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. A. Maesen September 3, 2014 at 4:52 am - Reply

    From a small country, Belgium without any large green spaces left, living and looking at walls-walls-everywhere: just don’t do it. Every new concrete area is a starting location for new expansions.
    There will be always be plans to gain profit and money.
    But there is no more space left.

  2. Mary Manning September 2, 2014 at 8:59 am - Reply

    I think a gondola is a horrible idea.

  3. Pat Rosend September 2, 2014 at 8:58 am - Reply

    While I am not a fan of the gondola idea, I wonder if there is not a way to integrate a gondola into the canyon in a way that would work for all? I have been to Gatlinburg and ridden the gondola up to the mountaintop and the views of the Smoky Mountains are incredible and uplifting and fantastic. This is a similar situation in that the this site is private and located at the entrance to the Smoky Mountain National Park. The Gatlinburg gondola is not well integrated or subtle at all. This is the downside of a private solution. Maybe if the NPS were to take charge of the idea and see if there were some low impact options? Not everyone can see the full beauty of the Grand Canyon but it would be nice to have that experience available to a few more people than it is today. it is only by seeing the grandeur of nature that is becomes protected for the future.

  4. Carlyn Kline September 1, 2014 at 1:25 am - Reply

    Those of us who are elderly and/or disabled need to accept the fact that there are places we can’t go and things we can’t do. Not everyone, including the young and healthy, is capable of climbing Mt. Everest,swimming the English Channel, or skiing on the Matterhorn, yet no one has suggested escalators on mountains or other contrivances that might make such adventures possible for everyone. It is a very bad idea to put gondolas in the Grand Canyon!

  5. John Dayberry August 31, 2014 at 5:35 pm - Reply

    The two operations to look at are the Palm Springs Tramway and Mt. Roberts Tramway (run by the Tlingit Tribe) in Juno AK. A gondola makes no sense…too much $ & capacity. Tram= 2 cabins. If indeed a Sacred area…..not kool.

  6. John Boehlke August 30, 2014 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    I think it is a horrible idea. I am also in the same opinion as Kendra Lee Fuller, above. I am not sure I could hike to the bottom of the canyon at this point in my life, but I would not want to see any kind of mechanical transport to take me there.

  7. Ken Fitch August 30, 2014 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    This ourageous proposal raises more flags than a Fourth of July Parade and none of them patriotic. The notion that this would serve the elderly and the disabled is reckless and dangerous. Have the proponents ever been in the Canyon! The temperatures beneath the rim quickly rise above 110 degrees as one descends to the river. Would anyone in their right mind subject their elderly or disabled relatives to such conditions that quickly can become life threatening!

  8. Sandy Moniz August 30, 2014 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    I have not been to the Grand Canyon in a long time and do remember standing on edge looking down. I was in awe of what I saw and savored not only that moment but a sunset later that day. One day I want to go back to the grand canyon but I am afraid that my memory maybe tainted when I look down and see hundreds or thousands of people.

  9. Waterfront Consultants August 29, 2014 at 9:44 am - Reply

    I had no idea profit is a four-letter-word. From so many comments I read on these topics, it would seem if we stamp out profit, we would save the planet. ….. and likely starve.

    There is one commercial tour boat on Crater Lake, Oregon. Has it ruined that environment?

  10. Kendra Leah Fuller August 29, 2014 at 9:40 am - Reply

    I agree, it is a balancing act between park preservation and human access. Our nation’s parks were set aside for all to enjoy. However, we need to be careful not to destroy the wilderness to grant access to every nook and cranny. I seriously doubt that I would be able to hike to the canyon floor due to bad knees. Does this mean I think a gondola should be built to transport me down there? Absolutely not. When it comes to our parks, I believe that we have to put the needs of our parks above our personal desires.

