Fifteen some-odd years ago, Wil and I took our boys to the Grand Canyon just before Christmas. There’s a steam train you can ride up from Wiliams, Arizona that has some glass dome-top cars where you can get a better view, so that’s where we sat. The conductor told funny stories and shared some pretty cool information about the canyon and park itself on the way up. During the 2-hour ride, it started to snow and the conductor said if it was snowing when we got to the south rim we wouldn’t be able to see across the canyon but by the time we arrived, it was clear blue skies (cold as hell, but clear nonetheless.) I had been to the canyon once when I was 9 but that was it, so when we walked up to the edge, I was just as astounded by the view as our boys were. We had gotten the kids disposable cameras so they could take pictures of whatever they wanted, which they used up so quickly we had to get them each another one. If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you know no camera can ever capture the full beauty and vastness quite like seeing it for yourself. We stayed at the rim to watch the sunset and the ranger there told us the sunrise was just as beautiful as sunset, so we all decided to get up early to watch that as well.
The early morning view was incredible, for sure, but the thing that caught my eye was a small group of people on mules being guided down into the canyon by two wranglers. My youngest son and I really wanted to do that ride so we could see even more of the canyon, so I went to the front desk of the Bright Angel Lodge (which is one of 3 hotels at the south rim) to inquire about it. Turns out it sells out at least a year in advance, and it’s a trip where you ride down, spend the night at the bottom, and ride back up the next day. We were bummed we couldn’t do the ride while we were there, but made a mental note of it being one of those things we would eventually do. The man at the front desk also told me the best time of year to do the ride is October, so I added that to my mental note for this future adventure we would someday get to go on. Over the years when October rolled around, I would think about that trip and how I really needed to sign up so we could go the following year and every year, I would forget to sign up. Not this year! Well, technically I remembered because it’s October, but I wanted to see if there was a way to do it now instead of signing up a year in advance and then hoping something doesn’t come up and I’d need to cancel.
I checked availability on the national park website for the mule ride for any time this month but there was no availability for the ride or for any of the hotels at the south rim. Darn! But I saw that there was a number I could call if making online reservations wasn’t working, so I called and spoke with a super helpful guy who said he’d see if there were any mule ride spots available for any time in the month of October. Turns out there were 2 spots that had recently become available for Sunday October 13th so if I wanted to go this year, that was the only time we could do it. SOLD! The next issue would be hotel rooms. The morning of the mule ride, we would need to be up, showered, packed, had breakfast, and be ready for the orientation and ride at 6:45am. Yeouch. I did not want to drive 90 minutes from Flagstaff, or from the town outside the park several miles away, and hope there were no traffic issues which would prevent us from riding, so he checked the south rim hotel situation as well. He found us a room for Saturday night at their little hotel called Thunderbird Lodge so I nabbed that, and then a room at the Bright Angel Lodge for Monday night when we got back up from the canyon. Woohoo! The guy gave me all the ride info as far as safety, clothes, and supplies go, so I made myself a little list of what we needed. I got off the phone with him and my excitement turned to feeling SUPER anxious that I just committed myself and my son to this incredible, potentially terrifying experience, with only 10 days to prepare. EEK!
My youngest son (Nolan) has always been my adventure buddy so he didn’t seem nervous at all. I, on the other hand, was stressing out about how cold it was going to be when we started the 5 hour, 10 mile ride (25 degrees fahrenheit, and I am a WIMP in the cold) down and then how hot it would be at the bottom (about 90) and whether my bony butt was going to be able to handle riding in a saddle for 10 hours over 2 days. I ended up hardly sleeping at the hotel the night before the ride, but adrenaline kept me wide awake for the entire ride so it was fine. (I’ll share some hotel and food reviews at the end of this post.) We were given a thing called a Bota bag for drinking water because they didn’t want plastic bottles which could freak out the mules if they made a crunching sound, or any other type of water dispenser where lids could be dropped or somehow fall on the mule and scare them. The bag had a string on it which was looped around the saddle horn, and there were stops where we could fill them from a faucet, plus the wranglers carried extra water so we could refill with that, if needed. They also gave each rider a yellow rain coat in case it ended up raining (it was clear blue skies our entire trip but most of the riders-myself included-put the coat on in the morning to use as a windbreaker because it was so cold out.) The orientation was a lot of “This ride is real hard on your body, physically. It’s also only 23% humidity here at the top, and 9% at the bottom. Between the lack of humidity and the elevation changes, you MUST drink water when we say so or you are at risk for passing out. People are helicoptered out of the canyon ALL the time, so make sure you are 100% ready physically, and that you’re ok with heights.” YIPES. The way you ride a mule is completely different than a horse so they give you all the riding instruction, which you need to remember so you don’t get hurt. The actual steering of these mules isn’t necessary though. They tend to ride nose to tail, following each other on the trail, and they really do not want to die so they are very careful when they walk. As a rider, you’re pretty much just responsible for not falling off. They also strongly encourage you to not let your mule stop in its tracks to munch on things because if you let them do that too much, they slow the whole ride down and then it takes even longer to get to the bottom.
