Mules at the Grand Canyon: Our steadfast companion for over a century

A wrangler prepares to take pack mules into the Canyon in early 2016. Mules have played an integral part of the history at Grand Canyon. (Loretta Yerian/WGCN)

A wrangler prepares to take pack mules into the Canyon in early 2016. Mules have played an integral part of the history at Grand Canyon. (Loretta Yerian/WGCN)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — They’ve been characterized as the tractors of the 19th century. So it’s really no wonder that mules played a central role in the human history of the Grand Canyon.

Early prospectors used the beasts of burden in seeking their fortunes. And by the late 1880s, when tourists began arriving, the sturdy, sure-footed animals provided an easy way to experience the marvels within the grand chasm.

Bigger and stronger than horses, these hybrid beasts (the offspring of a female horse and a male burro) offer a relatively smooth ride as they pick their way across the narrow switchback trails leading to the canyon floor.

Pioneer hotelier John Hance is believed to be the first to put tourists on mule back for the trip into the canyon. He opened a hotel about 15 miles east of where the present Grand Canyon Village sits, and advertised lodging and mule rides as early as 1887.

Mules were also instrumental in widening old Indian trails that to this day remain major routes into the canyon. In 1890, businessman and future U.S. senator Ralph Cameron widened the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden, about half way down the canyon. Thanks to mining claims in the area, from 1913 to 1930 Cameron was able to charge $1 a head for mule riders on the popular trail.

But almost a decade earlier, two enterprising brothers, Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, set up a photo studio at the head of the Bright Angel Trail. From this spectacular perch, they snapped photos of riders descending into the canyon. They also collected the toll for Ralph Cameron in exchange for being able to create a building which would eventually become their home. They established a dark room 4.5 miles into the canyon at Indian Garden, where there was a steady source of water to develop the shots. Returning riders were greeted with a souvenir photo. (The Kolb studio on the rim has been lovingly preserved and is open to the public.)

It might seem remarkable in this fast-paced digital world, but the mule rides remain a staple of the Grand Canyon experience. Thousands of visitors annually gather at the South Rim’s Mule Barn eager to take a turn in the slow lane.

Two options await. The overnight ride to Phantom Ranch, nestled a mile beneath the rim on the canyon floor, is a bucket-list endeavor. The 10.5-mile ride down the Bright Angel Trail takes about six hours, including rest stops. The ride out the next morning is via the shorter, but steeper, 7.8-mile South Kaibab Trail. Guests sleep in comfy cabins and indulge in a hearty dinner and breakfast as part of the fare.

For those with less time, the Canyon Vistas ride is a three-hour experience (including four miles and two hours in the saddle) that winds along a rim-top trail amid juniper and pinon pine, each turn revealing another heart-stopping canyon vista.

More information is available at www.grandcanyonlodges.com/connect/the-history-of-mules-at-the-grand-canyon.

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