If you’re looking for a day trip from Las Vegas, one of the most popular is to the Grand Canyon. It’s a long drive, though–around 10 hours round trip, and that doesn’t include time spent at the Canyon. Personally, I’m not fond of long solo car rides, especially coming on the heels of an 8 hour day flying from Vermont to Las Vegas, knowing I’ve got another 8 hour day flying back. Same goes for the bus tours, which take even longer (around 14 hours). But seeing the Grand Canyon was something I’d always wanted to do, and a few years ago, I finally decided it was time I saw it. My solution? Combine two things I’ve always wanted to do: Since I’ve also always wanted to fly in a helicopter, I decided to take a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. In all my trips to Las Vegas, this was the most memorable thing I’ve done and my favorite by far.
I booked a flight on Papillon’s Golden Eagle Air Tour, which is a no-frills flight that doesn’t land at the Grand Canyon and is 3.5 hours hotel to hotel. I found a discount online for this tour, so it wound up costing me $250 (but this was back in 2006). It runs around $300 now. They picked a few of us up at our hotel (the Bellagio) by van and shuttled us to their airport location, where we sat and waited for about 45 minutes for the tour and watched a safety video.
My group consisted of two older couples (one from Mexico and one from North Carolina), myself, and another solo female traveler. We all had to give our weight information to them, so they would know how to distribute us in the seats for balance (so for the love of God, this is not the time to lie about how much you weigh!). The other solo woman and I were selected to sit up front with the pilot. I was psyched about this, figuring I’d have the best view, but as it turned it out, it was a very hot day, and with the sun beating in the front window, even the air conditioning didn’t help much. Plus the windows reflect the interior of the helicopter quite a bit, so my photos didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped (especially during the flight in the Canyon). Still, the whole experience was amazingly cool.
Our pilot was Dennis, who had been a military pilot back East before retiring to Las Vegas. Dennis was a terrific pilot, and also very knowledgeable about the history of the area and the geography and geology of the land between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. He cited quite a few facts about the region, including mineral deposits and the like that I can’t remember any more, but at the time, it was interesting. On the way to the Grand Canyon, we flew over the Lake Las Vegas development, the Hoover Dam, and Lake Mead (which I had seen from ground level during my first trip to Las Vegas), and they are also quite impressive (and, if you’re interested, a much easier drive from Vegas).
The high point, of course, was the Canyon itself. Our actual flying time at the Canyon wasn’t long–maybe ten or fifteen minutes–but it was breathtaking. We dipped below the rim of the Canyon and wound our way through it, with the rock cliffs on either side of us and the river below. The colors were so rich. The Canyon itself really is as vast as it appears on TV, which makes it a bit surreal in person. I kept wanting to rub my eyes, because I couldn’t believe it was real. It’s just troughs and ridges of deep, deep canyons for as far as the eye can see. It’s an awe-inspiring sight that reminds you that we human beings are pretty small and insignificant in the scheme of things.
The flight back to Vegas was a straight shot through the desert, and then we circled the Strip to see the iconic buildings from the air, which was a treat as well. We all got our pictures taken next to the helicopter, but I didn’t purchase mine. I thanked Dennis for the flight and gave him a tip before catching the shuttle van back to the Bellagio.
Would I take another Papillon helicopter tour again? In a heartbeat! Do I recommend it to other Las Vegas visitors? Absolutely. It’s a great way to see the Grand Canyon, especially if you’re pressed for time or if you want to see it from above. Papillon offers a variety of air experiences, including their popular Grand Celebration Helicopter Tour, which lands on the floor of the Grand Canyon, gives you time to explore and take photos, and includes some food and a champagne toast before you take off again. In retrospect, I wish I had done that one. It’s a little more expensive, but I think it would have been worth it. After all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of us. There are other helicopter tour companies operating in Las Vegas as well. Just do a search on Google to compare prices.