PHOENIX - Before they get to the Grand Canyon's glass-bottom Skywalk, most visitors are treated to an unexpected thrill - 14 miles of dusty, axle-busting road that twists around Joshua trees on the Hualapai Indian reservation.
That ride should get much easier over the next few years, the Hualapai tribe said Friday.
The Hualapai (pronounced WALL-uh-pie) said they've finally reached an agreement with a nearby landowner to pave the old washboard road. Meanwhile, crews will apply a thick layer of gravel and treat it with an organic oil to keep tires from kicking up dust and stones.
"It's such a relief," said Sherri Yellowhawk, CEO of the Grand Canyon Resort Corporation, the business arm of the tribe. "Usually (tourists) are upset by the time they get there."
About 100,000 people have visited the massive horseshoe-shaped observation deck since it opened in March.
The Skywalk offers straight-down, spine-tingling views 4,000 feet above the canyon floor. It was built to be a cash cow for the Hualapai, who rely on tourist dollars, as well as David Jin, the Las Vegas businessman who paid for its construction.
But bringing people to the remote western edge of the canyon has been difficult. The tribe operates a small airport near the Skywalk, but most visitors still come by car along Diamond Bar Road.
The rugged dirt road has claimed numerous vehicles as tourists flocked to the west rim. The Hualapai wanted to pave it for years, Yellowhawk said, but Nigel Turner, who owns the Grand Canyon West Ranch, blocked the construction with a lawsuit.
Turner said he worried the road would endanger the ancient Joshua trees, some of which are a few centuries old. He said he worried that a paved road would transform the region into a busy tourist center like the canyon's popular south rim, 90 miles to the east.
"I bought the ranch really to protect it, and to have it for eco-tourism, and my concern was that a paved road coming through the ranch was going to do a lot of destruction to the environment," Turner said. "That's not the business we're in. The people here want a lot of quiet and tranquility."
The Hualapai recently paid Turner $750,000 to settle the lawsuit and clear the way for road construction.
"You can only go so far with these fights on your own," Turner said.
Yellowhawk said it will cost about $20 million to build the road. She said $12 million of that will come from federal grant money. The other $8 million will likely come from future profits from the Skywalk and other tourist attractions on the reservation.
Diamond Bar Road will stay open during construction, Yellowhawk said.
The Hualapai offer a variety of tourist packages at the west rim. The cheapest Skywalk package costs $81.20 for adults and $61.16 for children, which includes shuttle service along the canyon edge, a horse-drawn wagon ride, a walking tour through a museum of Indian houses and lunch.
Yellowhawk said she hopes people will learn that there's a lot more to see at the west rim than the Skywalk. Coming to the west rim only for that is "like going to Disneyland, paying full price, getting down the Matterhorn, and leaving," she said.