A Classic Ride - Mules in the Grand Canyon
The mule rides that descend into the Grand Canyon from the village on the rim have a storied history - Teddy Roosevelt took the very same ride.
The rides go down the Bright Angel trail, which is one of the oldest human artifacts in the canyon. At the very least, it was improved somewhat by the Havasupai, who chose this route because the Bright Angel fault created a naturally good trail and also because of the year-round spring at Indian Garden.
Then came the white guys. In the late 1880s, prospectors Pete Berry and Ralph Cameron situated mining claims along the trail. Cameron bought Berry out, and then decided that he wasn't going to make much money out of mining - tourism was the answer. He charged $1 a head for anyone who wanted to walk or ride down the trail. He improved the trail and set up a campground at Indian Garden. Collecting the tolls, however, was a lot of work. Enter the Kolb Brothers, who wanted to build a photography studio on the rim, but the Park Service already had control over the land and forbade them. Cameron, however, owned the Bright Angel trailhead and was quite willing to let them build their studio there if they would collect the tolls for him. They did, and set up a lucrative business photographing people who rode into the canyon.
The Park Service made many attempts to get control of the Bright Angel trail. Failing to do so, they developed the South Kaibab trail as a free alternative route to the bottom of the canyon (today's mule trips go down the Bright Angel and come back up the South Kaibab). The Park Service did not gain control of Bright Angel Trail until 1928, at which point they promptly spent 11 years improving it further and constructing trail facilities (which still exist at Mile and a Half, Three Mile and Indian Garden).
Although a mule in good condition could descend the canyon and return in one day, the mule riders stop overnight. The Park Service recommends that hikers do not attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back (or across the canyon) in one day, although expert hikers have done it. In fact, the majority of people rescued from the canyon are young men who only think they can do it in one day.
This fact requires facilities at the bottom of the canyon - enter Phantom Ranch. Three trails give access to the ranch - Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab from the North Rim. (Kaibab is a Havasupai word which means 'Mountain Lying Down', a fairly accurate description of the high plateau that surrounds the canyon). Phantom Ranch's location is determined by that of Bright Angel Creek, which provides a year-round water supply and has also carved out a flat-bottomed side canyon that has proved to be the perfect location.
Phantom Ranch consists of four dormitories (two male and two female), a canteen, a shower house, several cabins, a bunkhouse for employees and a barn. Mule riders get to stay in the cabins, whilst most hikers either stay in the dorms or camp. The ranch was designed by Mary Colter, who designed most of the buildings in the park, and much of it was completed in 1922. One amazing thing is that everything except the stone had to be brought down into the canyon either by mules or by men. (The stone was quarried from the canyon itself). Phantom Ranch is still supplied entirely by mule train and garbage that cannot be composted is removed from the canyon by the outgoing mules.
All concessions within the Grand Canyon National Park are held by Xanterra, which bought out the previous holder, the Fred Harvey Company, in 1968. This includes the mule rides.
The saddle mules are kept in the historic barn in the Grand Canyon Village, and each makes the trip about twice a week, with their condition and soundness constantly assessed by experienced muleteers. Including both saddle and pack mules, Xanterra currently manages about 130 head of mules for use within the park. Trail improvement crews also use both saddle and pack mules.
The saddle mules wear western tack and for the trip down into the canyon are harnessed in full breeching. As is traditional for working mules, their manes and tails are shaved. Their tails are layered in segments depending on their use. Saddle mules suitable for guest use have three layers in their tails. Pack trains make the trip into the canyon and out again within one day, whilst the saddle mules spend the night in a pen next to the Phantom Ranch barn.
The mules are kept outside in pens almost all of the time and are brought in only to be fed grain and saddled for work.
Preparing For Your Trip
Xanterra has an impressive list of Dos and Don'ts for the mule trip. This is necessary as a little over 92% percent of riders have never sat on any kind of animal before. So, no, you don't need to know how to ride. You do, however, have to be under 200 lbs and at least 4'7, and not be pregnant, as well as fluent in English. The current rates as of April 2012 are just over $500 for a solo traveler, just under $900 for a couple, with $400 for each additional purpose. (Most cabins sleep two, some sleep up to four). Mule rides sell out quickly, and they take bookings 13 months before the travel date. I recommend booking the ride first and planning the rest of your trip around it.
This rate includes the ride, overnight accommodations at Phantom Ranch as well as a box lunch and dinner on the first day and breakfast on the second. The dinner is steak and sides served family style (vegetarians must notify Xanterra on booking so they can be served vegetarian chili instead). The rate also includes a water bag (which you get to keep) and a certificate (which has not changed since the 1920s. Trust me. It hasn't). The company will loan you a rain slicker, but if you want to rent chaps, those are extra, and not really needed on the improved trails into the canyon.
Luggage is limited to the amount you can put into a bag about the same size as a ten pound bag of ice. If you want to take more, you may be able to get it sent down with the pack train, but this costs extra and space is limited. The ten pound bag is enough for a change of clothes, a small flashlight and maybe a paperback book.
Xanterra requires that riders wear a hat for sun protection, which must have a chin strap. (They DO allow safety helmets...if going in summer, late spring, or early fall, I strongly recommend purchasing an equestrian/safety helmet shade to attach to a helmet if you choose to wear one, or you will get hot). They also require long sleeves, which protect from the sun and also might help if anyone falls off into a prickly pear, and closed toed shoes, preferably with a slight heel). A good pair of jeans is the best thing for your lower body. Anything you take with you has to be tied on...cameras should be on a neck strap not a wrist strap and if you wear glasses, you will need a lanyard or a piece of string. No fanny packs or backpacks are allowed, and they recommend leaving your cellphone behind. In any case, there is no reception once you get below the rim.
