GRAND CANYON WEST, Ariz. A steel-and-glass skywalk under construction by the Hualapai Tribe of Arizona on the western rim of the Grand Canyon is aimed at blending ancient beliefs with today's technology.
For more than 1,400 years, the tribe has lived in harmony with the Colorado River and the steep cliffs of the Grand Canyon. The river and its steep canyon cliffs have nourished the Hualapai (pronounced Wall-ah-pie) in body and spirit for generations, and they believe it's their duty to strive for balance between protecting the canyon's stunning beauty and sharing its natural gifts.
"The canyon to us is a very spiritual and powerful place, but it should be shared by everybody," says tribe member Wilfred Whatoname Jr., 47, who lives in Peach Springs, the capital of the Hualapai's 1-million-acre reservation, which borders 108 miles of the Grand Canyon.
The tribe's economic health depends on tourism, but tribal leaders decided gaming ventures didn't make sense because Las Vegas was a mere 120 miles away. Instead, the tribe takes tourists by helicopter into the canyon, on pontoon rides down the Colorado River, and on day trips to experience the pristine, sacred sites on tribal land.
One of the most breathtaking vistas is at Eagle Point, where the tribe is building the semi-circular glass platform as part of a $40 million tourism venture called Grand Canyon West. Eagle Point gets its name from a tribal legend of a boy who turned into an eagle, and visitors are shown a rock formation shaped like an eagle in the canyon cliffs below.
When the skywalk is completed, visitors will be able to walk out onto the horseshoe-shaped platform and peer 4,000 feet straight down to the winding Colorado River. Welding is nearly complete on the massive steel-beam sections that will encase layer after layer of architectural structural glass manufactured in Germany and Austria by Saint Gobain. A Utah firm, Mark Steel, provided the steel beams.
Engineers say the 10-foot-wide skywalk could hold about 120 people comfortably, and it's built to support 70 million pounds of weight and withstand a magnitude 8.0 earthquake or winds of up to 100 mph.
The cantilever design of the bridge with its steel footings buried 40 feet deep will keep half the skywalk on solid ground. Another 70 feet of the structure will jut out over the sheer cliff walls of the Grand Canyon's rim.
For those with a queasy stomach when it comes to heights, the structure's design allows visitors to choose from walking on the bridge's outer steel underbelly or its glass interior lining. Five-foot-tall glass walls will encase the entire skywalk, and security will be tight as a safety measure, said Allison Raskansky, who markets the Grand Canyon West experience for the Hualapai Tribe.
Many tribal members arise early to catch a bus that takes them 60 miles across a bumpy dirt road from Peach Springs to Grand Canyon West, where their 10-hour workday begins. Nearly 500 tourists a day now make their way to the remote site. Once the skywalk opens, the tribe expects the number of tourists to easily double.
For now, a Western-theme town offers chuckwagon meals, mock cowboy gunfights, and horse or wagon rides. Traditional dwellings constructed by members of five different Native American tribes from the Grand Canyon region can be explored in a small village where tribe members perform authentic dances daily for their visitors.
But it's the glass-bottom skywalk that really has people talking, said Robert Bravo Jr., a Hualapai tribe member and operations manager of Grand Canyon West. Although the completion date has been pushed back several times, Bravo said the tribe is now hoping for a grand opening by year's end. The tribe plans to charge $25 per person to those who want to brave walking on the glass platform.
"We get calls all the time, every day, from people who want to know if the skywalk is open and if they can come and walk on it," Bravo said. "When our tribe first started talking about the skywalk, the elders were a little unsure. But once they came out and saw what we wanted to do, they came to understand it would be a very spiritual experience with a lot of economic benefit to our people."
The skywalk is a joint venture between the Hualapai Tribe and Las Vegas-based entrepreneur David Jin, who first thought of the glass skywalk during a visit to Grand Canyon West nearly 20 years ago, Raskansky said.
"He brought his family out here for a visit and thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat if you could really see down over the rim of the Grand Canyon?"' she said.
A $10 million general liability-insurance bond underwrites the construction phase, Raskansky added, although another insurance policy is needed once the skywalk opens.
As a child, Whatoname remembers standing in awe on the edge of Quartermaster Canyon with his grandmother, who pointed the boy in every direction with the admonition to "look around you, as far as you can see this is your land."
"Our ancestors actually came from the bottom of the canyon," said Whatoname, who wears three eagle feathers in his graying dark hair as homage to his ancestry. Several necklaces with hand-carved beads made from buffalo horn and deer antlers dangle around his neck.
The eagle, he points out, is a powerful, sacred creature of the sky that is well respected by the Hualapai Nation, and tribe members hope visitors will experience some of the spirit of that as they step over the Grand Canyon."This is a very powerful, spiritual place," Whatoname says.