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From Vegas to the Depths of the Grand Canyon

Vegas to the Grand Canyon

When my friend and I decided, on a whim, to head to Las Vegas, Nevada, I began looking into the possibility of making a side trip to the Grand Canyon. I had never seen the Grand Canyon, and going to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and living to tell about it) was on my bucket list. Unfortunately, the drive from Las Vegas to the south rim of the Grand Canyon is about 4 ½ hours each way, and the journey to the bottom of the canyon involves either a mule trip or grueling hike with an overnight stay at the bottom. We only had enough time for a three-night trip and wanted to spend some time in Vegas, and so we decided to look into the possibility of taking a helicopter flight into the Grand Canyon.

I am no stranger to helicopters. I took a helicopter ride in Kauai, Hawaii (on a helicopter with no doors!) to see the gorgeous coastline and interior waterfalls, and I’ve taken two helicopter rides in Alaska: one from Skagway to a dog camp on Denver Glacier where I went dogsledding and another from Juneau to Mendenhall Glacier where I trekked across the glacier’s surface. This would be my friend’s first time in a helicopter.

Helicopter Company Options from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon

Based on my research, there are two main companies that offer helicopter flights from Las Vegas that land inside the Grand Canyon: Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters and Maverick Helicopters (the latter company seems to use the business name Mustang as well). And so it became Papillon vs. Maverick. Both companies had similar reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp; most every reviewer was thrilled with their experience. On their official website, Papillon was running a special (possibly for the winter season), making their rates much lower than Maverick/Mustang, and so we decided to book with Papillon.

Papillon’s Las Vegas to Grand Canyon Flight Options

Papillon offers three Las Vegas to Grand Canyon helicopter tours that land inside the Grand Canyon: the Grand Celebration Tour with Vegas Strip, the Grand Celebration Tour, and the Grand Celebration Skywalk and Boat.

Papillon’s Grand Celebration Tour with Vegas Strip

Papillon’s Grand Celebration Tour with Vegas Strip takes off from Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport, just minutes from the Las Vegas Strip. They use sexy, red ECO-Star helicopters, with huge wrap around windows and elevated rear seats. These helicopters seat up to six passengers (two in the front and four in the back) and one pilot. Pick up and drop off is by limousine. And, on the way back, they fly over the Las Vegas Strip.

Papillon’s Grand Celebration Tour (least expensive)

Although Papillon’s Grand Celebration Tour sounds very similar to the Grand Celebration Tour with Vegas Strip, there is a major difference. The Grand Celebration Tour departs from a facility in Boulder City, Nevada, about 30 minutes away from Las Vegas. Pickup is by bus or van. There is no Las Vegas Strip flyover on this tour.

Papillon’s Grand Celebration Skywalk and Boat (most expensive)

Papillon’s Grand Celebration Skywalk and Boat tour also departs from the facility in Boulder City. Pickup is by bus or van. In addition to the helicopter tour, there is a 15-20 minute boat ride on the Colorado River and a walk on Skywalk. There is no Las Vegas Strip flyover.

Our Choice: Grand Celebration Tour with Vegas Strip

Because I wanted to avoid the ride to Boulder City and thought flying over the Vegas Strip might be fun, we booked the Grand Celebration Tour with Vegas Strip.

Arriving at the airport


A black limo arrived at our hotel and a friendly driver welcomed us inside. My friend and I slid into the back to enjoy the very brief ride to McCarran airport. At the airport, our driver took some photos of us with my camera and then led us to the reception area. An efficient woman checked us in and weighed us (our weights were only visible to her) and then invited us to relax in the upscale lobby with big leather seats arranged around two flat-screen TVs. A few minutes later, a safety video was played. After the video we were given one final opportunity to use the restrooms (there are no restrooms on the aircraft or inside the canyon), and then we boarded a shuttle van that would take us to our helicopter. Our tour was scheduled to leave at 2:30PM. We left the terminal about 15 minutes before our flight.

Moments later, we jumped out of the shuttle and met our pilot, Jeff, who reminded my friend and me of a very young Tom Cruise from the movie, Top Gun. Jeff was quick to reassure us that he had been flying for eight years.