A little side note about the mules; first, a mule and a donkey/burro are not the same thing, which I did not know before this trip. They are half horse and half donkey, which makes them taller than donkeys, and have better endurance, harder hooves, tougher skin (which makes them more capable of resisting sun and rain) and have a natural resistance to disease and insects, and they have more patience than horses. So weird! They can also go a few days without food or water so the combination of their tough physical features and smarts, they are the ideal desert animal for transporting people and/or supplies, tasks that they have been doing for centuries. They carried supplies during wars, and were the perfect mode of transportation in warm climates long before cars were ever a thing. Another fun fact: mules cannot reproduce with each other because they have 63 chromosomes, so it makes them sterile. WHAT. So mules as a species have survived all this time because people have paired a male donkey to mate with a female horse. You can get all kinds of mule sizes and colors based on what type of horse the donkey is bred with. Mules can look very similar to horses but a noticeable difference is their body is wider than a horse, their ears are longer, and their feet are significantly smaller. Like, not just their hoof size but also the width apart in their stride. It’s crazy. I read up about mules before signing up for the ride because I wanted to make sure they are treated well not just for this riding experience, but in how they are trained and how they are cared for. This is not a situation like elephants being beaten into submission for riding purposes in Thailand, this is like riding a horse that has learned how to wear a saddle and a person. It isn’t cruel or inhumane, which was the most important thing for me to know before doing this. The mules at the Grand Canyon all have names and personalities, and the wranglers obviously love them to pieces. They are all very well taken care of, are surprisingly happy to receive affection (my son and I both gave our mules lots of scritches, hugs, and kisses, as well as an apple to eat before our ride back up the following morning) and they get rotated out after a ride so a new set of mules do the trip the next day while the others rest. The mules do the rides/carry supplies during their peak years of strength and endurance, and if you’re interested, you can put your name on a list to adopt a mule when they are ready to retire and enjoy some lazy days and grazing. How cool is that?
When we started the ride, I fully expected to be terrified of the height (because I am afraid of heights) but I was quickly distracted by how freaking beautiful it was down inside the canyon. I had no idea how green it was down there! (The ride starts at the top where it’s about 7,000 feet above sea level and ends at about 2,500 feet, so the plant life varies quite a bit as you head down.) Both days, I spent the majority of the time saying “WOW, LOOK AT THAT” because the view down there is so much more than what you can see from the rim. We went downhill a lot, walked along a stream, and several times, we would go back up quite a bit in altitude and then back down, before getting to Phantom Ranch (where we would spend the night) on the other side of the Colorado River, down at the very bottom. There were several moments where I was terrified because my mule (named Mabel) would walk right up to the edge up high on the cliffs of the trail and then pivot to make the turn because the trail wasn’t very wide. I know it’s second nature to them to walk these trails and I had to keep reminding myself that the mules know what they are doing but I’m not going to lie, I had to look toward the canyon wall next to me a few times and not out over the cliff, because it was too scary. It was a huge lesson in trust and patience, for sure.
The last part of the trail took us through a small cave where the wranglers said to duck our heads as we went through, and to keep hands off the cave walls so we don’t disturb the bats. WHAT. Fortunately the cave is fairly short so going through it didn’t take long but as soon as you’re through it, you go across a suspension bridge over the Colorado River that was built in 1928 by men who carried down 50-80 pounds of cable each, and then would hike back up, get more cable, and bring it down again. The only thing that has changed about this bridge is the 2×8 planks in the center that the mules walk across on. They replace those planks about every 5 years so they remain strong. Watching a river run under us that is on average 42-46 degrees year round is nerve-wracking because if we fall in, I’m going to be SO COLD and as you now know, I hate the cold. But I just kept reminding myself in the 100 years of the Grand Canyon being a national park, with mule rides being a thing there this whole time, no mule has ever fallen off the cliffs or off the bridge. Another lesson in trust, I suppose.
