Paved road to make travel smoother to Skywalk

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By David McNew By David McNew

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Teeth-chattering. Axle-busting. Head-pounding.

The dirt and gravel stretch of the road that leads tourists to the Grand Canyon Skywalk is no doubt rugged. For some, the washboard road that twists along Joshua trees and dips into a local wash is part of the experience of reaching the remote west rim of the canyon. For others, it's the biggest drawback.

"The more people with pioneer blood in them, the more willing. It's part of the enjoyment of the whole trip," said Erin Forrest, who works for the Hualapai Tribe. "But then you have other people who have never been out of the city limits, and they say `holy cow, I'll never do that again.'"

Come this time next year, the road will be much smoother and straighter. The Hualapai Tribe awarded a $25 million contract to a Prescott company to finish paving the last 9 miles of Diamond Bar Road. The groundbreaking that includes a blessing, dancing and speeches by tribal officials is set for Monday.

The tribe had hoped to have the project complete when it opened the Canyon Skywalk - a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that juts out 70 feet from the canyon - but a legal challenge and a lack of funding postponed it. After paying a rancher $750,000 to settle a lawsuit over the paving project, and saving up federal capital improvement funds for 10 years, the project can move forward.

The contractor has agreed to delays of no more than 15 minutes at a time, said Forrest, the project coordinator. The same company paved another 4.5 miles of Diamond Bar Road in 2010.

Some 700,000 people visit Grand Canyon West each year, either by helicopter, bus or driving their personal vehicles on Diamond Bar Road. The Skywalk is the biggest attraction, but the area also has a historic guano mine, American Indian village, a western cowboy ranch and expansive views of the Grand Canyon right from its edge.

Getting there is a journey - 2 1/2 hours from Las Vegas, 4 hours from Flagstaff and nearly 5 hours from Phoenix. Tourists hit the unpaved stretch of Diamond Bar Road right at the end. Following another driver too closely will leave you in a cloud of dust.

Mohave County had dedicated a motor grader and water truck to maintaining the road but with 800 to 1,400 vehicles on the road each day, keeping up can be tough.

"The tribe is very, very happy, ecstatic about finally moving ahead with this road, and they anticipate quite a bit of growth in numbers once it's completed," Forrest said.

Tour operators have complained of broken windows, flat tires and missing hubcaps.

The Mohave County Sheriff's Office has tallied 125 traffic collisions since 2007 on Diamond Bar Road - 38 of which had injuries and two fatal. Deputies have made more than 2,500 traffic stops in the same period, and conducted almost 550 commercial vehicle inspections, said Sgt. Don Bischoff.

While the speed limit on the dirt and gravel portion is 25 mph, it's common to see drivers going more than twice as fast, Bischoff said. The two fatal collisions, in 2010 and last year - were because foreign drivers were on the wrong side of the road, he said.

The new road will be built to federal highway standards and realigned in some areas to lessen the threat of major flooding when it rains.

"It won't be as dusty, it will be smoother, and we'll just have to see what happens with the crashes," Bischoff said. "I'm optimistic that everyone will behave themselves, but time will tell."