Because helicopters must have their weight properly balanced (thus the importance of weighing every passenger before boarding), Jeff had preassigned our seats. I was given the center front seat and my friend was assigned to the side front seat. Papillon offers an option to “upgrade” to the front seats for an extra fee (This option is only available if it would be safe to do so (based on the passengers’ weights).). We hadn’t purchased an upgrade. We were just lucky!

Leaving Las Vegas

Once we were all safely on board, and wearing dorky life vests strapped to our waists, Jeff started up the helicopter. Soon, we were airborne. There was a little bit of wind that day, but Jeff kept the helicopter steady as we flew over the homes just outside of the Vegas Strip.

Soon we could see Lake Mead. Jeff provided some commentary, filling us in on the sights and offering to answer any questions. My fellow passengers and I mostly stayed quiet, just enjoying the views.

As we continued toward the Grand Canyon, we caught a glimpse of Hoover Dam, which looked quite small from our vantage point. Jeff pointed out the tiny cars and people to try to give us some perspective.

Before I knew it, I caught my first glimpse of the west rim of the Grand Canyon. Aside from the view from an airplane window on a commercial cross-country flight, it was my first view of the Grand Canyon. The west rim views of the canyon from our helicopter, didn’t look nearly as impressive as the south rim views that I’ve seen in photographs, but it was the Grand Canyon, and it was beautiful. In the distance, I could see a light dusting of snow on a canyon wall.

We flew by Skywalk, but we were so far away that I couldn’t get much of a look at it. I could only really make out the reception building.

Landing in the Grand Canyon

Moments later, after about a 45 minute flight from Las Vegas, we descended into the canyon and Jeff gently landed us on a little plateau near the base of the canyon. The brown, muddy Colorado River snaked through the winding canyon whose deep walls enveloped us. Once Jeff shut down the aircraft and we safely deboarded, leaving those dorky lifevests in the helicopter, I asked Jeff how to hike down to dip my hand in the Colorado River. Unfortunately, that just isn’t possible. Although the river initially looked almost close enough to touch, there was a drop of what I would estimate is about 250 feet between the landing site and the river. While it might be possible to carefully to make the risky scramble down and back, it would take much longer than the 30 minutes that Papillon had allowed for our visit.

Jeff set up a picnic lunch (turkey sandwiches, bottled water, chips, and cookies) with a champagne toast for those who were interested while my friend and I explored some of the rugged paths near our landing site. We got as close to the bottom of the canyon as we safely could and took photos of each other in the majestic surroundings. While we explored, we saw a helicopter land on a plateau about 200 feet above us, I believe it was a Maverick/Mustang flight.

Back to the Vegas Strip

When it was time to leave, Jeff offered to pack up our untouched lunches for us to take with us, an offer that I’m glad that we took him up on because we made good use of them later. On the way out of the canyon, Jeff flew us along the canyon walls, giving us a close look at them, before he took the helicopter up and out of the canyon.

On the way back to Las Vegas, we passed over some plains where buffalo, cows, and other wildlife are sometimes spotted. Jeff pointed out a group of three brown animals that looked a bit like buffalo, but were probably cows (unless buffalo sometimes have patches of white on their backs).

Our final treat was a flight over the Strip. First, Jeff took us to Downtown Las Vegas where we could clearly see the Freemont Street Experience from above. Since it was day, there was no light show. Then he quickly took us down the west side of the Strip, letting us glimpse the backs of the hotels, including some of the fabulous pools, and, because our timing was right, the Bellagio fountain show.

And then we arrived back at McCarran Airport. Jeff again landed us gently and shut off the aircraft before helping us disembark. The waiting shuttle took us back to the reception area where our driver soon escorted us to a waiting limo.

During our ride back to the Strip, my friend, thrilled with our adventure, was entertaining the thought of learning to be a helicopter pilot. Jeff made it look very easy, but something tells me that it’s not nearly as easy as it looks. I think I’ll stick with being a passenger.

I did this in February 2013. We departed from Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.

Jen (California, USA)


See Jen's Las Vegas bucket list here.

Check out Jen's picks for the top ten hotel pools on the Las Vegas Strip here.