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By air, auto, foot—even pontoon—these companies make it easy and safe to explore the Silver State.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (Hoover Dam), PR (rest)
I’ve never flown in a helicopter. I’ve never seen Hoover Dam. And I’ve never gazed upon Lake Mead.
It was the perfect recipe for a tour, and one that tour companies cherish—a chance to give a wide-eyed tourist a new experience and, at the same time, educate him about the surrounding area.
Associate Editor Charlie Johnston and I arrived in Boulder City on this February day with the same giddy excitement of kids standing outside a candy store. In this instance, our morsel was Hoover Dam, and the store consisted of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the Colorado River, and Black Canyon.
In our not-so-distant future was the 15-minute Hoover Dam Helicopter Tour, courtesy of Looktours.com and Stars and Stripes Air Tours. We arrived at the Stars and Stripes heliport before 1 p.m. After a short delay, due to some feisty winds, we were soon up in the air and in the capable hands of pilot Curtis Cornelius.
Beyond the amazement of seeing Hoover Dam for the first time—all the more impressive from a bird’s-eye view—I found the construction of the new Hoover Dam Bypass bridge (see photo below) equally astonishing. The bypass, meant to relieve traffic and pressure on the dam’s existing road deck, is scheduled to open to traffic in November. From the sky, the Colorado River is strikingly green due to the lime in the surrounding rocks, according to Cornelius, a commercial helicopter pilot for 43 years. Passengers are allowed to ask Cornelius questions throughout the flight, meaning you don’t get the recorded narrative that some tours offer.
Hoover Dam is impressive, but Cornelius says many Stars and Stripes customers get the biggest rise from Arizona’s main attraction. “The Grand Canyon is spectacular,” he says. “It’s awe-inspiring. The grandeur is always the big thing because you can’t get a feel for the size of the Grand Canyon unless you see it. Photos do not do it justice. They present it to you, but don’t give you the feeling of ‘Holy mackerel, am I insignificant in this world.’”
In addition, Stars and Stripes offers a night tour over the Las Vegas Strip, a champagne picnic lunch next to the Colorado River, pontoon rides, a Grand Canyon Skywalk tour, and many others. American pride doesn’t hurt business, either. “The coloring of our aircraft is a big draw on the Strip. People like the patriotic theme that we have,” Cornelius says. The outfit also employs a full range of fixed-wing Cessna 208 B airplane (designed specifically for “flightseeing”) tours to the Grand Canyon’s West Rim.
If Stars and Stripes is booked, no worries. Right next door is Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, which offers airplane, bus, helicopter, and rafting tours all over Southern Nevada and Arizona.
London Bridge Jet Boat Tours
Not all Southern Nevada tour companies operate out of Las Vegas, as evidenced by this Laughlin company. Guests interested in sightseeing expeditions down the Colorado River are treated to a 58-mile (one way) journey through Topock Gorge. “Only accessible by river, Topock Gorge features breathtaking views of volcanic rock faces, enchanting emerald waters, [American] Indian petroglyphs, and a variety of desert wildlife,” reads the website.
The excursion ends at Arizona’s famous London Bridge at Lake Havasu City. Guests can dine, sightsee, and shop during a two-hour layover. Conveniently, unlike some similar tours, the boats are enclosed during those rare days when the Laughlin weather is below 90 degrees (there are no tours in December and January). The round trip lasts about six hours and costs from $46 to $66, depending on your age.
You’d spend less time listing the tours this Las Vegas-based tour broker doesn’t offer, rather than those it does. Tourists can see such attractions as Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and Valley of Fire State Park via plane, helicopter, bus, raft, kayak, 4x4, ATV, horse, glider, sailplane, on foot—or a combination thereof.
Take the third-ranked tour on the Looktours.com website, the Grand Canyon Hoover Dam Airplane Tour. The 7.5-hour adventure includes two 45-minute airplane sightseeing flights, two eight-minute helicopter flights, a 20-minute pontoon ride, and a short excursion to the Grand Canyon Rim with stops at scenic lookouts such as Guano and Eagle points. While taking in the incredible views, you’re treated to an American Indian barbecue-style meal. Not bad for $325.
Other popular tours are the Grand Canyon Skywalk and Grand Canyon White Water Rafting Adventure. Looktours’ parent company is viator.com, and it also hosts the sites alllasvegastours.com and allgrandcanyontours.com.
