One of the trips on my bucket list has been the Grand Canyon overnight mule ride. This ride takes you down from the South rim, across the Colorado River to Phantom Ranch where you spend the night, and then ride back up to the rim the next day. I’ve wanted to do this ride for a long time and finally managed to organize it this year.
The hardest part about doing this ride is getting a reservation. I called in January of 2016 and the next available ride was November 23rd. People book these rides 13 months in advance. I’ve talked to people who call on the first of the month (when reservations open) at 7am with 3 or 4 phones. And even then they sometimes don’t get a reservation. Some people try for years if they want to go at a specific time. Thanksgiving wasn’t actually my ideal time, but I was willing to take any opening they had.
Just making the reservation is an adventure. The person taking your reservation is required to go over a list of rules and ask you a series of questions. Like, are you scared of heights, are you scared of riding large mules, do you have any medical conditions, do you understand how dangerous this can be, etc. There are also a lot of height and weight restrictions you have to meet. They will do everything they can to make you scared of this ride in advance because it’s not refundable. If you get there, get on, and then freak out as soon as the mule steps foot on the narrow trail next to a cliffside, you’re going to be pissed. I’m not particularly scared of heights, but I’m not a huge fan of riding next to cliffs and I was rather concerned going into the ride. However, I ended up not finding it to be scary at all. So if you’re thinking about doing this ride, don’t let the hype get you worried (unless you’re actually scared of heights; then I would not recommend this).
We arrived at the Grand Canyon on Tuesday and checked in to the Bright Angel Lodge for the night. We also checked in with the mule rides desk at Bright Angel. They go over the rules and liability again, weigh you (yes they’re actually serious about the weight limits), make you sign some releases, go over more details, and give you your water bottle, a plastic bag for your stuff, and rain jacket. The check in process probably took 30 minutes because of all the steps involved. We were told to show up at the corral at 7:45am the next morning.
You only get a little plastic bag to bring any extra stuff with you, but you don’t need much. Food is provided and the cabins have beds and linens so you’re not camping. You really only need a change of clothes and any toiletries. Phantom Ranch does offer showers, but I rarely shower every day even when I’m home so I didn’t plan to waste any of the space in my bag with a towel nor did I want to deal with packing a wet towel the next day. Maybe in the summer when it’s 120+ degrees on the ride, I could see wanting a shower, but it was freezing while we were there.
Anyway, we packed our little bags and laid out our clothes for the next morning and then tried to sleep. I did not sleep well (excitement or nerves, who knows). We got breakfast in the morning, then shoved everything into our car and headed over to the corral. The mules live over at the mule barn and are brought over to the corral in the morning.
Once the mules arrived, we had to listen to a lengthy and very boring lecture on how to ride the mules. They give every rider a “motivator” which is like a whip, but made of two leather straps. They make you strap it to your wrist and we were lectured lengthily on using them. They also demonstrated steering and stopping and went over the dangers and liability stuff again. They collected our bags and then we finally got to line up and get assigned to our mules. They pick your mules mostly based on size and how much they like each other: i.e. if you want to ride with your friends/family, they pick mules that will get along.
The head guide did ask my dad and then myself if we knew how to ride. And I said yes and that I even owned a mule. The guide laughed and said, “you shouldn’t have told me that.” Shit. I had gotten too excited and forgot the cardinal rule of hack rides: never tell them you know how to ride. Then you get the most obnoxious, challenging horse. The other guide, told me not to worry though and I didn’t need to.
I was assigned to Dusty, a little appaloosa molly mule. My husband was on Marlene, a liver chestnut molly and my dad was on RC, a chestnut molly. There were 5 other people in our group and 2 guides for a total of 10 mules, which is the park’s limit. My husband and I were the only two wearing helmets. I was not at all surprised by this, though I was surprised that they never offered helmets. On all the other trail rides and pack trips we’ve been on, the outfitter will at least offer them and let people turn them down.
We were all mounted and put in order. The first guide headed out and the couple who were supposed to be behind us, just took off following the guide. Thankfully there were two extra wranglers on hand for helping with mounting and they grabbed the mules and got everyone organized. I was shaking my head because that couple was a nightmare. The woman had spent the whole time jabbering and just did not listen to anything. She complained about everything too. At one point she asked my dad how he was sitting up so straight and I wanted to tell her that maybe if she shut her mouth she could use that energy for riding instead, but I didn’t.
We headed out on the trail and it was intense from the start. I really didn’t find it scary, but the trail is narrow with constant switchbacks and you descend very quickly. We made it about 20 yards before my saddle bags fell off and the rear guide had to come strap them back on. It was pretty disconcerting as I was then wondering what else might not have been attached correctly, but everything was fine.
The trail just winds down and down and down. At various places our guides would point out rock formations that looked like something or point out where the old trail used to run (invariably in a terrifying place). But for the most part, you just ride and – in my case – stare around in wonder. I’d never been to the grand canyon before and what you can see from the rim is nothing compared to riding through it. It’s amazing.
