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Approaching the river. Photo by author.

There are not many vacations you can take where you do things pretty much exactly the way they were done a hundred or more years ago.

The mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is a rare exception. It’s the safest way to get to Phantom Ranch (in all of their decades, only one person has ever died riding up or down the canyon, and that was an employee). Phantom Ranch itself wasn’t built until 1922, but has barely changed since. The ride goes down the Bright Angel Trail and then back up the South Kaibab Trail.

Only mules are used in the canyon — some people have ridden horses down the Bright Angel, but I personally wouldn’t.

Everything that goes to Phantom Ranch has to go there by mule. Everything. A pack string goes down every morning with food, supplies, etc. Because I was a lighter rider, my mule got a bit of an extra, very important burden to carry: The mail.

Do You Need To Know How To Ride?

No! Over ninety percent of participants have never sat on any kind of animal before (although I personally do recommend taking a short trail ride somewhere just to get the feel).

The mules are carefully chosen and trained to be fit, sure-footed and well-behaved. Be aware that they are greedy critters. (Mine kept trying to stop and beg food from passing hikers). They are not as stubborn as people think, and these particular mules are used to people who don’t know what they are doing.

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Mules at Indian Garden. The two in the middle are my and my husband’s mules and I think they were discussing us. Photo by author.

Do You Need To Be Fit?

Reasonably. The fitness level needed, though, is not close to that required to hike the canyon. You have to train for that.

Riders are required to be no heavier than 200 pounds, at least 4'7" tall (the mules they use are larger), 9 years or older and able to understand spoken instructions in English. They will weigh you.

The ride is about 5 hours down and about 6 hours back and while there are breaks (especially on the way up to breathe the mules), you will be in the saddle most of that time. If you’re not a rider, expect to be a bit stiff afterwards.

What Should You Wear?

The trip has certain requirements. Specifically, you have to wear long pants (jeans or chinos are fine), long sleeve shirts (trust me, you do not want short sleeves in the canyon, you’ll burn. Get a sun shirt), close-toed shoes and a broad brim hat.

Take a jacket. Secure it to the back of the saddle. At certain times of year hikers have been known to get hypothermia from the temperature gradient coming out of the canyon, and while you aren’t going to be sweating as much as they are, you may find that when you hit the rim on the way back you are suddenly cold.

It is allowed to wear a safety helmet instead of the hat, but I recommend adding a sun brim or finding a western style hat-met. Sun brims have come down a lot in price and a cheap helmet and a sun brim is likely the best deal. I do recommend a helmet. Despite the safety record, accidents can happen. I will say that of all the trips I’ve taken mounted, this is the one I would be least worried about, though. Please have kids wear a helmet, though. In the winter they require a woolen hat…I don’t know what they would suggest for helmet wearers, but a light balaclava is probably a good idea.

On shoes, this ride uses stirrups with a shield in front. With those stirrups, riding in sneakers or tennis shoes is okay, but leather boots will be more comfortable. But they do have to be closed toes. Mules generally won’t step on your feet on purpose, but they don’t always pay full attention to where they are putting their hooves. Don’t wear shoes or boots with a heavy tread, such as hiking boots.

You will want long pants (jeans or chinos are fine) and shoes or, better, boots with a closed toe, slight heel and smooth sole. The stirrups they use on the ride are designed to prevent your feet from sliding through, so it’s not as important as some places, but please on the closed toes. These mules probably won’t step on your feet on purpose. In the winter, take rain pants.

Also wear lightweight gloves. Riding gloves can be bought or ordered from any tack store for a few bucks, but if you happen to own a pair of cycling gloves those work well. Never, ever ride in plain wool gloves. (They only recommend gloves in the winter, and you might well get away without in the summer as you aren’t using the reins much anyway. I didn’t wear gloves, but I also have riders’ callouses and don’t need them as much).

You will be highly limited in what you can take for the overnight. I recommend a pair of sneakers or tennis shoes, a change of underwear and socks, travel size toiletries and any medication…and that’s it. That’s about all you’re going to have space for. Consider taking a swimsuit if you’re going in the summer. Jumping in the stream is an acceptable way of cooling off. Very small C-PAP machines will fit in the saddlebags, if you have a larger one it may have to go by duffel service. Talk to the booking agent (I don’t know if they give free duffel service or not…anyone?) You may also want to take a small, compact flashlight, although you can probably use your phone for this. The Phantom Ranch convenience store sells toiletries if you forget something.

