A Papillon helicopter flying in the Grand Canyon.The helicopter skimmed above the earth, high enough that we could see the desert landscape dotted with cacti and scrub bushes for miles in front of us, but low enough so the shadow of the red Papillon helicopter was visible on the ground below. The helicopter banked to the right for its initial descent, and then, suddenly, there it was: the Grand Canyon.

Regardless of how people approach the Grand Canyon, it almost always takes them by surprise. It's 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and one mile deep, but it's difficult to understand what that means until you view it from the edge or stand at the bottom.

Although it is nearly 300 miles from the Strip to the canyon's South Rim and can take the better part of a day to visit, many people use Las Vegas as a jumping-off point to explore this spectacle.

There are myriad choices when it comes to visiting the Grand Canyon, the most important considerations being how much time and money visitors have to spend on the experience.

This narrows the options regarding where along the Grand Canyon they can visit and by what means. Mobility issues and seasonality are also important considerations.

"The canyon is so big, and there are so many different things to do there," said Scott Robertson, guide and operations manager for Pink Jeep Tours. "You don't have to do the same thing twice."

Grand Canyon National Park encompasses two canyon rims: the South Rim and the North Rim. Of the 5 million people who visit the park every year, 90% go to the South Rim.

The South Rim is a good five-hour drive from Vegas, which means those who go overland can expect to spend a long day on the road.

Most Grand Canyon tour companies offer one-stop-shop packages to the South Rim that combine hotel pickup and drop-off, snacks and water and a knowledgeable guide, so that visitors only have to think about enjoying the trip.

The Grand Canyon Skywalk is 4,000-feet above the floor.The Grand Canyon's North Rim is a bit closer to Las Vegas, but few tour groups have access to this part of the park (Pink Jeep is the exception, with permission to lead a limited number of people to Toroweap, one of the most remote locations in the U.S.), and renting a car is one of the few ways to visit from Las Vegas.

Tourists seeking fewer crowds and longer hikes may have a greater appreciation for what this rim has to offer.

The West Rim is the Grand Canyon's newest highlight and not part of the national park. Its Grand Canyon Skywalk lets visitors take a stroll 4,000 feet above the canyon's floor.

Although the West Rim has been slow in providing visitor amenities and services, this is a popular destination for tour groups, as it is offers the shortest drive from Vegas (about two hours).

Recognizing that the Grand Canyon is a major draw and that people prefer different experiences, many tour firms have expanded offerings to include combination tours and partnerships with other companies in order to provide unique experiences.

For example, a new partnership between Pink Jeep and Papillon lets visitors fly from the Las Vegas area to the South Rim aboard a Scenic Airlines plane and then tour the rim via an open-air, pink Jeep Wrangler.

Another of Pink Jeep's signature tours — West Rim Drive, Fly & Float — includes a drive to the West Rim, a helicopter ride below the rim and a 10-minute pontoon ride on the Colorado River.

"This is one of our most popular tours, and that's because people get to see the canyon from different angles," Robertson said.

There are dozens of additional options from scores of tour companies.

I've visited the Grand Canyon several times, but as our helicopter touched down near the Colorado River, which flows through the canyon, I saw this familiar sight from an entirely different perspective.

I wasn't standing with the crowds on the South Rim, taking in the views after a long hike on the North Rim or peering over the edge from the Skywalk on the West Rim. From this designated area of the canyon shared by several helicopter tour companies, I was at the bottom and only a couple of dozen other people shared this special perspective with me.

As we ate a snack at the bottom of the canyon, our pilot, Rick Neely, answered questions about the canyon and talked about tours that don't go to any of the rims at all.

Besides flying helicopters for our tour, Papillon's Grand Celebration, he leads some of the air-only tours.

"It's not the same as sitting at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, though," he said of those tours. "The pictures you get from the bottom of the canyon are priceless."


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