Grand Canyon mule ride
After two years of planning, my dad and I finally crossed an overnight mule trip down the Grand Canyon off of our bucket lists. Our original date for the mule trip was March of 2017, but after my dad decided to get back surgery in February, we opted to postpone it to April 2018. I booked with Xanterra over the phone a year prior to our trip to guarantee a spot. They only take a maximum of 10 riders at a time on the overnight trips to Phantom Ranch so it’s important to book far enough in advance. Starting this year it has turned into a lottery draw which means you are not guaranteed the spot you would like. Phantom Ranch is the only lodging below the canyon rim and it was built in the 1920's. You can only reach these cabins by mule, helicopter, raft, or foot. The Colorado River flows through the canyon, but all the water in the river belongs to California. So to get water up to the resort at the south rim, the water is pumped from the north rim down various streams and through some old pipes that keep breaking. Conserving water is very important at the Grand Canyon. After driving to the canyon the night before our ride, we checked into the hotel and also checked into the Bright Angel Lodge, which was a gift shop, restaurant and check in point for the mule rides which we had to weight in for. There are a few restrictions for this mule ride that I should mention:
#1 - The rider has to be 200 lbs or less
#2 - The rider has to be 4'9 or taller (thankfully I grew this winter)
#3 - You have to wear a wide brimmed hat with a "dummy" string. (This is in case the wind comes up and your cowboy hat flies off and scares a mule)
#4 - The rider has to wear leather soled boots so they don't get caught in the stirrups
#5 - You only get a small 10 lb bag for your overnight gear
#6- Any camera or phone must have a strap so you can put it around your neck which frees up your hands
#7- No water bottles, they supply you with a old school canteen
At 6:45am we met our group, guides, and mules at the corral by the Bright Angel Trail which we took down to the bottom of the canyon. The guides match you to your mule and you have to remember the name of your mule for the rest of the trip. There were a few funny names like Buttercup, Twinkie, and Penelope. My mule’s name was Hopie named after the Indian tribe at the Grand Canyon, and my dad’s mule was named Vista, who he tried to buy after our trip. I think the mule brought him back to growing up with my grandpa and all the mules they used to have; it sounded like these mules might have had a better temperament than the ones my dad grew up with. Our ride was 5 1/2 hours with a lunch break and few stops for the mules to rest. The top of the canyon was going to have a high of 70 degrees Fahrenheit that day and the bottom was going to be close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Our two guides, Matt and Simon, were great and told our group all kinds of information about the different rocks and history of the canyon. We arrived at Phantom Ranch around 1pm and had a big steak dinner at 5pm. Phantom Ranch has a shower house, cabins, cook house and other dorms for people to stay in. You have to reserve a spot at the bottom if you plan to stay there overnight, you can also reserve your meals if you are hiking and don't want to pack your own food down on your back. The next morning we had a big breakfast at 6:30am sharp and were on the mules hitting the trail by 7:15am. At 8:30am we passed a pack train of mules that were bringing a load of food and gear for the lodge for the next week, the trail seemed a bit narrow to pass a pack of mules, but it wasn't a big deal for the guides. We rode up the South Kaibab Trail on the way out which was again 5 1/2 hours with a few breaks. This trail is a lot harder on the mules because of the switch backs. We passed lots of hikers going down and coming back up. While we pass, the hikers have to lean up against the wall. This trail defiantly had some spots where my heart began to beat a bit faster. We finished the ride about 5 miles from the lodge and were bussed back while the mules were unsaddled and taken care of. My dad and I didn't only want to do this mule trip down the canyon because we thought it would be exciting, we wanted to do it because of my Grandpa Dave Simpson. He worked at the Grand Canyon taking the mule trips down in the 1950's for around 8 months. I cannot even imagine what the trail looked like back in those days, and the amount of work that has gone into it since then.
The Grand Canyon is a 4 hour drive from my parents’ house in Arizona, and a place that I've recently learned that 5 million people visit in one year. Only 1% of those people hike down the canyon, and only 1% of those people stay overnight at the bottom of the canyon where we did. In case you are thinking you could never hike down to the bottom, that it would be way too strenuous, you're wrong! I saw lots of older people in their 50’s - 60’s and there is always an option for the mules to pack down or up a light duffel bag for you. It even crossed my mind that I would maybe one day hike the canyon, but then I thought ... my mule is pretty cool.
I highly recommend this trip to anyone who is wavering on the idea - unless you are scared of heights while riding a mule. In that case, maybe raft the Colorado River or hike down. This was a trip of a lifetime!