For years, I wanted to take the overnight mule excursion into one of the world’s most awesome physical features, the Grand Canyon. The trip was finally scheduled for mid-May, booked a year in advance. Two friends from my home area, Mary Cooper and Grace Meier, agreed to go with me and proved to be real troupers. Neither lady had much riding experience prior to this great adventure.
The day before the ride, we reported to Bright Angel Lodge on the canyon’s South Rim to receive gear and be weighed. (People weighing more than 200 pounds are prohibited to spare the mules from being overtaxed.) We were given small plastic bags for transporting personal items in the saddlebags, yellow rain slickers with the words “mule rider” emblazoned on the backs, and canteens from which water could be squirted into the mouth without tipping one’s head. We were directed to report to the mule corral adjacent to the lodge no later than 6:30 the next morning.
Early Morning Jitters
At the corral, a group of anxious people began congregating and offering moral support and suggestions about how to successfully complete the trip. The consensus was that it would be advisable not to look down, but keep eyes on the canyon walls.
The livery manager soon delivered a serious talk about how strenuous the trip would be and how there would be seven hours of hard work ahead. “The mules need to be encouraged at every step, because they’re not overly eager to trek the 10 miles down,” he told us. “After all, they’d been there before.”
The livery manager added that if folks wanted to change their minds about going down, their money would be refunded. There were no dropouts this morning, as all 16 people were eager to begin. The riders were divided into two groups of eight riders each, and a wrangler was assigned to lead each group. Both groups consisted of six women and two men.
The livery manager then matched riders with mules based on height. Being the shortest in my group, I was assigned a small-boned, 14-hand-high bay mule. My little guy was a dream mount – he was enthusiastic about the trip and needed little encouragement. Mary and Grace were assigned to 15-hand-high sorrel mares, Trinity and Happy. Both mares were adept at snatching greenery from the cliff walls as they descended the trail.
Our group was led by wrangler Bill Carpenter, who was the epitome of Wild Bill Hickock, with long blond hair, chaps, and leather vest.
As we began our descent of the Bright Angel Trail, we cast out our decision not to look down. We were enthralled with the magnificent views with color hues ranging from purple to pink.
Some folks were clutching their saddle horns with white-knuckled grips. I casually remarked that if mules went over the side, it would be of no benefit to hang onto the horn. My remark wasn’t well-received! But, as our wrangler pointed out, “The mules didn’t want to fall over the edge either and there had never been a fatality on the mule trips.” This is extraordinary since they’ve been in operation for more than 100 years.
During the two-day trip, I shot three rolls of film from my mule’s back. When the mules were stopped for a rest break, their heads were always turned so they could see the canyon; they needed to know where their feet were in relation to the precipice.
Our first opportunity to dismount was for our lunch break at an oasis named Indian Garden, where a small stream and cottonwood trees provided shade for our box lunches. Due to the heat – the temperature had risen from a comfortable 60 degrees to 90 degrees – our wrangler hosed our necks with cold water prior to mounting up for the afternoon descent.
Near the canyon bottom, we entered a tunnel, then crossed a suspension bridge over the Colorado River. The temperature rose to 100 degrees. The trail followed the river’s sandy bank before turning up a side canyon to Phantom Ranch, a rustic oasis settled deep in the canyon. We dismounted and were delighted to drink ice cold water in the shade while waiting for the wranglers to unload the saddlebags. Soon, every-one had cabin assignments and went off to wash away the trail dust.
The Canyon Floor
A park ranger assigned to the canyon floor proved to be an enlightening source of information. There were two ranger programs, one on the history of the Colorado River and another on the California condors that have been reintroduced to the Grand Canyon after teetering on the edge of extinction. The next morning, we were excited to see two condors circling above us.
Between ranger programs, we visited with folks who’d hiked down the canyon, drank lemonade, and wrote postcards. The evening meal, served in the dining hall, featured T-bone steaks, salad, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, and chocolate cake.
After such a tiring ride and satisfying meal, most riders were in bed by 9 p.m. The scariest part of the trip for me was climbing onto the top bunk in our stone cabin! Others were frightened that evening for another reason: A mule deer was reported going from cabin to cabin peering in the windows with her big doe eyes, and scratching her head on cabin doors.
Ascending the Canyon
The next morning, the huge dining-hall bell was sounded at 6:30 to summon us to a hearty breakfast. By 7:30, we were at the corral to mount up. The trail that day was the South Kaibab; at seven miles long, it was shorter than the Bright Angel, but steeper. We completed the climb out by 12:30 p.m.
Back at the mule barn, we riders were given certificates, complete with our names and those of our mules, attesting to our completion of the ride. I learned that my handsome bay mule whose name I thought was Seymore was really named See More. That was appropriate – he’d done his best to make sure I got great views. Only a few of my pictures show mule ears.
We thanked our wrangler for taking such good care of us and boarded the shuttle bus back to the lodge. There, we turned in our rain slickers and pointed our rental cars toward other adventures.
I’d like to repeat this trip, but would like to do it during cooler weather. In the winter, there’s a mule trip that includes a two-night stay at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. My not-so-horsey friends have no interest in returning, but are pleased that they completed one of the most awesome trails in the world.
We echo the thousands who claim the Grand Canyon mule trip is “the experience of a lifetime.”