If you have any special needs, talk to them in advance. They have actually taken paraplegics down on the mules in the past and do have the facility to handle disabled people as long as they get enough warning and a clear explanation of what you need. Vegetarians and vegans, as previously mentioned, should let them know in advance so a special meal can be prepared. If going in the winter, you will want gloves. I did not find I needed mine in April, however.
Getting There and Staying There
The mule rides leave very early in the morning. Riders are expected to assemble at the stone corral at the Bright Angel trailhead at 6:50am.
Because of this, I strongly recommend booking into one of the park lodges both the night before and the night after your trip. If you have money to burn, get rooms at the luxurious El Tovar. For the rest of us, the best place to stay is Maswik Lodge, which is literally yards from the Bright Angel trailhead. Although expensive (all the in-park accommodation and food is somewhat pricey), Maswik Lodge has nice, clean rooms and a canteen that opens for breakfast at 6am. For evening meals, however, I would go to the Bright Angel Lodge, which has two proper sit-down restaurants, one slightly more expensive than the other.
There are three good ways to get to the park: Fly into Phoenix and drive, fly into Flagstaff and drive, or take the train from Williams. Whichever way you choose, you will want to get there, at the latest, the late afternoon the day before your trip.
What Happens During The Trip
Riders should check in by 7:30pm the day before the trip at the Bright Angel transportation desk. At this point, you will be issued a slicker, a water bag and the plastic bag for your luggage. You will also be weighed - they are serious about that 200 pound weight limit.
Pack your essentials for the trip down. Towels and camp soap are provided at Phantom Ranch...I recommend taking a change of underwear and socks, toothpaste and toothbrush, a flashlight and if you are riding in boots, a pair of tennis shoes for walking around the canyon. Make sure to take any medications - and bear in mind you will not be able to access your luggage while riding. Keep essential medication in your pocket or a small neck pouch and if you have a medical condition that might affect things during the ride, do let the wranglers know.
The ride convenes at the stone corral at the Bright Angel trailhead. The wranglers hack the mules in a string to the corral and then assign riders to mules there. Be warned - these are mules, not donkeys or burros. My mule was about 15.2 and built like the broad side of a barn. Most of the mules they use are bred from Quarter Horse or draft mares and Mammoth Jack jacks. They warn over and over again that these are big animals. Believe it, they are. If you need help mounting, you will get it, but they give out relatively little instruction in riding. The mules are taught to direct rein and each rider is issued a 'motivator'. That's a whip, anywhere else. You will be admonished to whack your mule if it lags back, tries to eat (or in the case of my mule tries to say hi to every hiker on the trail). At this point I'd point out: Mules are not horses. One of the things I learned on this trip that I hadn't fully grasped is that mules do not do subtle. They do not do subtle with each other or with you. Besides, it's hard to hit them hard with the 'motivators' anyway.
These are incredibly well trained mules. Steering is rather unnecessary...there is really only one trail and the mules know it. About all you have to do is keep them from trying to snack on grass. Or bare wood. Or prickly pears. Or a hiker's lunch. When stopping, the wranglers will instruct you to turn the mule's head to the edge of the trail. This is really important...the mule needs to keep track of where the edge (and potentially thousand foot dropoff) is at all times.
The first day goes out down the Bright Angel trail. You will stop at Indian Garden for 'lunch', but it will still be about breakfast time at this point. I recommend eating some of your box lunch now even if you don't think you need it. You can then initial what's left and they'll give it to you at the bottom of the canyon. The box lunch includes an apple, and guess what species of animal really likes apple cores. You'll actually reach Phantom Ranch at about lunch time, and have the rest of the day to explore the area around it. Supper is served at 5pm (people in Arizona tend to eat early). The canteen opens again at 8 and sells both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Children are still welcome. There are also ranger talks available. Be sure to go outside after dark and hike a bit up the North Kaibab trail to get away from Phantom Lodge's lights. Although the canyon restricts one's view, it's a pretty good dark sky spot.
The next day, it's back on the mules at 7am and up the South Kaibab trail. Be sure to fill your water bag all the way. There is no drinking water on the South Kaibab trail, although the wranglers do pack extra water. There are a lot more photo opportunities on the way up and there is one spot where the wranglers stop, get off, and offer to take pictures of everyone on their mules. Take them up on it. There's one rest stop on this route, and you will get back to the rim, again, about lunch time. The mules are loaded onto a trailer and the riders onto a mini-bus that will take you back to the village, as the South Kaibab trailhead is about five or six miles along the rim.
Despite involving large and potentially unpredictable animals, the mule ride is the safest way to get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In over a hundred years of operations, nobody has ever been killed riding a mule down. The same cannot be said of hiking....250 hikers have to be rescued from the canyon in any given year and not all of them make it. In fact, even these days, it occasionally happens that somebody walks into the canyon and is never seen again.
Accidents do happen, of course, and nothing is entirely safe. However, the wranglers told us that the first aid kit carried by one of the mules is utilized more commonly by hikers they pass than by their own riders. Heat exhaustion and, more rarely, altitude sickness are the most common problems that require attention. There was one significant accident in 2009 in which a mule slipped and fell on the woman riding it - something which is an occupational hazard of riding and had little to do with the terrain.
However, you will be saddle sore. Not may. Will. I ride regularly and I was saddle sore after this trip. The best treatment is to keep moving in the afternoons after the rides and take a long, hot shower after you get back to the rim. Ten hours in the saddle is not easy...but it is a lot easier than walking.