This was my idea and I have been very excited about it. (Despite the fact that I’m kind of scared of large animals and a very short horseback ride in the Tetons some years ago left me ridiculously stiff.) Now, as we ride a mini-bus to the corral, I’m starting to have second thoughts.
When we registered for the ride we signed a waiver that listed all the things that could happen for which the provider would not be liable. It was a long, numbered list that ended with “etc.” Well, I sort of expected that, so no big deal. Besides, I checked before we left and Canyon Rides has a good safety record. Lots of people do this. . . it can’t be that dangerous.
Now on the bus they are running through some of that list again and then supplementing it with another whole list of things that one should not do while riding. Although many of them are common-sense, the lecture is rather alarming. What have I gotten us into?
At the corral we are quizzed about our riding experience and then lined up to be carefully scrutinized by one of the wranglers. After sizing up both our equestrian abilities and our weight, we are each assigned to a mule. I am introduced to a chocolate brown guy named Ben, who will be my mount for the afternoon.
I am exceedingly lucky, as Ben is an easy to handle and generally cooperative creature (although he does like to try to sneak a mouthful of whatever plant or shrubbery might be nearby) and his order in the train is immediately following the wrangler. Yay! A front row seat (so to speak) for any commentary that may be provided. It is also, as I will discover later, the ticket out of the dust bowl that accumulates behind the mules as they travel down the trail.
We are off!
The mules tend to favor the outside edge of the trail — providing great views down toward the bottom of the canyon. The end of each switchback is particularly interesting, as mules don’t bend their bodies as easily as horses. At the end of each switchback there is a wonderful view pretty much straight down. But Ben is a comfortable and sure-footed mount, so the drop-off at the edge of the trail isn’t particularly alarming (don’t try this if you are afraid of heights) and the scenery is stunning.
Our wrangler, Lisa, isn’t real chatty, but she is friendly. This is her first year at Grand Canyon and this is her dream job. As we ride she shares interesting tidbits in answer to my questions – explaining that both wranglers and mules sometimes lose their jobs here because they are afraid of heights and that both of her parents drive stagecoaches (her sister also works with horses, but her brothers are in architecture and computers). She freely admits that what she does is an anachronism. She’s just happy that someone will pay her to do it.
Because she is new to this area, she can’t answer all my questions about the plants we pass, although she can answer many of them, and as we ride she periodically plucks a branch of one thing or another to bring back for the other wranglers to help her identify. She seems ok with the fact that no real training is provided to the wranglers (I suppose because you have to have a lot of experience just to get the job), but I think simply sending the new wranglers out a time or two with an veteran wrangler is inadequate. Lisa just shrugs, tells me she picked up a lot of good tips on her training trips, continues to ask questions, and spends her free time reading history books and guides to the area’s flora, fauna, and geology.
We stop only very briefly while Lisa gives a quick history, botany, or geology lesson; fetches a pair of dropped sunglass; or assists a rider with an uncooperative mule. These breaks are usually too brief for me to take any photos and I quickly learned that it is almost impossible to take a picture while atop a moving animal. My camera remains mostly unused on the way down.
After descending 2,300 feet into the canyon, we arrive at a clearing near Supai Tunnel. Here we dismount to let the mules rest.
Meanwhile, while we refill our water bottles and wander down the trail and through the “tunnel” – more like a man-made arch which and probably named for the rock formation through which it was blasted.
We are on the North Kaibab Trail, originally used by mule teams hauling the mail and supplies through the canyon. Today these trails are used by mule teams hauling tourists and hikers. A couple thousand feet below this tunnel, the trail we are connects to the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails at the Colorado River. We are following the same route used by cross canyon hikers. From where I stand near the tunnel, I can’t see much of the trail, as it quickly disappears from view not far beyond the footbridge visible far below. Wow. What a hike.
As on the way down, we meet or pass a few hikers on the trail. Most are polite enough and move aside quickly, as required by park regulations – mules have priority. Some look like they won’t make it back to the rim and Lisa stops to ask these people if they are ok, if they have enough water, if they would like some more water (she carries extra just for this reason). Everyone says they are fine, although I don’t think that assuages Lisa’s concern about a few of them. Some of them look pretty bad and, like me, she can’t imagine hiking down to the bottom and back up again – especially not when you can ride down on a mule.
Today most of the hikers are relatively cooperative and pleasant, but Lisa says she has had hikers scream and swear at her on the trail. “Mules don’t belong on the hiking trail!” She laughs, recounting the time a hiker made her so angry she stopped and provided an impromptu history lesson on the construction of the trail for use by mules. I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended by suggesting that maybe the trail should be reserved for the mules and hikers banned instead.
Mules are part of the canyon’s history and to me they seem like the ideal way to visit it. (I would do this again in a heartbeat.) But I do see why the hikers find the mules so aggravating. It is a hard, miserably hot and dusty hike anyway. The mules only make it worse for the hikers. But the trail is well-marked as a mule route — hikers make the choice to take this trail. Still, I feel sorry for the pale Japanese woman cowering at a switchback, the mules practically touching her as they work their way around the corner. When Lisa asks if she is ok and encourages her to move away from the corner, she just shakes, looking petrified. The man with her says she’s ok, just scared of horses.