  11. Dennis McLaughlin August 29, 2014 at 9:38 am - Reply

    If you let in Gondolas, then pretty soon the Grand Canyon will be no more than condo`s, motel`s and outlet malls, the natural beauty will be gone. Sometimes we have to look at the big picture, if we let one in than we have to let all in, personnally I think we have let in too much now, so let us preserve what we have, and enjoy the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon.

  12. Christopher Cornell August 29, 2014 at 9:37 am - Reply

    Gondolas would not only be an eyesore, but create other problems having to do with the numbers of people going into the area and ground support for the machinery, and a hazard to helicopter tours as well.

  13. Sam Jansen August 29, 2014 at 9:26 am - Reply

    I have run through the Grand Canyon and all the rapids on the river with people who use wheelchairs. They didn’t need a gondola to get down there. They needed grit and determination, the same as anybody who travels through the canyon. People who have the spirit to meet the place on it’s own terms are rewarded, whatever their ability level may be. Marring such a singular, sublime place with a gondola and other development would be the opposite of that spirit, and a true failing in the stewardship of the Grand Canyon.

  14. Jim Weeder August 28, 2014 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    Mark I agree with you but side with the disabled why should a select few be rewarded the grandeur/ I have hiked and climbed in a lot of the parks. But now due to a knee injury (and age) I cannot climb anymore and prudence tells me not to hike to the bottom of the canyon or the rangers would be rescuing me. The Red and White fleet make a killing transporting people out to Alcatraz and you cannot dock a private boat their. Their has to be a happy medium to allow everyone the privilege to enjoy the grandeur. Some have not had the finances to do this while they were mobile and now can just enjoy from a parking lot. and as we both know this is not the same. Also another point to ponderer these parks are paid for by taxes and entrance fees,so what if these disabled started just not going and pushing to take those funds somewhere else? This could mean that the government would have to cutback access to all.

  15. Dave Akers August 28, 2014 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    I appreciate the different opinions so far and agree that it is a tough issue given the semi-pristine nature of the canyon versus the much more developed state on the rim. I agree with Kaja that the canyon has wilderness aspects and I’m afraid that opening the lower reaches up to mechanized travel (gondola) will change the natural state too much. I would liken this as a first step that, if taken, will lead to others that will significantly alter the canyon’s natural attributes to the detriment of future generations.

  16. Wes Lamon August 28, 2014 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    Modernization for accessibility of handicapped and elderly seems like a ploy for someone to make a lot of money. History shows that when these developments are put in to place, even with best management practices in place, degradation will eventually occur through the shear volume of people who will now easily be able to access the area. As mentioned in previous comments transparency within the story may help to alleviate some concerns about the project, but I would still remain highly pessimistic. Unforeseen things happen and the stakes seem too high.

  17. Brent Boling August 28, 2014 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    The majority of people who visit the Grand Canyon spend four hours or less there according to articles in AZ Highways.

    Why should they be catered to at the expense of natural beauty and the enjoyment of those who seek peace, solitude, and physical achievement?

    Money can’t buy everything. If they want a crash course of the Canyon’s beauty let them get it from the various rim trail viewpoints that already cost us a lot to maintain.

    The Grand Canyon is over developed already. But tolerable. No more please. It will just be a hole in the ground with expensive rides. Rides are for little kids who have been spoiled and don’t appreciate having to work to enjoy natural creation. They want to be amused and entertained and get an adrenaline rush. The Grand Canyon is peaceful beauty. But it still gives me all the adrenaline rush I want and hiking to the bottom and back gets me all the heart and lung work out I want.

  18. Mark Kraych August 28, 2014 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    We do not need more traffic into the Grand Canyon. Save it for the hikers and adventurers amongst us.

  19. John Daly August 28, 2014 at 10:24 am - Reply

    I think they stopped them from going down into the canyon, just flying over now.

  20. Abi Paul, BA, AACI August 28, 2014 at 10:24 am - Reply

    John, I was on a helicopter ride over the Canyons. Not sure what you mean by stopped airplanes and helis. They are busier than ever.

