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Grand Canyon Mule Ride

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  • Grand Canyon Mule Ride

    We just got back from our vacation to Arizona's Grand Canyon and I thought you all might enjoy a pictoral of the mule ride in particular. Not exactly "horse" related but certainly equine!

    It was QUITE an experience ranging from sheer terror to stunned amazement at the beauty of the canyon and admiration for the hard working stolid and sensible mules.

    I have done a lot of things now on the back of an equine...jumping big jumps, sliding down steep slopes, long trail rides, the discipline of dressage, ridden in front of big crowds, but nothing could have prepared me for looking over the ears of a mule down into a chasm where one bad step or fall was a sure death. I am not entirely comfortable with heights...OK to look down if I feel secure only. Even worse, I did not expect the weather to be such a big player...a slippery trail of snow/ice/mud going down and a major blizzard with high winds the next day to come back up. You will notice a lack of pics from the beginning and from the end where we were in the snow and the steepest parts of the trail. I was without shame hanging on for dear life and doing my best to be alert and ready if the mule did go down. Tim's went to a knee a few times on the way back up...he'd thrown a shoe at the bottom of the canyon and struggled in the icey part near the top. All they had was shoes with heels and a bit of borium. No snow pads so their feet were filling up with snowballs at times.

    Mr DDB says he had a blast and the heights did not phase him at all. I enjoyed most of the ride but most surely did not enjoy the very beginning nor the very end...was mostly terrified or half frozen...but the vacation overall was a great success...we de stressed a bit and saw some incredible country. We want to go back badly and hike the canyon next time...take our time a bit more and go slower...see more of it and do some camping.

    You go down Bright Angel Trail on the overnight ride to Phantom Ranch, a small guest hostel at the bottom near the Colorado River; and return via the South Kaibab Trail. The Bright Angel trail goes down a draw/canyon and the Kiabab comes up a spur/ridge. Two very different trails. The mules have been hauling people in and out of the canyon for over 100 years and they claim to have never had a guest/dude fatality related to a mule falling. They did lose a wrangler once apparently and much more frequently they lose pack mules who are tied together (more on them later).

    We made several stops on the way up both to rest the mules and the riders to get a bathroom break, and one stop at Indian Gardens on the way down. My only complaint with the mule ride timing is that we did not stop all that much and it was hard to get good pics. I got brave enough after a while to get my camera out once the footing improved but did not get all that many going down on Sunday.

    So, here is a pictorial of the event.

    Here are some pics we took while hiking the day before our ride of the top of Bright Angel Trail and the day trip of mules and riders (to Plateau Point) coming back up. We only went down this trail. It is steeper than it looks and when we did it the next morning it was covered in snow. That is Bright Angel Lodge, where we stayed, there at the top.

    From Indian Gardens Area looking back at the rim where we came down.

    A huge mule deer buck that was hanging out behind the outhouse (literally)! Isn't he gorgeous? BTW, there is no hunting in the canyon at all. They have mountain lions, bobcats, bighorn sheep as well.

    These pics are from farther down the canyon. We are going into the lower gorge at this point. There were some unbelievably steep places in there. Hikers, as you see in this pic, have to make way for the mules. Otherwise it's too dangerous and someone could go over the edge. There were not many places where it was flat.

    This is my view down off of Corky (my mule's name). He was a large sorrel mule...probably half draft. You can see the edge of the trail off to the left. We were down by the river at this part.

    I was hanging on a bit at this point but was determined to take some pics of the river!

    Right before we crossed the river, this was our view down of the tunnel and bridge.

    Phantom Ranch...our first sight of it.

    A few pics from the ranch. Everything that goes down there is hauled in by mule, by human back or by helicopter (very expensive and not done very often). Mr. DDB actually carried the mail down in a pouch on his saddle. They made a big deal of it and swore him in at the top! What a riot that there is still a place so remote left in America!

    The mule pen.

    My mule is the sorrel Corky. Mr. DDB's is the light cream one on the right called Snoopy.

    Ok, now for Day Two, our ascent back up. Overnight they had a major snowstorm move in. We'd had about 3 inches the night before we came down (Sat night) and now over Sunday night a major storm has moved in. At times we could not see the rim for the snow coming over it. Our total descent was over a mile in elevation and about 10.5 miles down Bright Angel trail and about 9 miles back up the Kiabab Trail.

