There are few views in America that can top that of the ancient Colorado River carving its way through thousands of feet of stone over millions of years in Arizona. The sight I’m referring to is the Grand Canyon—an immense 277 miles long and up to 18-mile wide geological formation. Seeing this incredible natural wonder is a bucket list item for many. Approximately 5 million visitors from across the globe come to Grand Canyon National Park every year to marvel at its beauty.
The Grand Canyon has 4 distinct main visiting areas- the North Rim, East Rim, South Rim, and West Rim- each with their own unique sites, views and landmarks. One in particular, the Grand Canyon Skywalk located on the West Rim, was of particular interest to the Glass.com team. Why, you may ask? Because it’s made of glass!
The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a horseshoe-shaped footbridge constructed of glass and metal which is cantilevered 70 feet out over the edge of the canyon. Nothing but a few panes of glass separate visitors from the Colorado River, 4,000 feet below.
“A few panes of glass” is a bit of an understatement, however. In fact, the bridge in its entirety weighs a whopping 1.2 million pounds. That’s a lot of glass and metal! It is comprised of 46 glass sections, each of which weighs nearly a ton. The sections were created using many, many laminated glass layers. Because of the heavy foot traffic that the bridge receives, the top layer of glass has actually been designed for easy removal and replacement. This is called a sacrificial layer.
One would think that with this many layers of glass, the view would become distorted, but the panels met strict manufacturing specifications in order to ensure both strength and clarity. Speaking of strength, the skywalk was designed to withstand 100 mile per an hour winds and an 8.0 magnitude earthquake.
But the designers didn’t just defend against Mother Nature; it can support the weight of 71 747 airplanes. This is due to the anchoring system. The skywalk’s steel beams start well before the edge of the canyon. These beams are held in place by pilings that were drilled down into the rock to act as counterweight against the weight that hangs out into thin air.
You may be wondering who masterminded such an incredible engineering feat. It all started with a vision that entrepreneur David Jin had for a tourist attraction. He joined forces with the Hualapai Indian Tribe. The tribe owns the land, commissioned the work and owns the attraction. Mark Ross Thompson was the architect. Saint Gobain supplied glass for the project using their Diamant low iron glass and a DuPont SentryGlas interlayer. The project began in 2004 and took about 4 years to complete. The cost was over $30 million dollars USD.
There are two ways to access the Grand Canyon’s West Rim. The first is by plane or helicopter which can land at a small airport adjacent the West Rim Visitor Center. The second is by car which is a quick two hour trip from Las Vegas, NV. The latter is what we opted for.
Driving from Las Vegas gives roadtrippers the option of stopping at another famous landmark along the way- The Hoover Dam. But seeing as how there is more concrete than glass here, we skipped the dam and made a beeline for the canyon. The drive is scenic with little traffic—but be prepared to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Once you reach the West Rim Visitor Center, you will find ample parking. Head inside to purchase a bus ticket which will take you to 3 stops along the rim- one of them being the skywalk. Visitors with a bus ticket can view the skywalk and visit the attached building and restaurant, but those who want the full experience of walking on the skywalk will need to purchase a separate ticket. Obviously, we again opted for the latter.
Stepping out onto the skywalk for the first time may be a nerve-wracking experience for some, but I had relatively high confidence in the strength of the glass (each of the 46 sections can supposedly support 800 people). Some visitors even had the audacity to jump up and down on the bridge. Between all the glass and metal surrounding me, I felt surprisingly safe. So even if you are afraid of heights, don’t write this experience off.
The Skywalk wasn’t designed for thrill seekers though, rather it was designed for experience seekers. I have visited the Grand Canyon multiple times now and this was an experience unlike any other. Jutting out beyond the canyon provides an entirely different perspective. Visitors can look back at the canyon walls and see what plants and animals might be nestled in among the rocks. Looking below, there is nothing but air for thousands of feet to the canyon floor. This is the only time I have seen birds soaring directly below my feet.
For those who aren’t so keen on heights, or maybe those who want the full experience, there is a restaurant located on the second floor of the attached building. It features enormous windows that provide some of the best views you’ll ever witness while eating a meal. If you peer out over the edge, you can even grab a unique view of the Skywalk below.
Visiting the Grand Canyon Skywalk would make a great day trip for anyone who wants to get out of the hustle and bustle of downtown Las Vegas and witness nature’s beauty. And for us glass aficionados out there, it’s the perfect opportunity to see just another incredible way that the material has been put to use.
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