Mule Trips – An Edgy Grand Canyon Experience
While most visitors gather to gawk at the canyon from the rim look-outs and head for the gift shops, the more adventurous may find that a mule trip into the canyon will make their visit to the Grand Canyon truly memorable.
On one of the Grand Canyon’s storyboards, is a large picture of Teddy Roosevelt sitting astride a mule heading down the Bright Angel trail.
A guest awaiting an early morning mule trip commented, “I’ll bet he didn’t meet the under-200 pound rule!”
Yes, there are rules and safety regulations that go along with a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the Grand Canyon. Mule trips are offered for day trippers and those that want to head all the way down to the Colorado River for a one or two-night stay at Phantom Ranch. Although the outfitters boast a near perfect 100-year safety record, the mule trip down hazardous, steep trails requires that riders pay attention to the leaders, knowledgeable wranglers who are there for your guidance and safety. As the lead wrangler told a group of riders, “this ain’t no pony ride!”
About Grand Canyon Mule Trips
First, who shouldn’t consider the trip? If you are afraid of heights or large animals (mules are larger than some horses and are not cute little donkeys), you should skip this trip. If you weigh over 200 pounds or are less than 4 ft.
7in. in height, the trip is not for you. And, you need to be able to follow the directions, given in English, from the wranglers. It is wise to check with the outfitters prior to signing up if you have health conditions that might pose a problem.
Are you up for an adventure? If you have a sense of adventure, feel reasonably fit and want to see the Grand Canyon from the top down, in all angles of light, and experience the canyon’s geology, wildlife and beauty in a way few ever get to experience it, you may enjoy the trip.
What about riding ability? Riders of all abilities are welcome. The wranglers will tell you that if you are a regular rider, you will ache a lot less than the newbies, but after a 5 and a half hour ride to the canyon floor anyone will have a little trouble walking.
Wranglers will brief you on how to rein your mule, how to pace the mule and how to avoid problems. They will watch over you all the way and are there to ensure your safety. But you will have to take their advice to heart and do your part for a successful trip.
What can I expect from the mules? The mules are selected for strength, endurance, and sure-footedness. They are trained to handle the switchbacks and narrow trails. But, as the wranglers will tell you, they are still animals who may be stubborn at times and may be frightened by an unexpected mountain goat, falling rock or rude hiker on the trail. Oh yes, and did I tell you that the mules walk on the outside half of the trail? (remember, don’t take this trip if you are afraid of heights)
At the pre-ride briefing, you will be told how important it is to keep together. Mules are herd animals. Riders are provided with crops, or short whips, and are told to use them to keep their mule at least two to five feet in back of the mule in front of them.
The wranglers size up the riders and have smaller mules for children. As the travelers are lined up to head out, the riders are told that children go first, then women, and then the guys. And, they are told, “if you do well on the way down we may let you ride back with the people you came with.”
What are the options? There is a one day trip which goes to Plateau Point. The ride departs daily from the Stone Corral at the Bright Angel Trailhead. You will ride 3,200 feet down to the point, where you will have a magnificent view of the Colorado River 1,320 feet below. Lunch (box lunch) is served at Indian Gardens before heading back up the trail. Saddle time is 6 hours and the 12 mile trip takes 7 hours.
If you want to get to the bottom of the canyon, a one-night or two-night stay at Phantom Ranch will be your choice. Phantom Ranch was designed by Mary Jane Elizabeth Colter, the famous Grand Canyon architect. It is a tree-shaded, creek-side oasis built in 1922. You can sleep in a bunk house or one of the original rustic cabins. Breakfast and dinner are served in the cantina. You may be joined by hikers or river rafters who can also make reservations to stay there. Sycamore and Cottonwood trees provide shade and during the summer, when temperatures can shoot over 100, you may want to take a dip in the creek.
The ride down to Phantom Ranch and back takes a bit longer than the day ride, but you have time to rest up from the ride down and sooth your aching backside before heading back to the canyon rim again. The ride down is 10 miles and takes 5.5 hours. The return is up South Kaibab trail. It is 7.5 miles and takes 4.5 hours.
They promise even more beautiful vistas on the trip back.
Sign me up! How much is it? 2006 rates (subject to change) show that the one-day Plateau Point ride, including box lunch, is $136.35. The overnight at Phantom Ranch varies according to season and the number in the party but, for example, during the 2005 winter season the trip for two, including the stay at Phantom Ranch and meals, cost $597.50.
Grand Canyon Mule Ride Tips
Test Your Riding Legs. If you are not a horse-back rider, head to your local stables for a one or two-hour trail ride to see how your body reacts to riding. Believe me, you use different muscles for riding than you do for hiking. If you can hardly walk after your trail ride, consider a few more rides or some lessons before you head out for your first Grand Canyon mule trip.
Gear Up. Have a look at the Mule trip website, read the pamphlet and make sure you have all the gear you need for your trip. Remember the altitude change and the concurrent temperature differences. While temperatures in summer may be balmy on the rim, you can end up in 100 degrees plus heat at the canyon floor. The floppy wide brimmed hat the recommend is a necessity. So is drinking water to keep hydrated. And, don’t forget sunscreen. Layering is also a wise idea. Try your clothing on to judge comfort before you pack for your trip.
Memorialize Your Trip. The outfitters allow you to bring one camera or a small video camera or binoculars. Make sure the camera you bring is easy to use, is tried and true and has a strap so you can affix it to your body. In fact, everything that can fly off of you is required to be tied down… hats, glasses, etc. If you don’t have straps that work, they will embarrass you by giving you twine to tie stuff on with!
A video or DVD is sold at the gift shop that can help prepare you for your trip and serve as a great memory afterwards. They sell shirts that proclaim to all that you rode mules at the Grand Canyon. The baseball hats are nice, but don’t meet the requirements for a broad-brimmed hat on summer mule rides.
Grand Canyon Mule Trip Reservations
Reservations are accepted up to 13 months in advance. During peak times and on holidays, reservations may be more difficult to obtain. For those who have all their gear in order and like living dangerously, there is a wait-list maintained at the registration desk in Bright Angel Lodge. They do have cancellations and you may just find yourself riding with only a few hours notice.
But, for something this spectacular, I would suggest that you make a reservation.
Mule rides from the South Rim can be reserved through Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Call, fax, or write to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, 14001 E. Illiff, Ste. 600, Aurora, CO 80014, or visit www.grandcanyonlodges.com. For waiting list information, call or contact the Bright Angel Lodge transportation desk inside the park.