Sunday, November 1, 2015

Summer Road Trip: Day 14 - Grand Canyon West and Hoover Dam

June 5

No trip to Vegas should be complete without a visit to this natural wonder (considered one of the 7 in the world).  I won’t bother with descriptions.  Pictures even can’t capture this astonishing landscape in all its splendor.  The sheer enormity of it is unphotographable.  There are a few options to get there from Vegas:
  1. A helicopter tour (fastest but most expensive); based on stories I heard it’s definitely bucket-list material
  2. Drive to the South Rim (it’s a good 4 ½ hours or so, and you can rent a car or sign up for a bus tour).  This is the cheapest option, as the South Rim access is through a National Park and the fee is $30 per car (regardless of number of people) or $15 per person (if with a tour bus).  I’m yet to do that, but figured one day I’ll make it to Sedona, then Flagstaff, and from there it’s only 1 ½ hours… Plans for later on…
  3. Drive to Grand Canyon West (only 2 ½ hours) where the area is owned by the Hualapai tribe (they made it abundantly clear that we were no longer on US territory) and since 2007 have opened it to the general public.  General admission starts around $40 per person, with shuttle stops to 2 different viepoints, and an additional $25 if you want access to the Skywalk (a glass-bottomed-horseshoe-shaped cantilever “bridge” that hangs just above the canyon)
Either of the last 2 options offers the opportunity to stop at the Hoover Dam, since it’s on the way.  A few years ago we drove just over it on Hwy 93.  Now, given security risks after 9/11, they built a bypass across a 1,900 feet long bridge (longest single-span concrete arch bridge in the western hemisphere) and trucks are no longer allowed down the old Hwy.  Small cars are still permitted (and can cross over to park on the Arizona side) but there is no through-traffic.

Built during the Great Depression (1931-36) it was the largest concrete structure of its time.  200 meters thick at the bottom, 14 meters at the top, it impounds Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US.  It puts out (on average) about 4.2 trillion kilowatt-hours, enough to power big chunks of Southern California, Nevada and Arizona.  Talk about a mega-engineering feat.  Geeks would have a blast here!

In 1936 it was the world’s largest, with 1,345 MW output.  In 1942 it was eclipsed by the Grand Coulee Dam (Columbia River, Washington State) with 6,809 MW (it’s still the biggest in the US).  By comparison, the biggest in the world (Three Gorges Dam in China) puts out 22,500 MW!! 
So in the grand scheme of things, Hoover Dam is small.  But HUGE in terms of history and what it has done for the economic development of the area and neighboring states.

And humor me for another minute.  Of the 10 biggest in the US, the Grand Coulee is the only Hydro, there is one coal (Scherer) one gas (West County Energy Center) and the rest are Nuclear (Palo Verde, at the top with an output of 32,846 MW).  Conversely, of the top 10 in the world, only 2 are Nuclear (one in Japan, one in Canada).  The rest are all Hydro, with the Three Gorges being the biggest.

Thanks for indulging me.  There’s always Google and Wikipedia if you need more…

Off to Grand Canyon West, then.

On our first trip there (I think it was 2007, right after it opened) the road wasn’t even paved all the way.  The last 20 miles or so were quite an off-road adventure; bumpy, dusty, and very uneven.  By now, seems like they made enough money to invest in the infrastructure.  All paved, and overall facilities (from a couple run-down shacks a few years ago) that now include lodging and air-conditioned buildings.

But none of that matters when you stand at the edge of the Canyon (strangely, there are no railing or any of the typical safety precautions) and gape in awe at what nature was able to create over millions and millions of years…

There are two main viepoints at Grand Canyon West:  Guano Point (my favorite of the two) and Eagle Point, given the shape of the ridge formation (near the Skywalk) that looks like an eagle with the wings spread out. 

The Skywalk “bridge” I mentioned earlier hangs 800 ft. (240 m) directly above the canyon floor.  It seems like an interesting experience, to walk across the glass-bottom surface and look straight down.  But frankly, you can have the same view from the rim.  For about $25 less.  And although there are plans to extend the whole area (hotels, restaurants, golf course, casino, and a cable car to the bottom) some of the tribe, along with environmental groups strongly reject the idea, considering it a defacement of a natural treasure.

For now, it does offer the shortest route from Vegas to the Grand Canyon and a definite recommendation for a side trip.  Oh, and one thing to consider: this is Arizona, and they don’t observe Daylight Savings.  Take that into account as you plan the trip, or you’ll find yourself cheated out of an extra hour…

That said, let's head back to Vegas and lose some money... ;-)

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Links to the rest of the itinerary:

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