It's been impossible to talk about the Grand Canyon the last few months without also talking about the Skywalk. Advertised as floating 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, the Skywalk is an observation bridge built with a glass bottom to give travelers the opportunity to experience the Grand Canyon from a 720 degree perspective (360 degrees on two axis, from sky to ground, and from rim to rim). At the end of March, the structure opened to the public, and those willing to pay $75 were able to walk around on the horseshoe-shaped bridge and stare out into the space below their feet as none have done before.
Because our discussion concerns Grand Canyon National Park, it is important to note that the Skywalk has been built outside of the park boundary and is in no way associated with the National Park Service. The $40 million structure was built by the Hualapai Tribe, and is located on their Indian Reservation which includes sections of the canyon rim.
I wonder what Teddy Roosevelt would have thought of the Skywalk. Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman, and while he was President, created 18 National Monuments by the power granted him through the Antiquities Act. One of those 18 was Grand Canyon National Monument, established on January 11, 1908 (the area didn't gain National Park status until 1919). On an earlier trip to the area in 1903, Roosevelt, obviously impressed with the landscape, said, "Do nothing to mar its grandeur for the ages have been at work upon it and man cannot improve it. Keep it for your children -- your children's children and all who come after you..."
Maybe wondering what Roosevelt would have thought is beside the point, after all, the Skywalk represents private development on non-public land. For many reasons, it is doubtful such a project would ever be considered inside the National Park boundary. What you may find surprising though, is that in the early days of the park, just such a thrill-ride type idea was considered.
The top two leaders in the early years of the National Park Service argued over whether or not a cable-car tram should be built rim-to-rim across the Grand Canyon. The argument for the tram was that it would greatly enhance the visitor experience. The argument against the development of such a tram was that it would mar the grandeur that Roosevelt wished to protect, as well as go counter to the Park Service mission, part of which is to conserve the scenery. After debate, the tram idea was trashed.
Today, some find disturbing the idea that the Skywalk represents a trend toward importing these amusement park experiences right to the gates of our National Parks. One such person is former Grand Canyon National Park superintendent Robert Arnberger who has described the development which includes the Skywalk as being "the equivalent of an upscale carnival ride."
Others have argued though, that the impact created by the Skywalk is far less than that of many other Grand Canyon activities. Unlike helicopter and airplane overflights of the canyon, the Skywalk creates no noise and no pollution from exhaust. How much damage is created on the trails of Grand Canyon National Park each year by the hooves of hundreds of mule -- not to mention their pee and poop -- from NPS sanctioned trail rides? As a stationary unit, the Skybridge impact on the land is quite minimal by comparison. And when one examines the commercial development within the National Park, which includes multiple hotels, museums, gift stores, roads and parking lots to accommodate an annual visitation of 4.5 million, who can criticize the efforts of one tribe to capture these tourist dollars the same as the concessionaires within the park have done for years?
But, when you consider that the Skywalk experience is packaged with Humvee tours, below-the-rim helicopter tours, pontoon boat rides through the Colorado River, a future golf course, and point-to-point pick-up and drop-off from Las Vegas, the Hualapai have created a consumptive use playground for the wealthy that represents everything the Grand Canyon National Park experience does not. Fortunately, if you envision a Grand Canyon experience that includes the opportunity for solitude and for quiet reflection as well as the same breathtaking views that inspired Teddy Roosevelt more than 100 years ago, it can still be enjoyed at the Grand Canyon National Park -- the public's park -- for far less money and far fewer limitations than you would have to endure on a trip to the Skywalk.
Jeremy Sullivan is the founder of the blog www.parkremark.com, where he provides "a perspective on our National Parks not offered through ordinary channels."Talk with other Frommers.com readers on our Arizona Message Boards.