    Here are some pics of our start out from the bottom at Phantom Ranch. Mr DDB and I on our mules. We were both a bit sore on the seat. The saddles are not at all padded and pretty much like sitting on a board! It took a while for my butt to numb after getting back on! Now I know what they mean by riding tall in the saddle!

    Just as a side one wore helmets and they were not offered to us "dudes." It was ironic I thought several times that I'm the sort of rider who never gets on a horse without a helmet and here I am...on the back of a mule at the edge of a abyss in my ball cap! I figured if I fell off there it was almost certainly fatal so I decided to NOT worry and just enjoy myself! I had a bomber cap that I put on over my ball cap later on as it got really really cold.

    Our view of the Iron Bridge going back up. It is 440 feet long. You can see the worn planks on the bottom where the mules' shoes wear at the wood.

    A view of the Iron Bridge from much higher up.

    Shortly after heading out, we ran into two mule trains coming down into the canyon with supplies. I felt like I'd gone back in time!

    Mr. DDB took this one off Snoopy.

    Mormon Flats rest can see the mules tethered up.

    A view of the trail behind us. It was a particularly steep section.

    Stupendous scenery! When you stop for a break, you always face the mules towards the cliff so they won't accidentally back off. That takes some getting used to. Here are some of my last pics before we hit the heavy winds and snow and I was not able to take pics.

    In this first one, I'm shooting back towards the rim where you can see the snow.

    A good shot of our Wranger "K-Bar." He was a wonderful guide and very capable.

    After that last stop the going got really dicey. We hit 50 mph winds, snow pellets blowing right down in our faces and it was impossible to take any more pics. I was mostly hanging on for dear life at that point. We were half frozen also. I think the wind chills were down into the single digits. I'm surprised I did not get frostbite. I was literally shivering when we got back up and my hands and feet were numb. I had a lot of layers on too. Our Wrangler said he'd never seen conditions as bad as that. I know I've never been colder!

    The trail was very open on a narrow ridge with cliffs on either side and at one point, my mule was hit so hard by a gust of wind that he staggered and braced himself to catch his balance. It was very frightening! I figured I was probably going to be the first person to get killed and ruin their perfect record but thankfully it was not my time. :-)

    Here is a pic I took the next day of the Kiabab trail near the rim. If you look carefully you can see the trail and switchbacks.

    Overall it was an intense enjoyable experience and one I'd recommend to most people. I'd consider doing it again but would rather not do it when it is snowing and blizzarding!

  • #2
    You are a far braver woman that I am. Incredible pics. Thanks for sharing.
    Flip a coin. It's not what side lands that matters, but what side you were hoping for when the coin was still in the air.

    You call it boxed wine. I call it carboardeaux.


    • #3

      The photos and your narrative have left me speechless.


      Oh--thank you!
      one oak, lots of canyons


      • #4
        Thank you for posting those amazing pictures. I never knew the scenery in the canyon could be so beautiful! For some reason, I thought it was merely rocks and desert, with a river at the bottom! If I weren't so utterly and completely TERRIFIED of heights, I would LOVE to take that trip someday, but I fear I would pass out from total fear and fall down the canyon and die.

        PS-Those look like some mighty special mules. I am afraid to ask what you mean by "losing a pack of mules tied together." Please don't tell me they just all went over the edge.


        • #5
          Originally posted by anita m View Post
          PS-Those look like some mighty special mules. I am afraid to ask what you mean by "losing a pack of mules tied together." Please don't tell me they just all went over the edge.
          Yes, that is pretty much what happens I'm told. The mules are tied quite short to keep them from getting tangled up. If one loses his footing and falls over, the others go along. The rider only wraps the rope on his saddle horn and does not tie it...for good reason. Very few falls in that canyon are less than fatal for man or mule...the cliffs are sheer down in most places and a long way to the bottom. In some places you can fall 800 feet. I was told that between falls and heat stroke/heart attacks, there are quite a few fatalities at the Grand Canyon yearly.

          All the mules are bred in Tennessee apparently and come from the same breeder who specializes in this sort of mule. They are worked several years in a pack string before a Wrangler starts to ride them. After a year or two of that, they are considered safe enough for a dude to ride. The best age, I was told was about 12 years old. The Wrangler said that they are much more dependable than horses and last longer soundness wise. He told us that in the Summer they will go up and down the canyon as many as 4 to 5 days a week. That is incredible...and there are few people capable of doing that.

