HUALAPAI VISITOR CENTER AND SKYWALK

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Perched on the rim in a remote section of the Grand Canyon is a marvel of modern engineering that has sparked strong emotions and heated debates across the United States. Opened in March 2007 after two years of construction, the $30 million dollar Grand Canyon Skywalk project was controversial from the beginning. The site is part of a tourism complex called Grand Canyon West that has been developed by the Hualapai Tribal Nation on reservation lands. It is located about 250 miles by road west of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. Though the site also sits along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, it is not part of Grand Canyon National Park, and the National Park Service has no presence or authority there.

Hualapais call themselves "Hwal bay," which translates to “People of the Tall Pines.” Tribal members believe that they were created in the Grand Canyon, and that it is sacred and should be revered. For centuries the Hualapai ranged over nearly 5 million acres of modern west-central Arizona. When the federal government created their reservation in 1883, however, less than 1 million acres was included. Today tribal members work as ranchers, loggers, and hunting guides, but the major source of income for the tribe is tourism, especially with the opening of Grand Canyon West.

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Eagle Rock, a site that some Hualapai consider sacred, as seen from Eagle Point near the Skywalk.

Photo: Julius Reque. Wikimedia Commons.

The Skywalk consists of a horseshoe-shaped cantilevered steel frame with a glass floor and sides. The deck juts 70 feet out of a limestone cliff into a side canyon near a spot on the rim called Eagle Point, so named because a dip in the canyon’s ridge appears like a bird with outstretched wings. Visitors can pad out over the reddish colored chasm in rented slippers and spy the Colorado River coursing like a slender blue-green ribbon 4,000 feet below. The glass floor allows visitors to get a bird’s-eye view into the canyon as the wind roars around them, causing many to grab onto the railing.

Las Vegas architect Mark Johnson of M.R.J. Architects and Lochsa Engineering designed the structure so that it does not use any visible cables or braces, leaving visitors’ views of the canyon unobstructed. Instead it rests on eight large posts made of steel plate anchored into the limestone bedrock along the rim. The deck consists of five layers of ultra-clear glass that appear almost invisible to visitors: a thin layer on top that can be replaced once it becomes too scuffed and scratched, plus four thicker layers that provide support while allowing visitors to see clearly to the canyon bottom below. The platform is strong enough to support 70 million pounds, although only 120 people are allowed on at one time. It was designed to withstand 100 mile per hour winds and an earthquake of magnitude 8.

Building the Skywalk was controversial. It was funded mostly by Las Vegas businessmen, who will reap most of the profits for the first several years to recoup upfront costs, although the Hualapai own the structure. Some critics therefore claim that outside interests are exploiting the Hualapai tribe. Others call the Skywalk tacky, overly commercial, and an affront to the canyon’s natural landscape. They question how the Hualapais, with their belief that the canyon is sacred ground, can exploit nature in this way.

Some tribal members share this view, expressing their concern that it is violating sacred ground and is an eyesore, disrupting the peaceful nature of their home. On the other hand, advocates argue that the tribe is poverty-stricken so this provides a good source of economic stimulation for the tribe that will help provide income for present and future generations. Past efforts, such as building a casino, have failed and left the tribe without much income. They also point out that the Hualapais worked with the developers to minimize environmental damage.

The Hualapai tribe has created several other attractions at Grand Canyon West to draw visitors. The tribe built an Indian Village consisting of five small villages depicting the traditional residences of Hualapai and three other Arizona tribes as well as tipis representing Plains Indian tribes. The dwellings were constructed by representatives of each nation, and the Hualapais assert that they include authentic stories and displays from these tribes. In the center of the village is an amphitheater which houses daily Native American presentations and performances. The site also includes Hualapai Ranch, which hosts “Wild West” activities such as trail rides, gunfighting shows, panning for gold, and cowboy demonstrations.

There is no electric power line to the site yet, so all power comes from diesel generators. Water must be trucked in from 30 miles away, and waste is hauled out. However, this has not stopped the Hualapais from looking for ways to enhance the site. Future plans include a proposed three-level visitor center on the cliff edge above the Skywalk. Its design is meant to mimic the geographic formations of the canyon. Its façade will use sculpted concrete panels to match nearby rock formations, so that it will blend into the nearby landscape even as the adjacent Skywalk flaunts it.

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The Skywalk juts out over the Grand Canyon, allowing paying visitors to view the Canyon under their feet but also marring the natural landscape.

Photo: ComplexSimpleLLC, Wikimedia Commons.


written by sarah bohl gerke


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