Generally the stay is one night, but in off peak times you may be able to swing two. You won’t need much.

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The Colorado River from the trail.

What is Included in the Trip?

The cost of the trip includes the use of your mule (you will almost certainly ride the same mule both days), a cabin bed at Phantom Ranch, and food.

Included food is a boxed lunch on the first day, then dinner and breakfast served family style at the ranch. Dinner is quite limited…there are two seatings. At 5pm, your option is steak. At 6:30pm your choices are stew or vegetarian chili. If you are a vegetarian, make sure to mention this in the initial booking, as mule riders are generally seated for the steak dinner. Any other special dietary needs must also be mentioned, such as gluten free. They will accommodate, but they need to know well in advance.

Cabins have a sink and a toilet. Showers are communal (and currently unavailable). Don’t worry, everyone else smells too. Towels are provided.

The ride also includes a shuttle bus back to the starting corral at Bright Angel Lodge. Depending on where you stay you may or may not need it; we elected to hang out where we came up for a while.

Alcohol is not included, but beer and wine can be purchased at Phantom Ranch.

How To Book?

Unfortunately, this just got a lot more complicated. The park service only allows them to take 12 mules into the canyon, which makes 10 guests and 2 wranglers.

When I did the ride, you booked 13 months in advance and you booked the day the dates you wanted open. Early in that day.

They have now replaced this with a lottery system that opens 15 months in advance. You need to be flexible about your dates. Spring and fall are best, although I’m told the ride is spectacular in winter when there is snow on the canyon. If you don’t get your dates you can try again for the next month.

Accommodations on the rim open 13 months in advance.

This is definitely a trip where you book it then those are the dates you arrange everything else for. Rim accommodation is much easier to get hold of than the very limited (and currently even worse because the hikers’ dorms are closed until some time in 2021, for non-COVID related reasons), but I would still book it when it opens.

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Mules in the corral at Bright Angel. Photo by author.

What Else Should You Know?

Be ready to get up early! For the sake of both riders and mules, you ride in the morning both days.

You should check in either the night before or two hours before your ride. I recommend the night before, because again, you’re riding in the morning. You will be weighed when you check in and they will make sure you know how to get to the corral by Bright Angel.

They ask that you take only a compact camera (or your phone). I will note that I often ride with a full-sized DSLR, but do understand why they don’t recommend it. They do not allow extra lenses, a camera bag or full-sized video cameras. (Another option is a helmet or chest cam).

Don’t ride with anything, anything in your back pocket. You will regret it.

Wear sunscreen, and take it with you. Secure your glasses with a string so you don’t drop them on the trail.

On the first day you will muster at a stone corral by Bright Angel Lodge (Bright Angel, by the way, is a mid-priced lodge. There are cheaper options. Miswaki Lodge is the closest of those to the corral).

You will be introduced to your mule, assisted in mounting and have your stirrups checked. Then it’s straight out of the corral…and straight over the rim of the canyon. I mean, it’s about…10–15 feet across the road.

On our trip we stopped at the first widening of the trail and the wrangler gave a bit of a talk. Yes, the mules do tend to like the outside of the trail.

Mine also decided to test if I was afraid of heights by putting a hoof on the top of the restraining wall. Mules have a sense of humor.

We stopped for lunch (which given how early it was was more brunch) at Indian Garden. I don’t remember what was in the boxed lunch, I do remember I ate half of it there and the other half at the bottom because I wasn’t that hungry. That’s perfectly acceptable.

You will get to Phantom Ranch about mid afternoon. The mules go to their corral to get their lunch and a long-awaited drink. (The primary reason they don’t use horses; there’s not enough water on the trail for them).

The trail is pretty easy, although the drop offs can be a little unnerving. I’ve ridden much, much worse.

Check the schedule at the ranch. When we were there there was a ranger talk after dinner. Oh, and watch out for little fluttery things! There were bats everywhere!

On the second day, you will get up very early, eat breakfast at the ranch and then ride out. There’s no water at all on the South Kaibab Trail and I believe they don’t let people ride horses on it. This means that all the water you need has to be carried with you. Don’t be afraid to ask the wranglers for more, they stuff their saddlebags with it.

This is a trip that will take you down a canyon…and back in time. When things start to return to normal, give it a try. They’re now taking bookings for the fall of 2021…

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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