Champagne Picnic in the Grand Canyon

helicopter side trip from Vegas

article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers

Papillon helicopter trip to Grand Canyon from Las Vegas
Papillon helicopter trip to Grand Canyon from Las Vegas

The idea of hopping into a helicopter and leaving the frenetic Strip for a champagne picnic at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is quite enticing all by itself. Add in that on the floor of the canyon you’ll imbibe a glass of champagne to toast this feat and sit down to a picnic lunch and that you’re back to the glitter and glamour of the casinos in just a few hours, and it’s really hard to resist.

My four-hour (door-to-door) trip with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters–self-described as the world’s largest and most experienced helicopter sightseeing company and doing trips here since 1965–began just after breakfast. Still sipping on a cup of coffee, I was picked up by a van at my hotel and delivered to the nearby Executive Terminal of McCarran Airport, located just off The Strip. For this adventure I would be flying solo, as my spouse was busy with a poker tournament.

After the formality of signing papers and getting weighed in, I made my final visit to the ladies room (there is no opportunity to use a restroom again during the trip) and waited for my call to board the rainbow-hued helicopter. Boarding order is determined by weight distribution (the attendants were discreet during weigh-in), and views are good whether seated in the front or back of the seven-passenger copters.

Through ear protectors, our pilot described and pointed out the sights on the 45-minute flight to the canyon. We passed over Lake Mead and exclusive Lake Las Vegas, where diva Celine Dion has a mega-home, and then flew over Hoover Dam.

Papillon’s tours are designed to spend maximum flight time over scenic attractions and wilderness areas untouched by man and inaccessible by foot. Thrills are also part of the formula. Several times during my flight, the helicopter seemed to be flying close to the ground and then continued out over a steep drop-off, providing a vast eagle’s-eye view that made my stomach drop. I remember seeing something like that once in an I-MAX movie. 

At the west end of the Grand Canyon, about 30 miles from the main tourist area, our helicopter dropped below the rim and danced around for a while before touching down on an interior canyon clearing just above the Colorado River. Our pilot unloaded lunches packed in individual English-style picnic baskets and escorted us to a table under an authentic ramada, a Hualapai Indian cooking shelter. Toasting our good fortune at enjoying a warm, sunny day in such a spectacular location, we all sipped champagne and then downed simple, but satisfying, lunches. I saved my cookie for later.

Papillon helicopter in canyon; carrying lunch to ramada for tour from Vegas
Papillon helicopter in canyon;
carrying lunch to ramada for tour from Vegas

After eating, we explored the Native American Hualapai land a bit and snapped some photos. A few more helicopters landed, providing us the chance to gaze in wonder at what we had just done ourselves. After a half-hour on the ground, we loaded back into the helicopter for the journey back to town.

lunch in a ramada is part of the Grand Canyon tour with Papillon helicopters
lunch in a ramada is part of the Grand Canyon tour with Papillon helicopters

The pilot approached The Strip from downtown and slowly maneuvered us west so we could view all the casinos. It made me a bit queasy to see the Stratosphere’s high-flying thrill rides located atop the tower 100 floors above the ground, some literally hanging over the sides–the most queasy I felt during the entire trip.

After landing just about on a dime, we all exited the helicopter with big smiles. Back at my hotel, I shared my cookie with my husband while I told him about my grand adventure.

(; copyright Carole Terwilliger Meyers)