  21. Kaja Chmura August 28, 2014 at 10:21 am - Reply

    Terrible idea, wilderness is wilderness and it should be kept as it is otherwise it’s natural beauty will be lost.

  22. Emily Bennett August 28, 2014 at 10:20 am - Reply

    I am always in favor of varying accessibility. There should always be places that are hard or even impossible for people to get to (and I think we need more of these than we currently have). I think that’s important for several reasons, but I’m not going to enumerate them here. The flip side of this is that I think it’s important to provide opportunities for people who would not or could not stray from the beaten path, to experience places like the Grand Canyon. Direct experience helps people to care. It’s easier to convince someone that a place should be protected, if they can see and experience themselves that there is something amazing about it.

    It’s a fine line. If you increase accessibility too much, it can ruin what you wanted to share with people. And it can be a bit of a “slippery slope.” You start with adding a gondola here, a shopping center there, and where do we cut off the development?

    I don’t know anything about the zoning within the Grand Canyon National Park and surrounding areas, but I’m sure there are some different regions with different uses. Some areas can be (and have been) built up, while others stay wild.

    At the very basic level, I don’t have a problem with a gondola in the Grand Canyon… just put it somewhere that’s already been developed.

  23. Jim Weeder August 28, 2014 at 10:17 am - Reply

    It is a hard balancing act. Having and knowing handicapped people that at this point will never see the from the bottom of the canyon, I am in favor of a way to let them. But I also can see how a tram will take away from the grandeur of the canyon. And would it stop there? What about a tram tp the top of Half Dome? Devils Post pile? I could go on. We have paved trails in some of the parks to accommodate wheel chairs. maybe a tram is just out of the question.

  24. Erin Roll August 28, 2014 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Definite eyesore. The Grand Canyon needs to be kept as natural-looking as possible. These developments would just turn it into another tacky amusement park. And I’ve a feeling that these developments are less concerned with accessibility than they are with putting more money in some developer’s pocket. (Besides – it gets REALLY hot down along the banks of the Colorado in the summer months.)

  25. Stephen Russell August 28, 2014 at 10:15 am - Reply

    place hotels underground or surrounded by rock surfaces
    hide gondola station same as hotels, etc.
    Make part of nature vs against it
    add zipline in area when warranted
    expand mule train trails alone
    Use quiet engine DB copters for air tours ( see movie Blue Thunder ” whisper mode”
    ) for trips into Canyon alone
    & OK hanggliding zones

    Then I say Yes
    IF done with planning, innovation & input from locals & tourists alone

  26. Robyn Darley August 28, 2014 at 10:13 am - Reply

    Sounds more like increased accessibility for somebody’s financial gain. I am curious what the impact studies reveal, safety plans are, and if the prices will make this accessible option less accessible. It would benefit the understanding of the project if its website offered more transparency on these types of concerns with a less defensive, more informative tone.

    I personally feel like it would be sad for such a commercial enterprise to be constructed at the Grand Canyon and lead to its degradation.

  27. Daniel Larkins August 28, 2014 at 10:12 am - Reply

    I really hope the tribes do not vote to allow the gondolas. It’s such a sad example of the government leaving the impoverished stuck hurting themselves. From what I’ve heard, handicap access is not the main reason for the proposed construction.

    The rim trail to Mather point offers easy accessible views to the public. Meanwhile, the trails to the water would be denigrated by any mechanical wonders intruding on their space. It’s called the “Grand” Canyon for a reason. It’s unique. Not like the stupid glass walking thing they have at Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains.

  28. stephen russell August 27, 2014 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    I say have any hotels buried underground or camo around rock surfaces
    & select areas for if any gondola rides.
    expand mule train trails alone
    Use Quiet engine db copters for air tours.
    Make hotels into landscape vs eyesore alone
    same for gondola ride area.
    It can be done
    & rig a zipline someplace too.
    Be awesome

    & open up to more Au Natural hiking, camping etc alone. in parkspaces nationwide

  29. Robert Jonas August 27, 2014 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    There are enough avenues for exploration of our natural wonders for those with limited means of access without marring the very essence of this scenic canyon without a parallel anywhere else in the world. Can you imagine hiking down the Hermit Trail and finding a pile of litter streamside and/or graffiti on the canyon walls. Those that make the effort are those that value the unspoiled beauty and tranquility of this River and Gorge, Please don’t destroy the experience.

