Mules Have Carried Visitors into the Grand Canyon for More than a Century
Grand Canyon National Park - South Rim
on March 28, 2016
Sure-footed, sturdy mules have been carrying visitors into the Grand Canyon for more than a century.
And they haven’t lost a rider yet.
But maybe even more remarkable is that in this fast-paced digital age, the mule rides remain a staple of the Grand Canyon experience. Thousands of visitors annually gather at the South Rim’s Mule Barn eager to take a turn in the slow lane.
Two options await mule riders.
First, the overnight ride to Phantom Ranch, nestled a mile below the rim on the canyon floor, is a bucket-list adventure. The 10.5-mile ride down the Bright Angel Trail takes about six hours, including rest stops. The ride out the next morning is via the shorter, but steeper, 7.8-mile South Kaibab Trail. Guests sleep in comfy cabins and indulge in a hearty dinner and breakfast as part of the fare.
Second, the newer Canyon Vistas ride is a three-hour experience (including four miles and two hours in the saddle) that winds along a rim-top trail amid juniper and piñon pine, each turn revealing another heart-stopping canyon vista.
But first stop is the Mule Barn near the Bright Angel Lodge for an orientation, where the first question invariably is: What exactly is a mule?
Answer: The offspring of a female horse and a male donkey.
The hybrid animal is stronger and more sure-footed than a horse. And because their eye sockets protrude farther than a horse’s, they’re able to see their hind feet – a comforting notion to riders descending into the canyon on the narrow switchbacks of the Bright Angel Trail. Mules also are better equipped to withstand the heat — another plus, since summer temperatures on the canyon floor routinely top 100 degrees.
Horses may have nabbed the starring roles in classic Westerns. But mules were the true heroes of the Old West, notes livery manager John Berry.
“They were the tractors of the day. They pulled the wagons. They pulled the plows. But mules never got the credit they deserved,” he says.
Clad in jeans, fringed leather chaps, a pearly-snap-buttoned shirt, straw cowboy hat and kerchief, Berry is right out of central casting, but he’s the real deal. He and another wrangler divide the 20 riders destined for this day’s Canyon Vistas ride into two groups. They’re matched with docile mules with names like Marcie and Tater Tot. Happily, there’s not a Widow Maker or a Killer in the bunch. (The reason they’re muzzled, explains a wrangler, is that mules will eat anything. Rocks, hats, tree bark.)
These rim-top mules are close to age 20 or older. They’ve been retired from the more arduous journey to Phantom Ranch. (Besides people, each mule can cart about 150 pounds of supplies, ranging from eggs to toilet paper.) Most have been packing goods and guests since the age of 7, and by the time they reach their mid- to late 20s, they’re sold to individuals to live out their days at leisure.
“We have a list of people who want to own a world-famous Grand Canyon mule,” Berry says.
His cohort, wrangler Steve Burg, issues riding crops (“motivators”) to the riders and urges them to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Indeed, one of the benefits of riding versus walking is that you can look at the canyon instead of your hiking boots.
“This is all on autopilot. The mules did it yesterday, so don’t be looking at the trail. The mules are doing that,” Burg says. “Look at the canyon and watch for animals.”
Two hours and several stops for interpretive guide presentations later, the riders amble back to the Yaki Barn, which has been serving mule riders since 1925. They dismount and head to the waiting shuttle for the ride back to the main Mule Barn near the Bright Angel Lodge.
“Congrats!” says the driver as they climb aboard. “You’re all officially Grand Canyon dudes.”
If You Go
Canyon Vista rides depart at 8 a.m. and noon daily from March 15 to Nov. 30. From Dec. 1 to March 14, one daily ride departs at 9 a.m.
No riding experience is necessary, but the minimum height is 4-feet, 7-inches tall and maximum weight is 225 pounds.
Phantom Ranch overnight rides operate year round, and include meals and lodging. Maximum weight for this trip is 200 pounds. Two-night ranch stays are available November through March.
For more information and reservations, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.