Pink Jeep Tours
For 50 years, Pink Jeep Tours has provided off-road family adventures in the Las Vegas and Sedona, Arizona areas. “It is amazing how many international visitors are familiar with our brand,” says Alix Reed, general manager. “Celebrating this milestone gives great comfort for more years of success to come.”
I can attest that Pink Jeep has rural Southern Nevada covered—on a number of outings I’ve spotted the company’s trademark pink Tour Trekkers (seat 10) and SUVs (seat six). There’s hardly a road in the Southwest that hasn’t felt Pink Jeep tread. Among the company’s tour stops are Death Valley National Park, Eldorado Canyon, Hoover Dam, Mount Charleston Wilderness, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, and Valley of Fire State Park—and that’s just Nevada. Also navigated are Grand Canyon and Utah’s Zion National Park.
Pink Jeep isn’t limited to automobiles. Available in 2010, the Hoover Dam Top to Bottom Tour “Pink Tag Sale” features a guided Colorado River float tour by raft with close-up views of Hoover Dam, larger-than-life power plants, and Black Canyon. The five-hour trip costs just $129.
Sightseeing Tours Unlimited of Nevada
This Las Vegas-based company simplifies things—tourists essentially have three options: airplane, bus, or helicopter—but the quality of its tours rivals any of its competitors. Sightseeing Tours covers the musts (Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Las Vegas night tours, Valley of Fire), but it also gives guests a peek at Arizona and Nevada’s lesser-known gems: Fortification Hill, Iceberg Canyon, Shivwits Plateau Wilderness Preserve, historic mining sites, and even an extinct volcano.
Sightseeing Tours does have a competitive advantage in terms of experience. According to its website, the company owner ran the first round-trip one-day bus tour to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the 1970s. He was also responsible for taking the first Las Vegas-launched vans through Hualapai Indian Reservation land to what is now commonly referred to as the Grand Canyon’s West Rim.
Today, the company’s various bus tours, which include complimentary show tickets, venture through the Nevada towns of Boulder City, Henderson, Laughlin, Primm, and Searchlight, a couple of which include stops at the Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Cactus Garden. If you’re looking for a sweet deal, the company offers a 4.5-hour Hoover Dam Super Express Special for just $32.99 a person.
From the ground, Lake Tahoe is one of the world’s most striking scenes. You can only imagine what it looks like from the air. Thanks to HeliTahoe, tourists don’t have to wonder.
The South Lake Tahoe-based company runs daily flights out of Minden, Reno, and South Lake Tahoe. Tours last from 10 minutes to an hour and range from $50 to $300 per person. Get a bird’s-eye view of Lake Tahoe sanctuaries such as Emerald Bay, Sand Harbor, and South Shore or enjoy the peaceful Sunset Tour, with views of Cave Rock, Zephyr Cove, and casino row at Stateline.
If the passenger experience doesn’t suffice, HeliTahoe even offers Rotorcraft private, commercial, and CFI and CFII flight training courses, along with add-ons, Turbine Transition, and Mountain Flight Training. The classes are organized based on demand, and customized training programs are available.
Or perhaps you want to avoid the traditional pressure (and cost) of saying “I do?” For $749, you can say your vows during a 20-minute flight over Lake Tahoe and take home a customized marriage certificate.
The Grand Prize winner of our 2010 Great Nevada Picture Hunt (to be revealed in our upcoming September/October issue) will receive a complimentary tour courtesy of HeliTahoe.
Western Discovery, LLC
If you’re planning on attending all or one of three major upcoming Reno events—Hot August Nights (July 30-August 8), the National Championship Air Races (September 15-19), or Street Vibrations (September 22-26)—let Western Discovery handle the details for you.
The Reno-based tour broker has nifty three- and four-night room packages, for individuals and groups, available at various city resorts. That just leaves the airline and rental car reservations, if needed. Western Discovery offers many helpful suggestions for such services on its website.
Western Discovery specializes in guiding tourists around the Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Carson Valley areas. Whether it’s visiting the historic town of Virginia City, viewing wild horses and ancient Pyramid Lake, enjoying a traditional Basque meal, taking a cruise on Lake Tahoe, perusing the state capital of Carson City, or analyzing life on a working ranch in Carson Valley, Western Discovery is sure to have a tour that satisfies any interests.
Country barbecue events, golfing, skiing and snowboarding packages, and customized group tours round out the company’s plethora of accommodations. 2011 will mark the business’ 25th anniversary.
London Bridge Jet Boat Tours
Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters
Pink Jeep Tours
Sightseeing Tours Unlimited of Nevada
Stars & Stripes Air Tours
Western Discovery, LLC
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