There were campers who’d hiked down before us with tents set up all along the stream back to the Phantom Ranch cabins where our group would be staying overnight, and as we made our way down that last part of the path, the 5 hours of adrenaline keeping me awake had faded away and I was left feeling completely exhausted, and it was only 1:30 pm. Dinner would be at 5, so they recommended going for a walk around the camp and back out to the Colorado River where there was a separate suspension bridge people could walk across (no people allowed on the mule bridge.) My son and I powered through and made the half mile walk back out to the river and walked across that bridge on principle, and then dragged ourselves back to our cabin to nap, where I only managed to sleep for 20 minutes but he slept for an hour. We got up and checked out more of the camp and then headed to dinner in the dining hall, where our group sat together at a long picnic table, and the other campers who had signed up ahead of time for a meal sat at two other long tables, and we all ate a family-style steak dinner cooked and served by staff who live down there. They offered to answer any camp related questions we had, so someone asked if they live down there year-round. Turns out they agree to one year on the job, where they work 10 days on, and 4 days off. On their days off, if they want to leave, they have to hike the other trail that’s 7 miles long (which we would take by mule on our way out) and do the same thing when they return. Crazy! But they all seemed to love it and obviously knew what they were signing up for when they got the job, so kudos to them for that commitment.
I barely made it through dinner when total exhaustion hit and I could not keep my eyes open. I’m not ashamed to admit that I went to bed at 6:30pm that night. My son managed to stay awake until 8 because he had napped longer than I did but we both slept straight through the night. We had to drop our supply bag off to be loaded back on the mules by 6:20am, eat breakfast at 6:30am, and then be ready to get back on our mules for the 5 hour, 7 mile ride out of the canyon, by 7am. We rode out of the camp and stopped along the Colorado River to watch the sun come up over the canyon wall, went back across the mule bridge, and up to the left for our new trail out. The steepness on that side is like nothing I have ever experienced before and I can see why they save that side for the ride out instead of the ride in, because I don’t know if I would have stayed for the whole ride if I had seen that from the get-go. We stopped many times to give the mules a break, and to take a drink of water and have our brains adjust to the altitude change. There was one stop where I actually felt a little woozy but knowing what it was, I made sure to drink plenty of water and take several slow, deep breaths to get enough oxygen. That side of the canyon is where you can really see the vastness and because of that, you become very aware of how high up you are. It’s beautiful for sure, but I had to keep reminding myself to trust my mule and how sure-footed she is, and that as long as I didn’t do some dumb ass thing, I wasn’t going to fall off of her. When the ride was over, I had two water blisters on two fingers and a hunk of skin torn off one knuckle because I had been holding on to the saddle horn for dear life on many of those switchbacks. And since I’m mentioning injuries, I also got a bruise about the size of my hand on the inside of my left knee and a week later, the insides of both my knees still feel tender to the touch. Was it worth it? 100%.
When we got back up to the top, we all received a silly, funny certificate for completing this journey that not many people accomplish. We said our goodbyes to our mules and were taken on a shuttle bus back to the Bright Angel Lodge, where Nolan and I went straight to the cafe and had ALL THE FOOD (and I had a freaking great IPA from a brewery in Flagstaff that I wish I could remember the name of.) We opted to spend the rest of the day lounging in our hotel room, only leaving to walk out to the rim to watch the sunset one last time, and falling asleep by 8pm.
I’ve been asked several times if I would recommend this trip and here’s my thought on that: If it’s something you have wanted to do, then yes, I highly recommend it. But if you have physical limitations or concerns, or feel you can’t get out of your own head in regards to the height fear, then no. Nothing bothers me more than someone saying “You have GOT to do _____” because the reality is, we are all unique people and something you like may not be something I like, and how much would it suck that you forced yourself to do something that makes you super uncomfortable, just because someone else said to do it? Pretty sucky.
Ok, my final thoughts on the food and accommodations, just because I feel like Trip Advisor reviews on experiences don’t always cover these things. First, the food. The food in the hotel restaurants (I have eaten at 3 restaurants up there) is definitely above average. It isn’t theme park food but it isn’t 5 star, if that makes sense. When booking the mule ride, they ask if anyone in your party is vegetarian or gluten or dairy intolerant, which is nice because they want to accommodate you for the boxed lunch you get halfway down on the first day, and your dinner and breakfast down at the ranch. My son does not digest red meat well at all and steak was the only meat being cooked for dinner at the ranch, so I had to request vegetarian for him for everything. But he also cannot handle gluten and REALLY cannot handle dairy and even though I mentioned all of these things, he was given a veggie wrap in his boxed lunch that had a flour tortilla and cream cheese inside. There were other snacks that were gluten free in the box, as well as baby carrots and an apple, so he ate those things instead, plus he brought a big bag of macadamia nuts so he munched on those, too. So if you have all of those restrictions like he does, it’s a good idea to bring your own lunch or snacks. At the ranch, he could eat the baked potato and the salad, but not the carrots because they were cooked in butter. They did bring out a big pot of vegetarian chili for the handful of vegetarians there, so he ate a lot of that. Breakfast was also a challenge but the kitchen staff brought out fruit he could eat, and he was able to eat some eggs because they weren’t cooked with milk or butter, but he definitely couldn’t eat the pancakes. There was no lunch for the ride back up but the wranglers had these tasty gluten-free fruit/oat bars to snack on that they gave to each of us at the half way point. At the restaurants, they do have vegan/vegetarian options but we noticed on the menu in the cafe that the veggie wrap he got for the boxed lunch was labeled “vegan” while listing cream cheese as one of the ingredients. Like I said, the food was good but just be aware of those things if you have dietary restrictions.
