Desert View Watchtower

Historic Building Fact Sheet

desert view watchtower

The Desert View Watchtower stands proudly over Grand Canyon National Park (Sept. 2017) Photo credit: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz

Need to Know Info

Built1932
AddressDesert View Watchtower
Grand Canyon Village, Arizona
Coordinates36°2′38″N 111°49′33″W
Date Added to NRHPJanuary 3rd, 1995
Date Designated NHLDCPMay 28, 1987

The Desert View Watchtower, an iconic 70-foot stone tower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, was architect Mary Colter’s last major design in the canyon before 1935, artfully created to resemble an ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling through its weathered stonework, circular form, interior murals, and dramatic perch overlooking the east entrance of the park.

Colter spent months researching archaeological prototypes and designed the tower to provide optimal views, culminating in a National Historic Landmark that immerses visitors in the canyon landscape and its indigenous history. The watchtower remains a highlight of the Grand Canyon’s East Rim as both an architectural marvel and vista point for over 6 million annual visitors.

The In-Depth Story

Desert View Watchtower: Mary Colter’s Grand Canyon Icon

Perched on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona stands the Desert View Watchtower, a 70-foot tall stone tower that has become an iconic landmark of the national park. Constructed in 1932, the Desert View Watchtower was the last of the Grand Canyon buildings designed by famed architect Mary Colter before her 1935 renovation of Bright Angel Lodge.

Colter’s Creation Blends with the Canyon

The watchtower was strategically situated over 20 miles east of Grand Canyon Village, positioned to take full advantage of the awe-inspiring views toward the east entrance of the canyon. Colter designed the tower to seamlessly blend into its rugged surroundings, with rough-hewn stones carefully placed to mimic the weathered walls of the canyon. Tiny irregular windows are artfully arranged to create the illusion of an ancient ancestral Puebloan ruin. A circular rubble base conveys the look of a partly ruined older structure, upon which the newer tower was built.

Connecting to the Past

While designing the watchtower, Colter spent months extensively researching archaeological prototypes and traditional construction techniques of the Colorado Plateau tribes. She ultimately modeled the Desert View Watchtower on the cliff dwellings found at Hovenweep National Monument and the round tower at Mesa Verde. However, Colter made her tower much larger than any known ancestral Puebloan watchtower to create a grander landmark. She built a clay model to refine the structure’s design and ensure it would provide optimal canyon views.

Inside the Tower

The interior of the Desert View Watchtower brings the ancestral Puebloan aesthetic to life through murals and artwork. The Kiva Room at the tower’s base evokes a traditional kiva with its circular form, fireplace, and log-beam ceiling. Vibrant murals by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie adorn the walls. Petroglyph-style rock art by Fred Geary recreates the look of ancient pictographs. The open central shaft, lined by a series of circular balconies overlooking the Kiva Room, creates a dynamic interior space. Small stairways connect the balconies, leading up to the enclosed observation level at the tower’s peak. Dramatic views of the canyon from the top make the climb well worth the effort.

Historic Designation

The remarkable architecture and artwork of the Desert View Watchtower earned it status as a National Historic Landmark in 1987. The watchtower also contributes to the Desert View Watchtower Historic District, which encompasses other structures from the Fred Harvey Company era of the Grand Canyon such as caretaker’s residences and cabins.

The Desert View Watchtower remains a highlight of the East Rim for the over 6 million Grand Canyon visitors each year. They can admire Colter’s skill in creating a building that seems to organically emerge from the living rock and experience the canyon from the inspiring vantage point the watchtower provides. This iconic landmark stands as a monument to the Grand Canyon while connecting to the ancient peoples that once called this landscape home.

NRHP Reference #: 87001436