          They have about 200 mules at the Grand Canyon's South Rim. More at the North Rim in the summer also. Upon retirement, they go to live on a ranch in New Mexico until they die and are never sold. My husband asked if he could adopt Snoopy some day (he loved that mule) and was told that sometimes they are adopted out.

          It really was an amazing experience. I think the weather being so awful made it a level more challenging than it would have been normally. It was by far the most challenging "trail ride" I've ever been on.

          Apparently in the summer the heat is the biggest problem. It can reach 120F in the Inner Gorge easily and they've had a lot of people become heat casualties.

          I forgot to mention that at a few points coming out near the Rim, we were in White Out conditions. I could only look down at the trail, was leaning hunched over to protect my face and trying to help my poor mule stay pointed the right way. Going around a narrow switchback is pretty hairy on a dry trail but the snow hides the edges and they have trouble seeing where to put their feet and takes it to a new level of hairy. My mule was so big that his head would hang over the edges on the switchbacks as he turned and that scared the snot out of me especially going downhill.

          The next day, the rides down were canceled. That is only done when the weather is really bad or the trails are drifted too much.

          I'm glad you all are enjoying the pics. I didn't post any pics taken from the rim...I will do that so you can see those too. It was truly the vacation of a lifetime. We loved it there and hope to go back this Fall.

          Post Blizzard

          Inner Gorge...Colorado River


          • #6
            Nice pics, I didn't know they even offered mule rides this time of year! We've done the ride from the North Rim in summer, well worth the detour. They ARE nice mules.

            As for losing pack strings- well, yes, it can happen if they are tied securely. These days, though I think most folks tie with baling twine- secure enough to give the mules the impression of being tied/under control- but will break if one falls.

            When we were down there, the wranglers were having a high time over complaints from PETA that they were 'abusing animals' by using 'pregnant mules.' The PETA folks did not accept that a) the mules were well fed and b) mules rarely get pregnant, being F1 hybrids and c) there wasn't a female mule in the bunch.


            • #7
              Looks like an awesome vacation! Gorgeous photos...but they make my sphincter tighten...I'm afraid of heights, LOL!
              That bridge alone would cause my heart to stop.
              You jump in the saddle,
              Hold onto the bridle!
              Jump in the line!


              • #8
                Originally posted by Beverley View Post
                When we were down there, the wranglers were having a high time over complaints from PETA that they were 'abusing animals' by using 'pregnant mules.' The PETA folks did not accept that a) the mules were well fed and b) mules rarely get pregnant, being F1 hybrids and c) there wasn't a female mule in the bunch.
                Pregnant mules! Too funny! We had one Molly Mule in our group and the rest were geldings.

                We all carried a whip also and in our briefing before we left we were told it was now called a "mule motivation device" to keep PETA happy. You have to keep the mules close together and not slack off and go too slow or they will break into a trot/canter to catch up and put riders in the back at risk.

                The mules I saw were downright fat. They were very well taken care of.

                I did not see twine on those pack mules that passed us. I wonder why they would not do that?


                • #9
                  Thanks for sharing your beautiful ride! I've always wanted to take the overnight mule trip and after seeing your pics I am even more convinced it is one of those trips of a lifetime. But... I am also very afraid of heights! Oh well, I guess I'll just have to keep my eyes in the horizon instead of looking down the cliffs!
                  "Another member of the Barefoot Eventers Clique"


                  • #10
                    You would likely not see the little string as it is under the pack. I usually tie to the tail as the tail hair will pull out before it pulls them off the cliff. LF
                    Lostfarming in Idaho


                    • #11
                      Thanks for sharing your vacation! I enjoyed your story and the pictures.
                      "Its a well-documented fact that of all the animals in the realm of agriculture, Bulls have the highest job satisfaction rate."~~Ree Drummond, AKA the Pioneer Woman


                      • #12
                        I did that ride about 25 years ago! A lady behind me was on a mule that decided it had had enough and decided it needed a rest, so down it went, as we were on the edge of a cliff on a switchback. She was screaming bloody murder and crying, and the wranger was yelling at her to kick the mule. She got off, the wrangler got her mule to get back up, but she refused to get back on the mule. I couldn't blame her, really, but we were a long way from civilization at that point. She ended up switching with the wrangler and riding his mule.