I mentioned earlier that we stayed the first night in Thunderbird Lodge, and the last night at Bright Angel Lodge. Of course, these hotels are extremely old, although they are very clean and well taken care of. But, being old, the heaters in both are these long, metal units that run along the bottom of the wall. They are connected to a modern thermostat but when they come on (primarily during the night when it’s in the 20s) they make a tapping sound that lasts for about 45 minutes at a time. Over the years, I have become a very light sleeper and even with silicone earplugs in, the tapping woke me up constantly, which is why I was so exhausted when we started the ride. I think I slept maybe 2 hours that night. OOF. At home, I have a little white noise sound machine so if I had known there would be heater noise, I would have brought that. So if you’re a light sleeper like me, be prepared for that. It’s kind of a gut-punch to pay for these pricey rooms and not get much sleep, but I tried to just chalk it up to it all being part of the experience (but I’m still giving you a heads-up because lack of sleep suuuuucks.) The cabins at the bottom of the canyon are cute but in no way, fancy. There are enough cabins that our group (10 people) could all share a cabin just with the person they traveled with, so Nolan and I got our own. There’s a wall a/c and heat unit and a small sink and private toilet, but showers are in a separate, locked building close by. If you’ve ever camped at a KOA campground, the showers are very much like that. Paranoid me wished I had brought flip-flops to shower in because even though it all appeared very clean, I was convinced I would get athlete’s foot, which did not happen. Ha! There were 2 sets of bunk beds with clean bedding in our cabin, so we each slept on the bottom bunks so we wouldn’t have to deal with one of us climbing up and down from the upper bunk. The showers have a supply of clean towels, and they do have dispensers for shampoo and body wash, but I chose to bring my own toiletries. Speaking of bringing your own stuff: Each rider is given a small drawstring bag where you can bring a maximum of 10 pounds worth of stuff. Knowing we would get filthy from the mule ride (dust gets kicked up and ends up all over your clothes. Don’t even get me started on the epic dust boogers you spend two days blowing out of your nose) so I just brought pajamas, socks, underwear, and my toiletries, with the plan of wearing the same pants, shirts, and jacket that I wore down there the day before. ( You’ll definitely want to wear layers because of the temp changes.) I will freely admit I also brought my makeup, a tiny travel hair dryer, and a brush because you can take the girl down into the canyon, but don’t take away her smooth hair or mascara and foundation!
Lastly, and maybe this goes without saying, but there is no cell phone service or internet in the canyon. There is internet inside the Bright Angel Lodge lobby, so when we stayed next door at the Thunderbird Lodge, we had no internet, and no internet in our room in the Bright Angel Lodge either. That actually ended up being the best thing. I walked into the Bright Angel Lodge lobby, logged on and used Whats App to let my husband know we arrived up there safely, logged on again the next morning to let him know we were leaving for the mule ride, and then again to let him know we made it back in one piece. I think I posted a couple of pictures to Twitter from that lobby the night before we went home, but that was it. It was an unexpected and welcome break from the outside world that my son and I both really enjoyed. Oh, and the staff at the hotels and restaurants are all very friendly, and for the mule ride, our wranglers, Katie and Maggie, were extremely helpful, patient, and informative. Don, the head wrangler who gave us all the riding and safety tips before we started, was also extremely kind, funny, and informative. One thing that isn’t mentioned beforehand is bringing money when you go down to the bottom. At the camp, the dining building is also a little gift shop and if you want, there’s beer and wine available for purchase (which seems like not the greatest idea on account of how dehydrating the whole day is, but who am I to judge.) But there are post cards that are exclusive to that camp that are sold down there that I wish I’d known about ahead of time because I really wanted to buy one and have it mailed home from the south rim mailbox. Plus, tipping the wranglers is a nice thing to do but there’s a way to do that after even if you forgot your wallet during the ride. There are envelopes at the Bright Angel Lodge front desk where you can write out who it’s for and any little message you’d like to add, put the tip inside, and then staff confirms the amount and signs it, so you are assured they will receive it. I also let the wranglers know I’d be doing that so they’d know to swing by and pick it up at the end of the day.
I have posted a few videos and pictures on my Instagram if you would like to see more than what I’ve posted here. (That link is to one post but you can scroll through to see the others.) I hope this post is useful if you’ve been considering making this journey or at least a fun read regarding something I did that you have NO DESIRE TO EVER DO. I loved the experience and can honestly say, it was an incredible one-time journey that I am so grateful we got to do.