One of the people in our group was an 85 year old man who was there with two younger friends. As we were descending the man was having trouble staying upright in the saddle. My dad was right behind him and kept trying to tell him to sit up, but it wasn’t working. He also wasn’t able to keep his mule caught up. Our lead guide stopped and said he might have to send the guy back up and asked my dad to push his mule into the guy’s mule to keep him going. We carried on like this for a bit, but the guy was getting worse. He started leaning off the side of his mule. I was getting more and more upset about this as I was imagining this guy just tumbling right off the side. Finally the rear guide called up to the lead guide and we all stopped. The guide came back to talk to the man and asked how he was doing. “I’m fine.” The guide’s response: “No, you’re not fine.” The guide made him drink water (it might be cold, but it’s still a desert at high elevation and dehydration is dangerous) and pulled out some chips from his lunch to make him eat some. Then the guide took the mule’s lead rope and ponied the mule the rest of the way to lunch.
Lunch was at Indian Gardens which is a lush plateau fed by springs. There are trees and grass all over. Native Americans lived here until about 1920 when they were removed (I’m not going to get started on my hatred for the American system of handling Native Americans). Nowadays, there are bathrooms, picnic tables and even a campground.
After lunch, we head back out on the trail. We followed the creek leaving Indian Gardens. The creek starts off small and grows as you follow it. Eventually it carves it’s own canyon as it descends towards the Colorado. The trail is carved into the cliffs along the canyon.
One of the things that really surprised me about the ride was just how much the trail and scenery changes as you go along. The upper part is very different from the plateau leading to and including Indian Gardens and the section following the creek is really amazing. Then you leave the creek and get to what our guide called the “Oh, Jesus” corner.
You make that turn and the trail really changes. This is probably the worst section for anyone with a fear of heights. The trail is very narrow and hugs the canyon walls. It’s also not as swtichbacky as the earlier sections. Instead you follow the canyon walls along with steep drops off on the other side. It’s hard to see because of the sun glare, but if you look closely, you can see the trail carved into the walls in the distance.
Finally, we reached the river and rode along it for a while. Once again, the geology and trail were very different here. It was a very cool section. However, I was a little distracted from enjoying it by watching the 85 year old man leaning more and more out of his saddle. By this point he was basically at a 45 degree angle and I could not tell how he hadn’t yet fallen off and was really sure I was going to see him fall to his death. The guide was still ponying him and had rigged his motivator into a grab strap so the man could hold on, but the guy was no longer really occupying reality. It was rather terrifying. The guides had called ahead to the ranch and a ranger met us at the bridge to check this guy out.
Crossing the bridge to Phantom Ranch is amazing. You go through a tunnel and come out on a narrow metal bridge above the rider.
A photo posted by Olivia @ DIY Horse Ownership (@diyhorseownership) on
The ranch is up the creek a little bit from the river. We dismounted and got checked in. The ranger took the man off to the ranger station for a medical check up and we went to drop our stuff off in the cabin. Phantom ranch is amazing. The cabins have been there since the 1920s and were designed by the famous Mary Colter, one of the first professional female architects in America. All the cabins are surrounded by cottonwood trees and set near the Bright Angel creek. There are two dormitories and a main lodge with a canteen and restaurant. It’s amazing and I highly recommend staying here.
We bought some snacks from the canteen and went over to the creek so I could plunge my ankle in the freezing cold water. I wrote a bunch of postcards while we sat there enjoying the beauty of the canyon. Once my ankle was feeling better, we walked down to the river. We passed the mule corral on the way where I found Dusty rolling in the mud. The rest of the mules were enjoying their hay cubes, but she had to make sure she was living up to her name.
I also spent some time playing with the allears app, which the mules were fascinated by. A few of them even came over from the hay to check out the noises. A few of the mules were even talking back to it. It was hilarious.
We walked down to the river, explored the beach and the ruins, then saw a rescue helicopter coming in as we were walking back. They ended up flying the 85 year old out of the canyon. It turned out he’s diabetic and hadn’t told anyone so the guides and his friends were giving him powerade and other sugary snacks to help him. This is the right way to approach someone with dehydration, but the wrong approach for someone with diabetes and his blood sugar level was very high. I was so happy he got helicoptered out; I really didn’t watch him die. He was fine and we saw him the next day.
One of the rangers gave a talk about Condors at 4:00 and then we had dinner super early at 5:00. After dinner I put every layer of clothing that I had brought with me on because I was freezing cold and we were going to a second ranger talk in the outdoor amphitheater. Seriously, I just piled layers on. I had long underwear followed by fleece lined breeches followed by hiking pants. On top I had a t-shirt, 3 long sleeve shirts, a wool sweater, a fleece-lined vest, and a jacket. I had so many layers on, I could barely lower my arms fully. This talk was about Mary Colter, the architect and it was really interesting. I also wasn’t freezing cold because of all the layers. Winning!
We finished off the night in the restaurant writing some more postcards, having a beer, and talking with some of the hikers who were also staying at the ranch. The postcards get carried out on the mules so they get a special stamp. So I sent one to everyone I had an address in my phone for. Since this post is already incredibly long, I’m going to do the second day in another post.