                        Yes, it was harrowing, but it was in the middle of summer so no bad weather to add that extra touch of terror!

                        Great photos and commentary. Thanks for sharing.


                        • #13
                          Wow. Just wow. I've heard about it so much from friends that I've taken it for granted but your pix and description have me convinced I need to put it on the to do list (but NOT in the heat of the summer). Thanks for sharing!
                          Courageous Weenie Eventer Wannabe
                          Incredible Invisible


                          • #14
                            Great photos, can't believe you did it in the blizzard. My H-J trainer, Equine Vet and I went the first week of March a few years ago. Very brisk at the top and icy for a bit, but warm most of the ride and at the bottom. They put on an amazing steak dinner at Phantom Ranch. Amazing place all around.

                            Before you get on at the top, the head wrangler gives a talk about it being OK not to go, no turning back later outside of a $4000. helicopter rescue, and using your "mule motivator' stick to keep your mule close to the others, and the dire things that can happen when too much space opens up between mules. Some were rolling their eyes, we were nodding. Wrangler looked at our well worn chaps and gave us a 'have fun' look. The dudes were scared on the trail, we experienced riders were terrified (vet was not - she just closed her eyes) but trainer and I were seeing the trail through the eyes of green TBs. There was one incredibly scary switchback on the trail back up - sheer rock wall and 1000 foot drop, 30" wide trail, where the wind hits you as you round the blind turn, and I just knew a hiker would pop out of the rocks and booger my mule. I just kept my outside leg on the mule and my eyes down to the inside of the trail and repeated my mantra, "my mule has done this a hundred times, my mule has done this..."

                            Truly, it is something to do in your lifetime. I trail rode extensively growing in the Santa Barbara back country mountains and had a stupid horse fall off a very steep shale trail with me (not good - I grabbed a bush when I felt his knees buckle and kicked free of the saddle as he rolled over twice going down, I had to go fetch him and lead him up in the posion oak) so I wondered how my stomach would take the drops. You realize your mule will take care of you and it will be Ok and forget about it. I shoud get a photobucket account and post my photos.

                            We went to look at the barn and custom saddle shop after the ride - each mule has a saddle custom made for it. My trainer got to talking with another wrangler, and yes, they have lost teathered pack mules 3 at a time. The string we passed on the way up had to have started before dawn that morning.

                            Very interesting thing was the shoeing arrangement for the really tough-to-shoe mules. It was a stock, sort of, with two 4" pipe welded sides hinged to the wall in front, like a squeeze chute with a bar locking the back. There was a belly band to go under the mule and keep it off its hind feet. There was a handyman jack with two 'C' clamps attached to each side - they clamped around the hind pastern on each leg and two shoers worked simultaneously on 2 feet. They leave the hind feet in the clamps while they do the fronts, one at a time, so they do not get cow kicked in the head. Wrangler said the tough mules had their forelocks shaved, so the shoers, trailer loaders, etc. would be warned. I later looked at our photos and my trainer's mule had a shaved forelock - she was a bit squirley at times on the trail.

                            There were 2 men on our trip 73 and 74 years old (they stayed an extra rest day at the bottom, which you can do). One woman from the flatlands of Tennessee only went to please her husband. She was obviously a non-rider, but would Whack her mule smartly with the quirt whenever he lagged. I commented on her excellent mule whacking skills at the last rest stop and she said, "Well, I have four kids...".

                            I should add that all this is amazingly reasonably priced. We went 3 years ago (3 of us shared a cabin) and it was about $350. each for the 2 day ride and overnight. Wranglers said April and November are best.
                            Last edited by Plumcreek; Feb. 14, 2009, 02:30 AM.
                            Comprehensive Equestrian Site Planning and Facility Design


                            • #15

                              Fantastic pics and great commentary! Definitely the ride of a lifetime.

                              I've never been to the GC but it IS on my "to do" list if hubby and I can ever afford the trip West. However, I will have to pass on the mule trip - can't handle the heighth thing. I can barely drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge without getting heart palpitations.

                              Oh, and that bridge on your ride - yikes! My palms get sweaty just looking at the pics! Interesting to note that the original bridge was a rickety suspension one that swayed back and forth. OMG. I saw it on a video of the mule ride on NickerNetwork, which I've linked to below if anyone would like to go on the GC ride from the relative safety of their computer chair.

