The Watchtower at Desert View – Grand Canyon National Park

The Watchtower at Desert View - Grand Canyon National Park

I’m a sucker for great architecture.  Many of the older parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon have some amazing legacy architecture that gives a lot of character to the park.

On the last trip to Grand Canyon National Park we chose to stay at the far end away from the crowds.  I had never been to the Desert View side of the park and I really liked how remote it was from the crowded visitor’s center and Mather Campground.  What I didn’t think about until we got there was that we’d be walking distance from the famous Watchtower at Desert View designed by Mary Colter in the 1930s.

Mary Colter was a very detail oriented architect with a passion for the southwest and it’s history.  Everything about The Watchtower is meant to be an homage to the native cultures, their architecture and the unique canyon landscape.  If you can make it out there, look closely at the structure.  There are a lot of unique surprises in the details of the construction.

There are stones on the outside wall with petroglyphs on them brought there from near Ash Fork.  There are cracks in the walls that seem to run through the window openings, these were an intentional part of the design and painstakingly created to give the feel of an ancient structure. Near the top of the tower you can see a triangle pattern repeated partially around the crown, this is a nod to Chaco Canyon designs found in New Mexico.  The tower is 5 stories tall and Mary was intimately involved with every inch of it.

Mary Coulter had said, “First and most important, was to design a building that would become part of its surroundings; one that would create no discordant note against the time eroded walls of this promontory.”

From what I saw, I think she was very successful.  You can see the tower from almost anywhere in the park, and it does not look out of place at all.


  1. First of all, amazing image Dave. I am always drawn to the lodges in the parks. The timber frames create a spectacular focal point and most that I’ve seen first hand blend into the surroundings as if they had always been there, much like the Watchtower.

    It’s ok with me to have these additions in the park so long as they are build true to the natural balance and aesthetic.

    • Wilderness Dave says:

      The older parks especially seem to have some great structures that add to the character of the park. But even some of the newer buildings are pretty nice…

      Development in the parks is tricky. You have to serve a need (as much as one exists) without distracting from or altering the natural feel of the park. It takes the right architect with the right attitude toward the park. Grand Canyon has been lucky…but some of the new buildings don’t have as much character or thought into them as the older ones.

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