Once again, I find myself in San Francisco for work. I absolutely love this place, but there's plenty more in this region that I have yet to explore.
And when I say "this region", I'm going to be generous. If I'm flying ~9 000 km (~5 500 mi) anyway, I'm not too worried about traveling another few hours. But I've ticked off pretty much anything from my bucket list that is within the range of a day trip from San Francisco, so...
Las Vegas has a lot going on! And roundtrip flights between San Francisco and Las Vegas, they're not too expensive! And hotels, while not cheap, are not too crazy either - you definitely get more bang for your buck than you would in San Francisco. We (a few friends joined me on this trip) decided to book a room at The Mirage, where we woke up to a wonderful view of the Strip.
And it's not just the city, which I've explored before, but there's so much more to see in the area. There's no shortage of (extended) day trip opportunities from here: the Grand Canyon, the Mojave Desert, Death Valley, Zion National Park, Antelope Canyon or Bryce Canyon, to name but a few.
Unfortunately, I couldn't stay longer than a weekend, so I'm going to have to save most of that list for a later trip. But the Grand Canyon, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, that was going to happen right this weekend! I was going to rent a car and drive to the Grand Canyon National Park.
But the rental car plan evaporated as soon as I learned about affordable helicopter tours into the Grand Canyon.
I usually value flexibility and that was going to be the most important trade-off with a helicopter tour: I wouldn't be able to choose where I'd go, how long I'd stay there, and where I'd go next. On the other hand, I would gain some time: flying would be a lot faster than picking up a car and driving a few hundred kilometers/miles. And the tour included a quick stop at the Hoover Dam. Plus: I would get to be in a friggin' helicopter. Flying into the Grand Canyon nonetheless!
Picking the right tour was a minor point of contention. I originally wanted to do the longer tour, where we'd spend a few hours inside the canyon and take part in a riverboat ride on the Colorado River. My friend preferred the shorter tour, essentially skipping the boat and spending no more than half an hour inside the canyon. With the kind of weather they were predicting at the time we booked the flights, his plan was the safest bet for sure: ain't nobody want to be on that boat when it's raining or close to freezing.
In hindsight, I wish we would've booked the longer tour. Weather was amazing that day - though it did rain & temperatures dropped over 10°C the next day, so I guess we got lucky.
When you think about the Grand Canyon, you're probably picturing the South Rim. This is the Grand Canyon you know from photos, where the canyon is deepest and the views the most spectacular.
The North Rim is a lot more remote and less crowded with tourists. It's greener, a little cooler, and it's not so much about the depths of the canyon than it is about the wide views.
But we landed in Grand Canyon West. While not as picturesque as the South Rim, it's an Indian reservation and the only place that allows helicopters to land inside the canyon. And closer to Las Vegas, too.
This was a massively different experience than the Blyde River Canyon in South Africa, half a year ago. While both are among the most impressive canyons in the world, they couldn't be more different. Where the Blyde River Canyon is a lush, sub-tropical green, the Grand Canyon is characterized by its desert environment and rock layers.
But the Grand Canyon wasn't the only stop on that tour. We started the day with a quick stop at Lake Mead and the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge - the "Hoover Dam Bypass". This bridge sits in front of the Hoover Dam, about 460 m (1500 ft) removed from it. It's also the world's highest concrete arch bridge (at 270 m or 890 ft above the Colorado River.)
And it offers a pretty damn spectacular view of the Hoover Dam, though I had somehow expected it to be even more colossal. I'm pretty sure I would've been able to understand just how massive it is if we would've been on or closer to the dam, but I guess the view from the bridge is a lot better.
After the Hoover Dam, we were taken a little further into the Mojave Desert to the Outdoor Adventures base, where we would board the helicopter into the Grand Canyon. We enjoyed a glass of champagne upon landing in the canyon, and burgers & fries were waiting for us when we got back. And that was supposed to be the end of the tour, and we would've been taken back to Las Vegas.
But the Outdoor Adventures base had a shooting range, and my friends wanted to try shooting a rifle once. I wasn't going to, but they got a really good deal. So I joined them & tried out what an M-4 and M-16 feel like: surprisingly little recoil! We got a few tries to shoot explosives, but my friends both missed. Me: 2 bullets, 2 explosions. Boom! I'm sure it was just beginners luck, but I'll surely keep rubbing this victory in their faces!
Red Rock Canyon
Sunday: time to leave Las Vegas and catch the flight back to San Francisco. But not until 7:30 PM. Not enough time to travel too far, but plenty of time for something fun.
On the western border of Las Vegas, only half an hour from the Strip, lies Red Rock Canyon, a popular hiking destination. I would've loved to go for a hike here, but there just wasn't enough time. Instead, we drove the 21 km (13 mi) scenic loop, and got out for a quick walk on some of the lookout spots.
The perfect way to end a hectic weekend!