                              4-part video (about 10 minutes each part), and the part that shows the original bridge and construction is in Part 2 (at around 7 minutes). Lots of old, historical segments showing the creation of the trail, funny stories, etc. Fascinating stuff!


                              Oh, and I loved the segment in Part 3 where they talk about assigning mules based upon the rider's "dietary preference" since vegetarians were reluctant to use those "mule motivators".
                              Last edited by Liberty; Feb. 14, 2009, 04:57 AM.
                              Equus Keepus Brokus


                              • #16
                                DB -

                                Thank you so much for sharing the details and photos with us. Those photos were incredible. I had no idea you could go down there this time of year.

                                I'm afraid I might not have been able to get over that bridge without emptying my flask first!

                                I had no idea the mules were from TN! They look great and I agree with you not wearing a helmet. If you fell off, you'd have about enough time to put your head between your knees and kiss your butt goodbye.

                                You two look really happy and I hope Mr. DB will bring Snoopy home one of these days.

                                I have a question about that ranch. In the photo you posted - it looks like that ranch may be in a floodway. Is that an optical illusion or does that place flood?
                                Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
                                Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
                                -Rudyard Kipling


                                • #17
                                  Beautiful, wonderful photos and descriptions! It made me miss the canyon, I used to live a little over an hour away and could go up there often (and NEVER did the mule ride, argh).
                                  One of my favorite old paintings I did, was a bunch of mule butts in the evening sun. They were all in their corral, lined up eating, all these great colors and the breeching sweat marks perfectly etched into their rears.
                                  No matter how many photos you see of the canyon, it is just nothing like being there. And is that the blizzard that Flag got 24" just last week? My daughter still lives in Prescott, and it shut the city down! Thanks for sharing those!
                                  We're spending our money on horses and bourbon. The rest we're just wasting.


                                  • #18
                                    I too did this ride in January. We didn't have reservations but lucked out because it had snowed and people canceled. The scariest part was the beginning with the snow and ice! My mule made tracks out on the edge where no mule had gone before.

                                    Our trail guide rode her horse. I couldn't imagine doing that ride on a horse!


                                    • #19
                                      Love these stories!

                                      DB - I was looking at your picture of the mule deer and it seemed familiar.

                                      Then I realized - I have the spitting image of that deer on the wall in my home! I inherited two works by the Colorado plein aire painter Richard Dahlquist - one of them is a lovely sketch of a mule deer in the same pose. Noble and elegant animals, aren't they.
                                      Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
                                      Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
                                      -Rudyard Kipling


                                      • #20
                                        Originally posted by JSwan View Post
                                        DB -

                                        I had no idea the mules were from TN! They look great and I agree with you not wearing a helmet. If you fell off, you'd have about enough time to put your head between your knees and kiss your butt goodbye.

                                        I have a question about that ranch. In the photo you posted - it looks like that ranch may be in a floodway. Is that an optical illusion or does that place flood?
                                        Yup, my thoughts too...I figured I'd probably fall hundreds of feet anyway so why worry about a silly concussion!

                                        Phantom Ranch was flooded once badly I think. There is a stream that comes down that canyon..Bright Angel Creek I think it's called. Surprisingly bad floods are rare. At the river's edge just outside the canyon were the ruins of Anasazi houses. Not much to see but some old foundations but still interesting.

                                        I'm glad you all are enjoying the pics. It was a once in a lifetime ride. Maybe one day we'll do it again but I do love hiking also. I think being an experienced rider used to starting youngsters put me in a position of finding it hard to trust the mule and relax...especially at first. I've been in enough wrecks over the years that I know how fast things can go South on you. The beginners were much more blissful that I was in their ignorance!

                                        Plumcreek...I remember that spot. I think it was "Jesus! Point" or something like that. It was quite scary as I recall and I shamelessly clung to my saddle horn in places like that!

                                        Liberty...I hate crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I cannot look at the water and must keep my eyes on the bridge!

                                        For two people, the ride down and back and the meals and stay at Phantom Ranch, it was about $ yes about $350 a person. Not really all that bad considering that the only other way down is to walk...and doing that in one day is not recommended or to rent a helicopter. I love that there are still places in the world so remote.