  30. Patricia Follweiler August 27, 2014 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    A gondola would be a giant eyesore! I vote to leave the canyon alone. It does not need to be “accessible” to be enjoyed. The beauty of the canyon is that it is a natural entity.

    We already have Disneyworld, Six flags and other entertainment areas. Go to one of them for a thrilling ride.

    As long as there are some areas on the rim for safe viewing, all of us can appreciate the view and majesty of the canyon — including those in wheel chairs or those with small children.

    We do not need McDonald’s nearby, either. Rest rooms, yes. A bunch of souvenir shops, no.

  31. Celeste Shitama August 27, 2014 at 3:12 pm - Reply

    I was fortunate enough to recently complete my second 2 week rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the first one occurring 7 years ago. The guides on these trips are completely invested and dedicated to preserving the canyon and the pristine campsites speak to that care and stewardship. The motorized rafts that also take trips down the river seem a much larger footprint in terms of water and sound pollution than our oars and paddle-powered boats. To install any sort of gondolas, with the promise of ever more human impact, is offensive. Teddy Roosevelt had it right. There are so relatively few wild places that remain. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Despite the well-intentioned wish for access for all, the underlying rational for this is greed and opportunism. These are sacred grounds.

  32. Rob Wilson August 27, 2014 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    The greed factor of mankind knows no bounds. To install a gondola would indeed be a travesty, inflicting environmental harm on a park already suffering from “over use.” Where is the NPS on this? Why would they not be mounting a huge wave of resistance to this purely avaricious move? It is not about accessibility – there is already plenty of that in the parks. This is about $$$$ and nothing more. Everything else stated or promulgated is a cover for financial gain and nothing else.

  33. Michael Burns August 27, 2014 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    A great perspective from TR, who started the National Park system. Gondolas unacceptable.

  34. Alan Broadbent August 27, 2014 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    I understand the arguements put forward for both sides of the issue however there has to come a point surely when it has to be said lets leave well alone and enjoy what there is, as is, without further intrusion.

  35. Therese Schoen August 27, 2014 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    Gondolas? An eyesore.

  36. Alexandre Bardet August 27, 2014 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Seems unacceptable.

  37. Ana Baez August 27, 2014 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Leave it along!! At least one piece of Earth must remain natural.

  38. Alan Mackay August 27, 2014 at 8:48 am - Reply

    Never seen the Grand Canyon in the flesh (I live down-under in New Zealand!) but from all the photos / videos / stories I’ve seen or read over the years, this smacks of pure commercialism gone wrong. I’m pretty sure that while it’d provide a stunning view / trip, the eyesore that it would create on the natural wonder that the Grand Canyon is, is surely enough to warrant not building it. Enjoy nature as it was meant to be!
    We’re having the same sort of battles down here in our Fiordland National Park, which carries World Heritage Status because of its natural beauty, so I can surely empathise with you!

  39. Simon Bostic August 27, 2014 at 4:28 am - Reply

    I am not sure how there can be an argument in favour of gondolas blotting the natural beauty of the greatest canyon on the world. The only arguments in favour would be to allow disabled access to the the canyon floor for those who cannot walk down – for those who are less fit, there are mules (as long as animal welfare is respected obviously) or people just remain content and lucky to be in that splendid environment even if it means only experiencing it from the top. After all, it has been this way for years already now.
    Dotting the area with gondolas or cable cars is commercialism gone mad and is more than a step too far – it is a massive leap in the wrong direction

  40. Richard Havenga August 27, 2014 at 4:25 am - Reply

    Just say NO !

