 1960s-era mining apparatus. There’s a decent hike. The view down the canyon provides great scale of just how deep the chasm really is, and a unique perspective of the Colorado River as it snakes by.
Still, the name—which effectively invokes bird shit—also is a very strange choice. Nothing named “guano” sounds appealing. Why not just use the tribal name?
My final complaint about the Grand Canyon Skywalk experience revolves around price. Unless I read the website incorrectly, the basic ticket came in somewhere around $60. For just a few dollars more, I was able to prepay for a “meal.” The website said nothing about what this meal comprised, but it seemed like a good deal until I was on site. After polling workers about which stop had the best options for the ticketed meal, I beelined for the café at Guano Point. Here, with my admission, I received a scoop of barbecue beef, a scoop of mashed potatoes, a half-ear of corn, a bowl of wilted salad, a cookie, and a bottle of water. It was underwhelming and would not have satisfied my kids.
Perhaps the biggest positive of the day trip to Grand Canyon Skywalk: The drive from Las Vegas. I went out with two friends, and on our journey we drove through one of the largest natural Joshua Tree forests in the world. The views were insane—almost alien. At one point the three of us parked the car, got out and walked around amid the trees, giddy with excitement. Compared to the experience of walking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon, this was what I’ll remember most on the day.
I know my kids would have felt exactly the same.