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Riding A Mule into the Grand Canyon

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When I lived in Wasaga Beach, I joined an informal Probus Club for men. A special trip had been in the planning for five members. It was to be a unique mule ride down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Their choice was an overnight ride starting at the South Rim and going down to the bottom, staying at Phantom Ranch, for a memory lasting a lifetime.

A small plastic bag, about the size of a 10-pound bag of ice would be provided to pack everything needed carried in it then put in a saddlebag for the mules to carry down. They left a few months later with Rodney as their spokesperson – the only one who had ridden a mule.

Rodney’s Report of the Trip:
Our adventure began with a flight to Arizona and then a shuttle bus to the historic Bright Angel Lodge. The next morning the lead wrangler led 5 of us “dudes” to match up with the mules.

Safety requirements were reviewed with us, along with information about the trail and Grand Canyon. Then we saddled up and made stirrup adjustments We had iPhones on a strap around our necks and tucked into our shirts so they wouldn’t bounce around. We were discouraged to take pictures unless we were stopped.

We headed down the Bright Angel, about 10.5 miles and taking about 5 ½ hours, the wranglers sharing history and geology information along the way. We stopped for a box lunch at Indian Garden. Both the mules and riders enjoyed the break. Then headed along the rock face of the Inner Gorge, a trail leading along the Colorado River where we unbelievably, went through a tunnel, then over a suspension bridge.

This Black (suspension) Bridge, along with the Silver Bridge located about 700 meters downstream, are the only spans in hundreds of river miles to cross the Colorado River. The mules only cross on the Black Bridge and not the Silver Bridge because it is wider, enough for two mules to pass each other. Another reason was that the Silver Bridge has a metal grid for the floor and mules don’t like it when they can see down to the water. The Black Bridge’s floor is wooden planks.

Before 1907, the only way to cross the river was by boat, a dangerous method which cost many lives. Then, a privately-operated cableway was built, a six-foot by ten-foot steel cage large enough for one mule or several people to cross the river.

The Kaibab Trail Suspension Bridge (Black Bridge) was built in 1928 and recognized as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark referring to it as, “A prime example of engineering innovation. Engineering this bridge at the base of one of the world’s greatest wonders – the Grand Canyon – illustrates the resourcefulness and innovative spirit of the civil engineers responsible for this project.” It would remain the only crossing of the river for hundreds of river miles until the Silver Bridge was built just downstream within the park during the 1960s.

Once we crossed the Black Bridge, we headed up Bright Angel Canyon on the north side of the river to Phantom Ranch. It was this section where the mule that Tommy was riding lost its footing. The mule fell and rolled over, fortunately not onto Tommy. He was shaken up enough that the wrangler called the park paramedics who flew in by helicopter and examined Tommy. Plenty of bruising as well as a bruised ego they took him back to Bright Angel Lodge to wait for the rest of us.

I rode a great mule for the whole route, sure footed and with an extra touch of personality! We took more breaks on this steeper trail to give the mules some rests on their uphill haul. We arrived for our overnight stay at Phantom Ranch, a rustic oasis nestled deep in the canyon.

In the morning we returned via the South Kaibab Trail. The ride back up is about 7.8 miles (5.5 hours). Upon our return to the rim we were met by a driver who transported our party back to the Bright Angel Lodge.

If you are able to damper your fear of heights and able to trust your mule, then this adventure is for you.