  41. Trish Samson August 26, 2014 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    How could something as lovely as a gondola ever be a scar on the landscape? No way.

  42. Thomas Sawyer August 26, 2014 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    There comes a time when growth and development is excessively pursued by those who seek monetary gain, wealth, and societal expansion over the preservation of our historical and natural lands. This appears to be one of those times (one of many). However, there is also a time when accessibility consideration must be given for the handicap and the elderly. Striking a balance between the two can be done, but perhaps not in this extreme case. Plenty of options should be available for accessibility and those should be examined very closely rather than becoming “trigger happy” on a proposal such as the one illustrated One must also keep in mind that often times with growth and development comes regrettable residual effects such as crime and pollution, to name a few.

    Unfortunately, Teddy Roosevelt may not have been fully aware of the needs and rights of the handicap and elderly during his administration and one would wonder how his views may change, if at all, because of the equal growth and development of accessibility rights

  43. George (Bud) Ivey August 26, 2014 at 7:07 pm - Reply

    This will be a topic favored by some and disliked by others for a variety of reasons. If I view this from an Sustainable Access and Learning Perspective…and provided impact to the Canyon is minimized, it may prove to have a net positive benefit for visitors and surrounding communities alike. It’s one thing to see the Canyon from the road side park viewing points – which is quite a sight (!), but the Up-Close view that could be enhanced by a Gondola entering and traversing a section of the Canyon would be a unique and rewarding experience. …I could imagine you get in to the Gondola (alone or with family/friends) and have an Park Interpreter with you who is explaining what you are seeing, it’s geological significance, and making the journey an interactive positive learning experience…if you have not been to the Grand Canyon you we need to recall, one can go down hiking paths, take rafting trips, and access the canyon by plane and helicopter…so a Gondola could potentially be viewed as no more impacting that the present access options. It may actually prove less bias and more accessible as our aging community may have some physical and/or financial limitations affecting their ability to access the canyon by present options…if I had limited time to visit the canyon and wanted to enhance my experience without breaking the bank, a Gondola ride might be of good value…but we will see/know soon enough…

  44. Wilhelm P. Vins August 26, 2014 at 7:02 pm - Reply

    Sorry to be outspoken, but gondolas in the Grand Canyon is an utterly stupid idea.

  45. Betty McSwain August 26, 2014 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    In my book, a gondola would definitely be a distraction from a Grand Canyon experience. It would clutter up the landscape. I think it could open a can of worms with other parks trying to provide accessibility in a manner that would detract from the park experience.

  46. Douglas Fink August 26, 2014 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    Rim top Hotels would be an eyesore, no brainer. If I were still 20 something [can barely remember that] I would probably say no way to gondolas but what accommodations have been made to elderly or handicapped?

    Putting aside the technical safety considerations, a safe, environmentally green sourced & implemented gondola with respect to the esthetics of the area might be something to consider. My opinion is negligible since I have never been there. ;-(

  47. J. Westbrook August 26, 2014 at 9:35 am - Reply

    keep in mind that the gondola is way on the east side, in Marble Canyon at the Little Colorado – not in the main deep part of the canyon- and there’s no beach access there, just the river confluence. So visitors wouldn’t really be able to see or do much except admire the blue waters of the Little Colorado, certainly not like being at Phantom Ranch.
    I do hope the Native people will stop this nonsense!
    Sort of like the glass walkway – it’s way on the west side on Indian land, canyon isn’t very deep there.

    As for the commercial expansion – there’s NO water for that. hello??

  48. Sue Jarrett August 26, 2014 at 9:23 am - Reply

    Detract Detract Detract

  49. John Daly August 26, 2014 at 9:22 am - Reply

    We stopped the airplanes and helicopters so let’s not start gondolas. It should be pure and natural. I don’t even like the glass platform.

  50. Bob Gettman August 26, 2014 at 9:21 am - Reply

    Let’s try to ensure that this spectacular national park remains free of commercialism and as natural as possible !!

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