Gondolas in the Grand Canyon: More Accessibility, or Intrusive Eyesore?

Candice Gaukel Andrews August 26, 2014 57
Grand Canyon

On the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, polychromatic rock walls descend a mile down to the Colorado River. ©John T. Andrews

Visiting the Grand Canyon is a watershed moment for every American. Whether you gaze upon it from the North Rim or the South, the polychromatic rock walls that stretch away from you a mile down to the Colorado River and the canyon floor play with your sense of time and reality. Close to forty separate layers of stone tell a story that goes back more than twelve hundred million years, about one-tenth of the age of the universe. Most of us, recalling standing on one of the rims, describe the moment as spiritual, a reminder of how tiny we are in comparison to the forces of the cosmos.

But now imagine that high-rise hotels, gondolas, and the cables that carry them from rim to floor mar your hallowed view of our planet’s history. Does it detract from your experience of this natural wonder, or offer you yet another way to experience this canyon’s beauty?

Access for all to our public lands

Glacier National Park hiker

Some areas might only be meant for hiking into. ©Eric Rock

The community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long that is situated less than two miles from the Grand Canyon National Park’s entrance at the South Rim, has recently approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include a dude ranch, hotels, shops, and a spa. And less than twenty-five miles to the northeast of Tusayan on the Navajo Nation reservation, some Navajo leaders in conjunction with developers from Scottsdale have plans to construct a 1.4-mile, Grand Canyon Escalade tramway that would descend 3,200 feet directly into the canyon’s heart. It’s thought that the cable system will transport more than four thousand visitors a day in eight-person gondolas to the canyon floor. Once there, it is hoped, visitors will be able to stroll along an elevated, riverside walkway to a restaurant at the place where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers meet, a spot known as the Confluence.

The Confluence, however, happens to be sacred to many Hopi and Zuni people, as well as Navajo. Some tribal opponents to the gondola project believe the two rivers represent male and female, and where they meet is where life begins. The project requires approval of the Navajo tribal government, and it’s not known yet if it will be granted. But National Park Service personnel have already called this “the most serious threat the park has faced in its ninety-five-year history.”

Some, however, believe the tram will be good news for the Grand Canyon. It has always been difficult for anyone except seasoned hikers or those who are physically capable of riding mules to reach the canyon floor. Most of the five million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park stop at the rim, look around, and then move on without ever venturing farther. Gondola rides, proponents say, would offer the opportunity for tourists, especially those with disabilities or the elderly, to reach the canyon floor, something that is now quite challenging for them to do.

Acceptable inaccessibility

Opponents of introducing gondola rides into the Grand Canyon point out that there are other ways to experience the park, such as helicopter tours, if hiking or mule rides are out of the question. And, perhaps, a level of inaccessibility should be tolerated.

Grand Teton National Park

Perhaps, in some places, a level of inaccessibility should be tolerated. @Henry H. Holdsworth

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for instance, the singular accommodation is one you can reach only by hiking up a mountain for five miles. Designated Wilderness Areas have no roads. Today, almost anyone can pay to ascend Mount Everest, the peak that was once reserved for only the hardiest of climbers — sometimes with disastrous effects. While everyone might like to achieve Herculean feats the easy way, it tends to cheapen the experience of earning them.

On May 6, 1903, Teddy Roosevelt stood on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and delivered a speech. In part, he said:

“I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with [the Grand Canyon], in your own interest and in the interest of the country — to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.”

Do you think the Grand Canyon Escalade tramway is a good idea, or not? Where do you draw the line between providing access to our publicly owned lands for as many Americans as possible and preserving wilderness?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Tim Hall December 21, 2014 at 10:07 am - Reply

    From the perspective of erosion, a gondola, if built, at its completion would have less impact than those that trek down to the valley floor on the various trails, loosening materials for gravity to take over with every step. It could also be a negative if the goal is to keep the valley as pristine as possible, which it already is not. There are already helicopter rides, raft trips and other commercial accesses that have degraded the canyon from a wilderness type setting. Now that I am older, I might make one last trip if there was a gondola to take advantage of new camera technology and the excellent visual stimulation.

  2. Morales Jodie December 21, 2014 at 10:07 am - Reply

    SCAR on the landscape- Gondolas in the Grand Canyon -terrible idea. Gondolas would completely transform the natural beauty of the Canyons and eliminate the reason for visiting the Canyon!

  3. Katherine (Trina) Steinbach September 10, 2014 at 6:40 pm - Reply

    This saddens me. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  4. JOHN A. Leone September 6, 2014 at 11:03 am - Reply

    They should Stop trying to add things that are not natural to the Grand Canyon !!

  5. Paul Sadin September 4, 2014 at 11:14 am - Reply

    I think that when folks talk about “profit” and “blatant profits” here they need to remember one important piece: concessionaires in national parks HAVE to make some profit to survive, and it’s often a tough go because of the seasonal and weather impacted nature of their businesses. If you want to question why there are for-profit companies in the parks, I would suggest you first go back and read about Mather’s reasoning for creating these types of contracts.

    I personally do not want a gondola there, and can describe the many historical precedents for avoiding or removing such devices from national parks. But that’s a whole article, so I won’t attempt it here 🙂

  6. Donald G. September 4, 2014 at 11:10 am - Reply

    Fairly recently I was on the Canyon floor and did find the sky platform a jolting intrusion. The Indian tribe that built it claimed the need to generate income. Casino gambling wouldn’t work since Las Vegas is too close. Proximity to the Grand Canyon should provide enough opportunities for tourism without ruining the natural beauty of the place. Gondolas? How about an amusement park?

  7. Eric Burr September 4, 2014 at 11:07 am - Reply

    Gondolas are an imperfect technology, as demonstrated tragically at ski lift areas worldwide. They do best on terrain that allows line height within easy evacuation distance from the snow or ground, when mechanical failures inevitably occur. I’ve had to evacuate chair lifts, and that’s bad enough. A Grand Canyon Gondola would be a disaster just waiting to happen. See the LIFTS chapter in my Ski Trails and Wildlife book, if you need further convincing. Aerial tramways of all sorts have their place in sustainable public transport systems, but they have to be planned and managed by experienced personnel, who know their limitations and safety requirements. -Eric Burr, retired NPS ranger and heli-ski guide

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