Visitors to the Grand Canyon can already hover over part of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World thanks to Skywalk.
If one developer and some members of the Navajo Nation have their way, tourists will someday be able to glide down the canyon’s walls for a stunning view of the confluence where the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers meet.
The proposed Grand Canyon Escalade, a $150-million gondola attraction, would ferry visitors down a cable-car system to an elevated walkway and snack bar where they can see the canyon walls on either side of them.
The design plans for the gondola are not finalized, but developer R. Lamar Whitmer said some of the inspiration behind the project came from other scenic aerial tramways in places such as the Swiss Alps and Napa Valley.
The development on the canyon’s east side would also include a museum, shops and hotels by 2018.
Escalade’s proposed site is about 30 miles west of Highway 89 and 100 miles north of Flagstaff.
It takes four-wheel drive vehicles that have the vertical clearance of at least a standard SUV to navigate the web of dirt roads from the highway to the actual site.
It takes a little less than three hours to get from the confluence lookout point to get to Grand Canyon National Park.
Currently, visitors to certain parts of the Grand Canyon can see the bottom if they walk down, ride a mule or take a helicopter down, but those experiences can make it difficult for the average tourist to visit, Whitmer said.
“It’s about the experience for the average person,” Whitmer said. “What better place to see the canyon from the rim and then go to the bottom and experience the enormity and awe of seeing the top?”
That awe and spiritual experience associated with the bottom of the Grand Canyon is one of the reasons there are some members of Navajo Nation who have spoken out against the project.
Members of “Save the Confluence,” a group that has publicly been against the Escalade project, say that the project will desecrate holy ground if it is built on its proposed location near the confluence of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado River.
“The area above the confluence is like our church,” said Dee Wilson-Aguirre, a spokeswoman for the group.
U.S. National Park Service officials also have their doubts about the project due to questions about ownership of the land at the proposed development site.
The Navajo reservation boundaries do not extend to the canyon floor, said Martha Hahn, the chief of science and resource management at Grand Canyon National Park.
Whitmer, of Scottsdale, said the potential 2018 opening date builds in what he sees as litigation time over whether Navajo lands end at the center point of the Colorado River or a quarter mile to the east of it, like the National Park Service says.