HUALAPAI INDIAN RESERVATION - Few tourist attractions at the Grand Canyon have generated as much hype as the Skywalk, the mammoth glass-bottomed deck that extends 70 feet (21 meters) past the rim of the Grand Canyon and offers breathtaking views 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) over the canyon floor.
It's being touted as nothing less than a spiritual experience. David Jin, the Las Vegas businessman who paid $30 million (?23 million) to build it, goes as far as to say that it enables visitors "to walk the path of the eagle."
Really? I was ready to find out.
When the Hualapais opened the deck for journalists earlier this month, I arrived early and worked my way to the front of the line. Police ushered me and several others onto the carpeted staging area, handing each of us paper surgeon's slippers to cover our shoes and protect the glass.
I stood up, took a breath, and looked out into the abyss.
Something seemed to happen to my legs as I stepped onto the Skywalk. I had to concentrate to move my feet.
Was that a wobble? Maybe.
The Skywalk is like a huge steel diving board. Architects embedded shock absorbers into the railing to dampen the vibration. The result felt a little like being on a cruise ship.
I pressed on.
The Skywalk's builders have said repeatedly that the deck is extremely durable. It's essentially a huge steel horseshoe, capable of withstanding 100 mph (160 kph) winds and holding several hundred 200-pound (90-kilogram) people at a time.
I had no reason to doubt them. But out on the edge, my mind was racing: I tried to remember if any government regulatory agency had checked how well this thing was anchored to the cliff. I wondered what it would sound like for a million-pound (453,600-kilogram) hunk of metal to uproot and tumble 4,000 feet (1,220 meters). Like an earthquake, I bet.
I wasn't sure I liked this. I'm not a tall man, and the glass wall didn't even come up to my shoulder. The canyon winds were whipping all around me, and it seemed like a good swift burst would be enough to push me over.
Maybe I was being crazy.
A few dozen journalists had joined me on the Skywalk, and nobody else seemed as concerned. They perched their chins on the glass wall and looked down. In front of me a British reporter laid on his belly and pressed his face to the floor.
I shuffled past them, hunched down and clutching the railing, just to be safe.
Finally, at the farthest point on the Skywalk, I stopped and peered through the transparent floor.
And there it was.
The cliff descended several hundred feet (a few hundred meters) before it hit a narrow boulder-strewn shelf. Then it was straight down again, past a rainbow of strata, a few more chiseled ledges and into a dark crevice at the bottom.
This must be what Wile E. Coyote sees, I thought, just before gravity takes hold and he plummets into a little cartoon poof.
Far to the left, I could see ripples in the Colorado River. To the right was the triangular dip in the canyon wall that looks like the outstretched wings of a bird and gives this place its name: Eagle Point.
It was gorgeous.
I've been to the Grand Canyon more times than I can count, and I've never seen it quite like that. For me, the Skywalk was a little terrifying, but I can also see why a lot of people would want to come.
The Hualapai hope you do, too.
If You Go...
PRICE: Visitors must pay anywhere from $74.95 (?57) to $199 (?150) to walk on the Skywalk, depending on what other activities they do. (The tribe advertises a $49.95;?37.70 rate on its Web site, but that just let's you "view" the Skywalk, not walk on it.)
The Hualapai also offer Hummer tours and helicopter trips, a museum of Indian houses and a cowboy town. You also can take a ride to another part of the canyon called Guano Point, where a hiking path will take you over a thin strip of land with cliffs on either side. Details at http://www.destinationgrandcanyon.com/inclusi
LOCATION: The Skywalk is far from the canyon's South Rim, where most visitors go to visit the national park. The Hualapai live on the remote western edge of the canyon, about five hours by car from the South Rim and four hours by car from Flagstaff.
GETTING THERE: If you travel by car, it's a very good idea to come in a high-clearance vehicle. A good portion of the Hualapai Reservation is unpaved, and you'll have to endure 14 miles (23 kilometers) of teeth-chattering washboard roads to get to the Skywalk. The tribe posts driving directions at http://www.destinationgrandcanyon.com/map.htm l.
If you're not certain your car can handle the trip, Grand Canyon West Express offers a roundtrip shuttle service from a park-and-ride area for $10 (?8). (Call 702-260-6506 to make reservations and for directions on where to park).
The tribe says it will improve driving access in the future. Until then, here are some other options:
_From Las Vegas (121 miles;195 kilometers away): Las Vegas is the nearest big city and perhaps the best place to begin your journey to the Hualapai Reservation. It offers the most hotels, restaurants and best night life of any of the nearby cities.
A variety of charter companies also will let you skip the long, dusty drive to the reservation and fly directly into the airport at Grand Canyon West, the Hualapai's tourist village at the rim that includes the Skywalk. Flight options and tours from Vegas with stops at Grand Canyon West include Vision Holidays, http://www.visionholidays.com or 702-647-7000; Maverick Helicopters, http://www.maverickhelicopter.com, 702-261-0007 and Sundance Helicopters, http://www.helicoptour.com, 702-736-0606. Prices vary but a quick phone survey found round-trip fares from $244 (?184) to more than $500 (?377), with Internet fares lower. Those prices do not include admission to Skywalk.
_From Kingman (70 miles;113 kilometers away): This city in northeast Arizona one of the closest to the Skywalk. If you're driving from anywhere in Arizona, southern California or New Mexico, you may want to stay here overnight before pressing on to Grand Canyon West.
Kingman has a variety of motels and hotels ranging in price from $30 (?23) to more than $100 (?75) per night, depending on the season. There are few restaurants to choose from, however, and your choices are extremely limited late at night.
History buffs will get a kick out of historic Route 66, which runs along the city's southern edge. You can still find hand-painted signs and quirky eateries like the Hot Rod Cafe here.
_Peach Springs (49 miles; 79 kilometers away): This is where you can go for an unrehearsed, unvarnished look at the people who operate the Skywalk. Peach Springs is the center of the Hualapai Tribe, and home to most of its 2,200 members.
It's a hardscrabble town, scattered with doublewide trailers and government houses. In the wintertime, the town is sometimes submerged in a cloud of dust and wood smoke.
Peach Springs does have one hotel, the Hualapai Lodge, that offers clean rooms for well under $100 (?75) a night. It has a cafeteria and a gift shop, and on some nights, Hualapai women will gather in the lobby to perform their native "bird dance."
Though it's relatively close to the Skywalk, it will still take about two hours to get there. You could either take a shortcut, which includes more than 45 miles (72 kilometers) on an unpaved road, or you could go through Kingman. The best bet for not getting stranded is to go through Kingman.
OTHER ACCOMMODATIONS: If you can't get enough of Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk in one day, you can stay overnight. The Hualapai have built 14 cabins at the Hualapai Ranch, http://www.destinationgrandcanyon.com/overnight.html, and are offering packages from $149 (?112) to $179 (?135) per night that include meals and shuttle service to various attractions. They're planning to build 26 more soon.