Grand Canyon Skywalk’s glass bottom being replaced with panes from Spain

After four years and 1.5 million pairs of feet, the Grand Canyon Skywalk is undergoing its first major overhaul.

And a face-lift like this requires some heavy lifting.

Using a 130-foot-tall crane perched beside the walkway, workers have begun replacing the 1,800-pound blocks of layered glass that form the deck of the attraction, 120 miles east of Las Vegas.

The first blocks were switched out Monday night. Weather permitting, the team of about a dozen workers hopes to finish the job in less than two weeks.

The $1.5 million renovation is being done at night so that the Skywalk can remain open during the day.

The Hualapai Indian Tribe owns the U-shaped walkway, which extends 70 feet out over the west rim of the Grand Canyon and offers panoramas of the Colorado River and nearby Eagle Point.

Through its glass deck visitors can look straight down to the canyon floor thousands of feet below.

Lately, though, the glass has begun to look a little scuffed up.

"I could tell. Tribal leaders could tell," said Ted Quasula, the Skywalk’s general manager. "We want to make it crystal clear."

Manuel Mojica is project manager for Executive Construction Management, the Las Vegas company that built the Skywalk and is overseeing the replacement of the deck.

He said the work will require a great deal of care and precision, as the old glass sections are lifted out and the new ones lowered into place at a work site bracketed by a sheer cliff on one side and a three-story visitor center on the other.

Any mistakes will be expensive, Mojica said, because the glass is "one-of-a-kind."

"Basically it’s custom-made for the Skywalk," he said.

The sections are 4 feet long, 10 feet wide and almost 3 inches thick. They each weigh roughly the same as an old Volkswagen bug, and they will have to be "flown out over the canyon" one at a time at the end of the crane, Mojica said.

There are 46 sections in all, and the goal is to replace at least five of them a night.

The glass was fabricated in Spain and shipped to Savannah, Ga., where all 82,000 pounds of it was loaded onto a single tractor-trailer that required special permits to haul such a heavy load.

The truck arrived at the Skywalk early last week after negotiating the roughly 10 miles of dirt road leading to the site.

"We didn’t break a thing, thank God," Mojica said.

The new glass panels come with a removable top layer light enough to be picked up by four men. That will make things much cheaper and easier the next time this sort of work needs to be done.

Visitors are made to wear cloth booties over their shoes when they walk on the glass deck, but a certain amount of wear and tear is inevitable in a desert environment filled with "minute grains of dust," Mojica said.

Southern Nevada businessman David Jin dreamed up the idea for the Skywalk in 1996, while on a tour of the Grand Canyon with his family.

He eventually persuaded a group of private investors to fund the $30 million structure and give it over to the Hualapai Tribal Nation. In return, the tribe agreed to let Jin manage the attraction and share in its profits for 25 years.

The Skywalk opened in March 2007 and quickly became the centerpiece of the Hualapai’s Grand Canyon West tourism venture, which offers replicas of Indian villages and tours by air, ground and water along the roughly 100-mile swath of canyon controlled by the 2,300-member tribe.

Quasula said the Skywalk has drawn more than 1.4 million paying customers in its first four years of operation. That’s no small feat considering the attraction costs a minimum of $75 and is at least a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, the closest big city.

Asked whether visitation has lived up to expectations so far, Quasula said it’s hard to judge because the Skywalk is unlike any other attraction.

"To be honest, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect," he said.

Quasula said the experience should keep getting better, thanks to the completion of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge and continuing efforts to pave the rest of the road leading to the Skywalk.

Once that’s done, "there’s no doubt the tourist numbers would shoot way up," he said.

Quasula can’t say exactly when the road might be finished, but he said the Skywalk visitor center is on track for completion within a year.

In the meantime, visitors will soon have a chance to own their own piece of the Grand Canyon Skywalk.

Once the renovation is complete, the tribe plans to cut up the old blocks of glass and sell the bits as souvenirs, Mojica said.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@ or 702-383-0350.

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