Attractions » Grand Canyon South Rim Helicopter Tour

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Despite the Friday afternoon traffic heading out of Phoenix, I made Tusayan in good time. I checked in to the local Holiday Inn Express in Tusayan, then drove 5 minutes to the Airport. 

I’d decided to start my trip with a bang by booking a Grand Canyon helicopter tour. 

I did quite a bit of research before met trip and found that the best Grand Canyon helicopter tour was with Papillon (butterfly in French). Flying from the south rim, Papillon Tours had just what I was hoping for: A Birdseye view of the Canyon in a comfortable 6 passenger helicopter. Wanting the full experience I opted for the combination helicopter tour and sunset hummer experience. 

Papillon offers one of the few South Rim tours to fly from Grand Canyon National Park Airport (GCN) in Tusayan. Many tours fly from Las Vegas, some from Flagstaff. But if you’re already at the Canyon, and you also want to do a land tour, these options are not convenient. 

The flight was scheduled for 4 pm, a little early for Golden Hour, but the sun was already getting low on the horizon, offering better light and higher contrast in the rock formations of the vertiginous cliffs that make up the Canyon Walls. The tour takes place at the widest part of the Canyon where the distance across is up to 18 miles.

The Papillon Helicopter Tour Fleet

I was very impressed at the size of the operation and the professionalism of the tour provider. The airport appears to be primarily dedicated to their helicopter tours. And I counted ten modern and relatively new choppers. The fleet is made up primarily with Airbus Ecostar 130 helicopters, backed up by a handful of Bell Helicopter 206 birds. 

I instantly fell in love the with bright red appearance of the Ecostar 130. It’s an ideal model for sightseeing tours thanks to its spacious cabin and panoramic windows. My research revealed that it offers quieter operation compared to other models, though we need to wear a headset to reduce the noise and communicate with the pilot or other passengers.

The Bell 206 appears to have less expansive windows and a more traditional helicopter look and feel. I’m glad we switched to the EC 130 at the last minute. 

Papillon Helicopter Tour Safety

After checking in at the heliport, I was invited to attend the mandatory safety briefing. This short video provides details on the various safety features of the aircraft. This includes how to attach the seatbelt. The EC130 has a multipoint harness style belt, whereas the Bell 206 has a more traditional seatbelt similar to what is found on most aircraft. 

From the briefing room, we were ushered into the waiting area with a clear view of the many helipads. This offers a clear and entertaining view of the choppers as they board passengers, lift off and then return at the end of the tour. It was actually very entertaining. We were gradually given a boarding pass as we were added to the flight manifest of our assigned aircraft. All was very smooth and professional.

Boarding the Flight

I was paired with a small group of tourists from France. Quite a coincidence that all passengers spoke French. We were able to exchange a few words before boarding: what region did they come from, etc.

The group was then escorted by two ground crewmembers to the awaiting helicopter. The helipad was clearly marked with yellow lines indicating the safe area from which we must not stray. We were then assigned our seat on board and climbed into the cockpit. A souvenir photo was taken before boarding in front of the helicopter and would await us in the gift shop upon our return.

And We Have Liftoff

After a final safety check and welcome aboard, we were on our way towards the Canyon. The thrill of the helicopter taking flight is quite exhilarating. As a first-timer the feeling was quite exquisite.

As you leave the heliport, you cover a fair stretch of ground leading up to the Rim. It’s fairly flat terrain lightly covered with pine and scrub vegetation. 

The odd thing is that the Canyon is not readily visible from a distance… until it there at your feet as you fly over the rim. The view is staggering as the floor drops down 5,000 feet below and you lose your sense of distance and perspective. It’s breathtaking! What a thrill. The light was just right providing an amazingly detailed view of the Canyon walls or should I say cliffs.

You get to see the eroded sandstone and other stratified rock from on high. Nothing on the ground quite compares. Over the next 24 hours I would be exploring various points of view on land. And NOTHING quite compares with what I was seeing. 

Although not a lengthy tour (under 45 minutes from takeoff to landing), you get a great view of various formations and terrain that make up the Canyon and including a birds eye view of the Colorado river rushing by on the Canyon floor. Bring a camera with a wide lens and you won’t be disappointed.

Pro-photo Tip

Bring your iPhone and if you own one, a DSLR or mirrorless camera. To capture the grandiosity of the Canyon from above, make sure you bring a wide-angle lens (18-24mm) or a wide-angle zoom. Overly long lenses are not only cumbersome but also don’t provide a good view of the expansiveness of the Canyon. 

The photos shown here were taken with a combination of iPhone 14 Pro Max and a Canon EOS T6i with a 24mm wide angle and an 18-55mm, 1:35-5.6 wide-angle zoom. One of these days, I’ll splurge on a faster lens like the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM that will set you back a couple of grand.

The Flight Itinerary Across the Grand Canyon    

The flight took us in a “u” shaped course from the airport to the North Rim and back. Along the way, we passed many spectacular rock formations, each with its own colorful name including, Vesta temple, Diana Temple, Geikie Peak, Mencius Temple, Confucius Temple, Osiris Temple and Dragon Head.

Back to the Heliport

After a few hundred photos or so, we were back to the heliport for disembarkation. Again the security protocols avoided exposing us to the rotating blades overhead. We were escorted back to the terminal where we retrieved our souvenir photo and headed to the gift show to pay. If you’re into souvenirs, you’ll be well served here with plenty of memorabilia. By then, I was several minutes late for my next activity, so I bid the terminal farewell and headed off to Buck Wild Hummer Tours.