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Tourists flock to canyon Skywalk

Despite early reviews that knocked it for being too expensive and hard to reach, the Grand Canyon Skywalk drew more than 50,000 visitors in its first full month of operation.

The Hualapai Indian Tribe, which owns the glass-bottomed walkway 120 miles east of Las Vegas, reported approximately 55,000 paying visitors in April. During the same month last year, 14,000 tourists visited the reservation.

The increased volume has prompted the tribe to hire 140 people, nearly doubling the staff for its burgeoning tourist destination at the canyon’s west rim.

“It’s been wild,” said Sheri Yellowhawk, a former Hualapai council member who now serves as CEO for the tribal-owned Grand Canyon Resort Corp.

The cantilevered walkway extends 70 feet out over the edge of the canyon and offers panoramas of the Colorado River and nearby Eagle Point. Its deck of layered glass reveals a view straight down to the canyon floor thousands of feet below.

But not everyone has been happy with the experience.

Shortly after the Skywalk opened to the public on March 28, complaints began circulating on the Internet about the cost of the attraction, the 14 miles of rough dirt road leading to it, and other issues, including a ban on cameras on the walkway.

Misled by national media accounts and confusing information from the Skywalk’s official Web site, some people said they made the 2 1/2-hour drive from Las Vegas expecting to pay $25 to walk on the attraction. When they got there, they learned the actual cost: almost $75.

Among those suffering sticker shock was California resident Tyler Hicks-Wright, who visited the Skywalk with his father, brother and sister on the second day it was open.

Had they known the actual price of admission and the true condition of the road, they never would have gone, Hicks-Wright said.

“We were debating whether $25 was going to be worth it,” he said. “It was not what we expected at all. The entire experience was poorly designed.”

The Stanford University graduate student described his Skywalk experience in his Web journal, where he also posted the handful of pictures he snapped from the walkway using a camera he had hidden in his pocket.

The blog entry evidently touched a nerve. It has drawn 231 responses so far, ranging from grateful to sarcastic.

“Thanks for the information,” one comment reads. “We’ll pass on this trap.”

Another asks, “Hey, where did you see the $25? Clearly you didn’t go to their website, which my oh my might just be the best source for the cost.”

Yellowhawk acknowledged some problems with the operation early on, but she said major changes have since been made “to satisfy the customers.”

Additional shade structures have been put up, and more shuttle buses have been added to reduce long wait times. “There are bathrooms everywhere for everyone. We don’t run out of food anymore,” Yellowhawk said.

Starting Wednesday, the now-infamous dirt road leading to the Skywalk will be widened and improved, she said. As a temporary fix, the road will be covered with four inches of gravel and treated with one of two sealants now being tested. Eventually, the surface will be paved.

Construction of the Skywalk visitor center — complete with a museum, a theater, a gift shop, and several restaurants and bars — could get underway in as little as two weeks, Yellowhawk said.

As for the ban on cameras and other personal items on the Skywalk, Yellowhawk said that was done to keep people from dropping items that might scratch the glass deck or be lost forever over the railing. “Three cameras and several cell phones have already gone into the canyon in just 40 days,” she said.

Yellowhawk added that visitors are free to take pictures of the Skywalk from the edge of the nearby cliff or buy a picture of themselves on the structure taken by a professional photographer.

Yellowhawk also defended the price of admission, which she said includes a lunch buffet and access to another canyon overlook, an Old West town, and a collection of authentic dwellings built by Hualapai, Havasupai, Hopi and Navajo Indians.

To skip those attractions would be like going to Disneyland just to ride the Matterhorn, Yellowhawk said.

“That’s what people are doing, and that’s why they’re complaining. That’s why they’re feeling ripped off,” she said. “If people are going out there just to walk on the Skywalk, they’re doing themselves a disservice. For $74.95, what you get is something similar to an all-day affair.”

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