In the American West it is always horses that are the equines grabbing the headlines. If they aren’t saving the Lone Ranger or ambling along with singing cowboys on their back, horses are sprinting across deserts and mountains carrying mail for the Pony Express. Mules, a product of a female horse and male donkey, on the other hand are relegated to thankless jobs such as hauling supplies for aging, tooth-deprived prospectors.
But there is one place where the mule is a superstar – the Grand Canyon.
The first mules were employed in the canyon by miners in the 1800s. They were perfect for the job. Their horse ancestors provided the beasts of burden with nimbleness of foot (useful on narrow canyon trails) and size (Grand Canyon mules typically weigh between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds and once carried rock slabs with fossil imprints out of the Grand Canyon for the Smithsonian Institute in the 1920s that routinely weighed almost one ton). From their donkey blood comes such valued canyoneering traits as endurance and patience.
Did we say patient? One famous mule named Brighty who in 1890 was said to have waited faithfully at the bottom of the canyon for a year for his missing – and presumably drowned owners – to return. Like his famous horse cousins Brighty got a book and movie with Joseph Cotton made out of his story. A bronze statue of Brighty the burro greets visitors in the lobby of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim.
The Brilliant Idea
The man who is credited with putting tourists on the backs of mules instead of pickaxes and salt pork was an ex-Army captain named John Hance. In 1886 Hance began advertising his hotel on the canyon rim in the Flagstaff Arizona Champion and plugging his guided tours on the back of a mule.
Hance quickly discovered something unexpected. Even though his hotel was perched on the edge of one of the great natural wonders of the world the topic that dominated the dinner conversation among his guests was the ride on the back of a mule. So the mule trips became a fixture at the Grand Canyon.
The mule rides were so popular that brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb built a thriving business out of selling mule trip photographs to tourists. When the nascent enterprise kickstarted in 1903, Emery Kolb would shoot pictures of the riders as they entered the canyon and then sprint some four-and-a-half miles to get the prints developed. He ran back to have them for sale when the riders returned to the rim. The Kolbs were said to have photographed over three million mule riders, including presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Seeing the Grand Canyon on the Back of a Mule
Touring the Grand Canyon by mule remains one of the most popular ways to see the national park. The tour companies are limited to about 10,000 annual trips from the South Rim and 8,000 from the North Rim. Grand Canyon mules are outfitted with special saddles designed solely for their job and handmade at the Canyon. Among their unique features are a high cantle that keeps riders in the seat on the steep inclines. A prominent saddle horn also gives a nervous rider something big to grab onto atop the imperturbable mount.
Beneath the rim there is a small web of long trails that interweave. The most traveled is the celebrated Bright Angel Trail that departs from Grand Canyon Village and traces a serpentine route to Plateau Point, a six-mile jaunt that rewards its travelers with sunsets to last a lifetime. From there the trail continues to the Colorado River and the Inner Canyon. Since 1928 the mules (and people) have been crossing the river on the Black Bridge to link to the North Kaibib Trail from the North Rim.
Another popular descent into the canyon from the South Rim is the shorter, but every bit as spectacular South Kaibib Trail. For those not interested in overnighting in the canyon a three-mile mule trip to Skeleton Point and back is the go-to choice. The world-famous Phantom Ranch inside the Grand Canyon serves as the hub for mule trips below the rim.
There is a new mile ride for the casual rider. The Canyon Vistas ride starts with a shuttle bus ride to the stables near the head of the South Kaibab Trail. From here you a four mile through forest and along the rim near Yaki point. The trail you ride on does not go below the rim and you will run into few hikers if any. The trail isn’t really advertised to people and you won’t find a map of the East Rim trail. The whole tours last about three hours and you spend about two hours actually in the saddle. It is great trip if you don’t aren’t sure if you are ready for the longer ride to the bottom. You must be at least 4’7″ tall, weigh less than 225 lbs with everything on, speak fluent english and not be pregnant.
In many ways the Grand Canyon trails are the mules’ trails. The animals always have right of way on the trail, whether they are walking or resting. Mule trips are considered the safest way to see the Grand Canyon. There is no record of a tourist fatality on a mule in over 100 years of journeying into the Canyon. Whereas horses respond to a rider’s demands, mules are trained never to go over the side off the trail – even if encouraged by a rider. They are, after all, stubborn as a mule.