Desert View Watchtower: Past and Present on the Edge of the World


Desert View Watch Tower courtesy Mike Koopsen

Awash with nature-inspired opulence, the Grand Canyon draws an estimated five million visitors annually, each seeking that perfect viewpoint, that awe-striking vista which evokes the deepest of emotions and renews the bond between nature and humanity. With its rich color palette and dramatic panoramas, wayfarers trek from one edge of the Canyon to the other in search of that priceless landscape that will confirm for them the existence of something greater than themselves. While vantage points can be found throughout Grand Canyon National Park and the surrounding countryside, nowhere does form meet function so effortlessly or quite so beautifully as at Desert View Watchtower.


Constructed in 1932 along the South Rim of the Canyon at its easternmost edge, Desert View Watchtower exudes the presence of a people and place more ancient than the early 20th century. The Watchtower radiates an almost primordial aura, echoing the spirit of the Canyon’s earliest inhabitants and imbues that aura into the landscape. Modeled after the ancient Anasazi watchtowers found in the nearby Four Corners area, this natural blending of modern structure with ancient form was the artistic masterpiece of Mary Colter.

An architect who began her career as an interior decorator for the Fred Harvey Company, Colter was hired in 1930 to design an east Canyon gift shop and rest area at Desert View. Also responsible for the park buildings found at Hermit”s Rest, Bright Angel Lodge and Lookout Studio toward the west end of the Canyon, Colter worked for nearly three years to create a vantage point that combined the historic significance of the area with the modern desires of travelers to experience the Canyon through unrestricted views. Her passion for using native stone and indigenous materials has been replicated throughout numerous National Park Service buildings through the years, but nowhere in as dramatic fashion at Desert View.

The tower rises some seventy feet above the South Rim and is the highest point from which to view the southern and eastern edges of the Canyon. Formed in circular fashion just as the Anasazi watchtowers, Desert View rises some five stories high, nearly three times as high as any known Anasazi structure. It sits gracefully on one of the many promontories that jut out from the Canyon edge, and is crafted of native stones that were each handpicked by Colter for their size, color and appearance of age.

The exterior of the tower is a mixture of smooth and rough stones, which Colter alternates for architectural interest. There are small windows toward the wider base of the tower however much of the interior light stems from the large, trapezoidal windows at the top of the tower, covered in plate glass and providing the perfect frame for the stunning views of the Canyon and beyond.

The Watch Tower Ground Floor.

In addition to the originally planned gift shop, the ground floor houses the largest room in the structure, called the Hopi Room, and is circular in design. With a floor of colorful flagstone and smooth stone walls, the setting is perfect for the colorful murals that cover the walls and ceiling. A large circular mural, deep in natural reds, orange and yellows, greets visitors as they enter the Watchtower. The painting is a pictorial telling of the “Snake Legend”, the Hopi story about the first travelers down the winding and treacherous Colorado River. The ceiling of the Hopi Room contains a kaleidoscope of the heavens, according to Hopi legend. The sun, moon, North Star, Evening Star, Morning Star and the entire Milky Way are charted in the mural that floats gracefully above the Hopi Room. Each of the murals at Desert View was created by Fred Kabotie, noted Hopi artist, and tells a different story in the life of the Canyon and its peoples.

Watch Tower Second Floor.

Rising above ground level, the second floor of the Watchtower contains an outdoor observation deck that provides some of the most spectacular views from the South Rim. Visitors climb small staircases that hug the interior of the tower column to reach this and subsequent levels, pausing to view the Canyon from a series of tiny balconies that peak out beyond the Tower walls. The structure of the Tower itself is steel and concrete, providing strength and durability that only serves to enhance the ancient feel of the building. Each of the interior walls is plastered smooth, creating a clean palette from which Kabotie’s images spring forth like characters in a play, telling the stories of the ancient ones.

The Top Floor Observation Deck.

At the very top of the Tower a floor appears almost magically and a full observation deck with large viewing windows is open to the public. It is here that visitors glimpse for perhaps the first time the true majesty that is the Grand Canyon, enjoying near 360 degree views, from the farthest reaches to the west, across the Canyon to the North Rim, and toward the magnificently hued Painted Desert to the east. Guests that venture to the highest reaches of the Tower are rewarded with unobstructed views of one of nature’s most breathtaking scenes. It is here that the most devoted travelers venture, climbing the nearly five flights of stairs with awe and wonder as each turn around the Tower offers mere glimpses of the beauty waiting at the top.

Some visitors to Desert View Watchtower stay for hours, others for only a few moments. Regardless of how long you stay, make the most of your Grand Canyon vacation by experiencing the magnificence of nature as only visible from Desert View.