Along the Desert View Watchtower

When you’re down in the Grand Canyon, on the river, you don’t think about who’s up on the rim and what they’re doing as they peer down into the big ditch. You’re busy surviving some of the world’s hardest whitewater, not thinking about what’s above you.

For me, there’s one exception to that rule, and that exception reveals itself along the bend in the Colorado that allows your first glance of the Desert View Watchtower.

This seventy-foot structure is the only rim-level human-built object you can see from the river within the confines of Grand Canyon National Park. As you float under it, your eyes and mind are drawn up and out of the amazing but confining canyon you are navigating. For a brief chunk of time, your awareness soars up to the level of the ponderosa pines and thinks about what the view must be like from there, what the temperature is, and where the California condors are nesting.

 

“I need to check that thing out,” I said to myself back in June, as we buzzed by this spot on our twenty-eight foot motor rig.

And I did. Last weekend, when I drove up to the South Rim, I spent some time investigating the structures of Grand Canyon Village and checking out the views from the standard drive-up observation points. But I was really there to see the tower, which I visited while driving out the east exit of the park.

I did no reading about it, and I looked at no photos online before going. I had a picture in my head of what the tower looked like from the river, and that’s it.

As a result, I was completely blown away by the murals and reproduced petroglyphs that blanketed the tower’s interior walls. Since I’d had no idea they were there, the images’ colors, shapes, sizes, and ubiquity completely caught me by surprise. Nor did I know that a spiral staircase winds up through the four stories of the tower, allowing you to get up close and personal with these paintings. It also delivers you to the tower’s observation deck with its seemingly random-shaped windows and 360-degree views.

The Desert Watchtower was designed by Mary Colter, an architect who worked for the Fred Harvey Company – the Grand Canyon’s main concessionaire – for many years. Mary had designed a number of other structures for the South Rim complex, but this one seemed to hold a special place in her heart. She spent six months traveling to southwestern Pueblo villages to study their forms, and after the metal structure of the tower was built, she was involved with the selection and placement of every one of the tower’s exterior stones. As a result, the place has a distinctly handbuilt feeling, with a variety of uniquely shaped rocks surrounding the occasional carved cobble.

The tower opened in 1933 to controversy, and some controversy around its size, placement, design, and purpose has continued to this day. For starters, there has never been tower of this height found in an existing or an archaic Pueblo community.  After all, this structure is anchored by a steel frame, using technology that was not accessible to the Pueblo people until quite recently. And, while one of the tower’s interior murals depicts an interpretation of the Hopi Snake Legend and was painted by a Hopi man named Fred Kabotie, many of the other images scattered on the walls and ceiling of the tower were selected by employees of the Fred Harvey Company and do not represent the iconography of any particular Native American culture. Not everyone appreciates the distinctive height of the structure, and its more recent use as a gift shop does not make all visitors happy either.

Despite these quibbles (some of which I share), I adored this structure. I loved its dark interior, lit only by sunlight through the occasional, irregularly-placed windows and the few beautiful wall Pueblo pottery sconces. I’ve always been a sucker for spiral staircases, and winding up a narrow one while gazing at the art surrounding me was magical. The murals are bright and iconic, and the ceiling – the brightly painted explosion of imagery that you are steadily circling up to see more closely – is impressive in its representation of so many symbolic forms. This hovering panel is bright, cheerful, and totally inspiring, and I wanted nothing more than to climb closer to it.

From the top floor, the views are breathtaking – but really, they aren’t all that different from the views you see from other observation points in the canyon. Here, though, the fact that you are looking through oddly-shaped glass panels in a dusky tower somehow bestows a different flavor on the experience. I imagined what it would be like to live in or be posted there, keeping an eye out for fires or enemies or summer monsoons.

Of course, there on the top floor of the tower, I also saw kids yelling at each other, a parent who held her son on a leash, and a handful of people taking just one picture and one breath before running back downstairs to the gift shop. I managed to ignore them, but I did wonder what it would be like to come back and have the place all to myself. More than any other spot on the South Rim, this is the one that begs me to visit it under a light dusting of snow, when all is quiet, to see how the paintings look and listen for what they may whisper to me.

Ironically, in writing this piece, I discovered that the top three floors of the tower were closed for renovation two days after I drove up there, and they won’t open again until October.

Occasionally, a total lack of planning does work out.

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