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.
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.
About Mule Trips
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 foot 7 inches 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.
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. 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, but you will have to take their advice to heart and do your part for a successful trip.
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.
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.
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 in 1922. You can sleep in a bunkhouse or one of the original rustic cabins. Breakfast and dinner are served in the cantina.
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 soothe 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 to South Kaibab trail. It is 7.5 miles and takes 4.5 hours. They promise even more beautiful vistas on the trip back.
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. 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 they recommend is a necessity, as is sunscreen. So is drinking water to keep hydrated. 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.
Reservations are accepted up to 13 months in advance. During peak times and on holidays, reservations may be more difficult to obtain. There is also 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. However, reservations are ideal.