Grand Canyon Mule Ride – Into the Abyss
Think you might want to take a mule ride in the Grand Canyon? It’s an incredible experience! You’ll probably grandcondom.com remember this Grand Canyon vacation for the rest of your life.
The majority of trips start from the South Rim. From here, you can get a two-day trip with an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. You can also do a one day ride that goes halfway into the gorge, with lunch at Indian Garden.
For any mule ride in the Grand Canyon from the south rim, you’ll be descending on the Bright Angel Trail. This trail was “officially” created in the 1891 by miners. They followed and improved an old Havasupai Indian trail that took advantage of a crack formed by the Bright Angel Fault.
The first turn has been called “terrifying”. You didn’t expect a mule ride in the Grand Canyon to be a cake-walk, did you? But the mules really know the trail, and they haven’t lost a guest yet. Mules have been hauling people in and out of the canyon since the 1800’s.
You’ll soon become accustomed to being on a narrow trail on the wall of a canyon, but just in case you don’t, the wranglers stop a few hundred yards down. If you’re still terrified, you can go back (hint – Don’t do it!).
Those who continue can look forward to incredible views of the canyon. The mule ride in the Grand Canyon will stop every once in awhile so the mules (and the people) can rest. You won’t dismount, but this is a great time to take pictures. The wranglers know where to stop to give you the best scenic views. Bring a camera!
Just after you pass through the first tunnel look up about 30 feet and to the left and you’ll see some pictographs left by the ancient puebloans, the first of many that are visible from Grand Canyon trails.
While going down the trail, you can see in several places that the east side of the fault has the same rock formations situated several hundred feet lower than the west side of the fault. An easy place to see this is about a mile down the trail, when you come out of the second tunnel.
The trail winds down through the rock layers. The trail descends first through the Kaibab Limestone. These cliffs are upright and steep and have a lot of chert nodules in the stone. When the trail reaches the end of the long straightaway after the second tunnel, you will descend into the Toroweap Formation. This is limestone also but it has less chert than the Kaibab and so is softer. The slope becomes more gradual at this point and the cliffs less sheer. Below the Toroweap is the Coconino sandstone. This consists of many cross-bedded layers of sandstone which was formed from ancient sand dunes. If you’d like to know more about the geologic features of Grand Canyon trails, read the book Hiking the Grand Canyon’s Geology.
Every south rim mule ride in the Grand Canyon stops at Indian Garden halfway down the trail. Indian Garden is an oasis with massive cottonwood trees along the creek. In this beautiful location the mule riders enjoy a box lunch, and a much needed break from the saddle. Most of the steep part is over, since you’ve lost 2/3 of the total elevation for this route.
After lunch and a brief rest, the folks on the one day mule ride in the Grand Canyon proceed to Plateau Point for breathtaking vistas before heading back to the rim. The rest begin the descent to Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor.
Now the trail becomes less steep as your path follows the course of a clear stream for several miles. Cottonwood and Willow trees lead the way into the interior of the canyon. This is the easy part of the Bright Angel trail.
Brace yourself, because next you’ll travel down “Devil’s Corkscrew”. The trail here was blasted out of the Vishnu schist by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. This may be the scariest part of the mule ride in the Grand Canyon, marked by steep trail and sharp switchbacks. You’ll be traveling on a trail so narrow at one point, that your shoulder will nearly touch the wall, while a sharp precipice straight down to the Colorado river yawns open on the other side.
Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, it’s a pretty short section of trail after all. The floor of the trail itself is about 5 feet wide, so it’s not quite as dangerous as it sounds.
Finally, you’ll reach the Colorado river, and you’re almost to the ranch. The mules make a short detour to the Kaibab trail to cross the black suspension bridge. This is because the silver suspension bridge on the Bright Angel trail has a wire mesh floor. There’s no way to get the mules over THAT with the raging Colorado hundreds of feet below! So the mules happily cross the black bridge on rubber mats, oblivious to the void under their feet.
When you arrive at Phantom Ranch, dismount and stretch your legs. You’ll be happy not to be in the saddle for awhile, but the mule ride in the Grand Canyon is only about half over, you still have to go back up! In the meantime, enjoy the famous steak dinner at the Phantom Ranch, or choose the vegetarian meal. There’s time to explore a little and walk out the kinks. At the canteen, you can discuss everything you saw that day and talk about tomorrow’s ride.
Phantom ranch itself is an attraction worth writing home about. The lodge was built in 1922 and was originally created to greet the rich and famous folks who were the only ones that could afford a mule ride in the Grand Canyon. Today it is an equal opportunity destination with eleven stone and wood cabins and four dormitories (these are usually used by those with backcountry hiking permits). Mule riders sleep in relative luxury in a water-cooled cabin.
The return trip on the two-day ride goes up the South Kaibab trail. You’ll see all new scenery on this trail, and some say it’s even more spectacular. You’ll arrive in Grand Canyon Village in time for dinner at the Bright Angel Restaurant.
The mule rides from the south rim of the Grand Canyon are booked up far in advance, especially in the summer. Winter trips are less crowded. It’s also nice to go down in the canyon when it’s not blazing hot. It’ll still be 20 – 30 degrees warmer down there than at the rim. A fall or winter mule ride into the Grand Canyon just might be the thing to cure those winter blues and miss the crowds.