Why Was The Grand Canyon Skywalk Built?

When explorer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his simple, but pointed reply was, “because it’s there.” When asked why he wanted to build the Grand Canyon Skywalk, Las Vegas entrepreneur David Jin might have given a similarly succinct but telling reply of, “because I can.”

Whether Jin ever went on record to justify his desire to build the innovative but controversial attraction in such a way is sheer speculation on the part of the author, but nevertheless, “inquiring minds” want to know: why was the Grand Canyon Skywalk built?

In 1996, Jin was running several Las Vegas Grand Canyon tour companies. After tagging along with his family on one, he envisioned being suspended over the Grand Canyon on a glass platform, with nothing but air between himself and the next solid object, thousands of feet below. A terrifying, yet deliciously irresistible sensation, certainly, and one that people would willingly pay whatever the price of admission to experience for themselves!

Jin knew better than to even think about running the idea by National Park Service officials on either the North or South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The very notion ran counter to the National Park’s overarching goal of preserving the Grand Canyon in as close to its natural state as humanly possible. But there was one area of the Grand Canyon where those limitations did not apply; a place where tourists could have the kinds of experiences that National Park visitors could only dream about, and where the local “powers-that-be” would welcome the revenues that such an attraction would bring in: the Western Rim of the Grand Canyon.

When David Jin’s concept of the Grand Canyon Skywalk first began to take shape, the Western Rim of the Grand Canyon was, in many ways, a land that time forgot. Designated as reservation lands of the Hualapai Indian Tribe in 1883, the virtually untouched desert near the jagged edge of the great gorge saw very few visitors, save for the occasional white water rafters that flew in and out of remote airstrips on single engine planes and helicopters, or off-road enthusiasts with the vehicles and the gumption to brave the axle-busting dirt roads that wound through vast stands of Joshua trees. The bypassing of Route 66 by Interstate 40 in the 1970’s left Peach Springs, the tribe’s only real semblance of a town, further cut off from the world. Unemployment and poverty were widespread.

In 1988, things slowly began to change. People, including Jin, finally began to see this desolate, forgotten corner of the Grand Canyon as the untapped resource that it was. “Grand Canyon West” was born. Unhindered by the restrictive covenants of a National Park, Grand Canyon West would make a name for itself by giving Grand Canyon travelers what they wanted. Helicopter flights to the bottom of the canyon? Doable. Shorter raft rides on the Colorado River? Absolutely! Let the son of Evel Knievel jump his motorcycle over the canyon? Why not? There was no doubt about it. The Grand Canyon Skywalk belonged here. Jin entered into a partnership with the Hualapai Tribe, who held high hopes that the Grand Canyon Skywalk would be icing on a very lucrative cake.

Jin enlisted the help of architect Mark Ross Johnson and Lochsa Engineering of Las Vegas, Nevada for the final designs of the Skywalk. Executive Construction Management, also located in Las Vegas, would serve as the general contractor. The final cost of the structure, whose ancillary facilities will eventually include hotels, restaurants, a golf course, casinos, and a cable to ferry visitors from the canyon rim to the Colorado River, came in at approximately $30 million.

The Grand Canyon Skywalk officially opened to the public on March 20, 2007, with astronauts Buzz Aldrin and John Herrington taking the ceremonial ‘first walk’ on the glass horseshoe, followed members of the press and the tourism industry. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Grand Canyon Skywalk. Lambasted within days of its opening by environmentalists, tribe members and the paying public (who could forget the viral YouTube video “Crap Canyon?”), The Grand Canyon Skywalk would remain a fixture in the news, good, bad and ugly, for years to come. The Hualapai Tribe would eventually become embroiled in a bitter lawsuit with David Jin over outstanding ticket revenues and the issue of eminent domain. The suit was settled in Jin’s favor in February 2013. In June of that same year, Jin passed away after a 4-year battle with cancer.

10 years later, the Grand Canyon Skywalk endures on the “bucket lists” of tourists from around the world; over 1 million a year as of 2015. Many of the operational issues that plagued it upon its opening have since been resolved, including the long-awaited paving of the main access road to Grand Canyon West. While this is good news for the do-it-yourself type of travelers, Las Vegas Grand Canyon West tours by bus, van, airplane and helicopter continue to be the most popular method for visiting this one-of-a-kind attraction, which according to Hualapai Tribe executive Ted Quasala, “will be David’s legacy for all eternity.”

5 Responses

  1. It was a great experience to be able to see the canyon through the window of the sky walk, looking down. It was almost scary.
    Great service.

    1. Consuela,
      I too found myself feeling a bit dizzy looking down for the first time at the Grand Canyon through a pane of glass!
      Thank you for sharing your experience on the Grand Canyon Skywalk.
      Take care,
      Alley 🙂

  2. I saw it with my son in 2012 and I am afraid of heights, but I felt so safe on it. What an awesome view. Loved it and want to go back soon.

  3. Loved it but wish I could have taken pictures. They will not let use a phone or camera this I was not able to share my experience with my family.

    1. Hi Mark,
      Agree this is one of the downsides of visiting the Skywalk (not being able to take your own camera). Their reasoning is that if these items are dropped, it could pock or scratch the glass surface of the Skywalk. That’s why they offer souvenir photos for purchase.
      Alley 🙂

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