Mules In Grand Canyon National Park: Should They Stay?

Grand Canyon National Park officials are asking for public input on the continued use of mules in the park. NPS photo.

Mules in Grand Canyon National Park. They can be a bane, and they can be a beast of burden that makes your trek down into the chasm somewhat easier. Now park officials want to know if mules should continue to be utilized in the Grand Canyon.

Folks who have more than a few hikes down into the canyon can speak harshly of mules, largely for the mess they make with their urine on the trails but also for the spacing of steps in the trails to accommodate the beasts. But mules no doubt have made the canyon accessible for folks who otherwise wouldn't have ventured down the trail.

So what do you think? Grand Canyon officials are now accepting comments on mule operations and stock use in the park as they begin to develop an environmental assessment. The presence and use of mules in and around the canyon is a long-standing tradition and one that the park would like to continue.

But park officials also are interested in continuing to provide opportunities for stock use in a manner that is sustainable. This planning effort will address the following management objective identified in the park’s 1995 General Management Plan: “Where livestock and visitors share the same trails and areas, minimize conflicts and resource impacts, and enhance safety.”

The planning process will consider the following:

* Commercial and private stock use (including horses, mules, and burros) throughout the park.

* Appropriate levels of stock use on park trails.

* Appropriate locations for stock use in the park, which may include: keeping commercial stock use on the North Kaibab Trail down to Supai Tunnel; moving stock use to one of the South Rim corridor trails (Bright Angel or South Kaibab); keeping stock use on the Uncle Jim Trail, Whitmore Trail, and select corridor trails; initiation of a concession-operated day ride on the South Rim; the need for new stock facilities or modification to existing facilities on the North and South Rim, including compliance with laws and regulations for mule health and safety.

The Park Service encourages public participation through the National Environmental Policy Act (commonly known as NEPA) process during which the public has two opportunities to formally comment on the project – once during initial project scoping and again following release of the EA which is expected this fall. The NPS is currently in the scoping phase of this project and invites the public to submit their comments in a variety of ways during the next 30 days.

Three open house meetings are scheduled in June where Grand Canyon National Park staff will be available to answer questions and take comments on stock use in the park. Meeting dates and locations are as follows:

June 2, 4-7 PM (Arizona Time) – Flagstaff Public Library, 300 W Aspen Avenue, Flagstaff, Arizona

June 3, 4-6 PM (Arizona Time) – Community Building, Room B, South Rim Village, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

June 4, 4-7 PM (Utah Time) – Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Kanab Visitor’s Center, 745 East Highway 89, Kanab, Utah

You may also submit written comments on this web site or by mailing them to: Steve Martin, Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park, Attn: Mule Operations and Stock Use EA, P.O. Box 129 (1 Village Loop for express, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023 by June 22, 2009.

The park expects to prepare an EA this summer, with a decision document for this project anticipated in December, 2009. Additional information about this project can be found at this web site or by contacting Rachel Stanton, Project Planning Lead, at (928) 774-9612.


In my opion it would be a terrible thing to remove the mules from the park. Not only are they an historical part of the park , but for some people the only means of tranportaion down into the canyon. Therefore removing them would jeopardize a large part of the publics Grand Canyon experiance just to satisfy the grumblings of what appears to be a special interest group.

As I read the article I was trying to come up with a reply. But, after reading John's reply. I must say I agree with him.

Ditto for me to John's reply.

I also agree with John. If they remove the mules I will have no reason to vist the park as the ride is on my bucket list.

Craig W. I did the same thing you did; sat at the computer trying to come up with what I wanted to say, finally left the computer and came back to it, with your comment in place. I agree with you and John 100%. Its time The Majority, i.e., the Interest for All People Groups, make some decisions for us rather than mostly being dictated to by The Chosen Few, i.e., Special Interest Groups. Leave the mules alone.

I like mules, do not mind their leavings and believe it is a great experience for folks that would otherwise just snap
a few pictures from the rims parking lots.
Historical (?) not in the least when compared to the canyons history, sounds tritely hubristic to my ear.
Anyway, I agree with the park that it is time again to take a look at the commercial / private stock use, safety and impact issues, etc..

"...adventure without regard to prudence, profit, self-improvement,
learning or any other serious thing" -Aldo Leopold-

Since the parks are open to ALL THE PEOPLE of this country that also includes handicapped as well. Without the mules in place, those persons that have disabilities would never have the opportunity to see what others of us can without the mules. Leave the mules there. I get so tired of the country making decisions for just a few people and really not considering what is best for everyone, not just them. I concur with all comments already made.

All should be able to enjoy the park to the fullest. The mules provide an ambiance and real feel as well as a method for some visitors who may not otherwise be able to experience the canyon floor. It would not be the same without them. Lord knows what some may purpose to replace them in order to find a way to get to the bottom. They should stay - that's the bottom line.

The mules serve a wonderful and grand tradition a the GCNP and this service needs to remain in place. My question is the number of mule trains on the N. Kaibab trail and for that matter the Bright Angle Trail on the S Rim. Last October I was on the NK going down into the canyon and 3 mule trains were separated by less than 5 minutes apart. The first train was large, pushing 20 mules and the other 2 were about 10 riders each. All total I think I stopped for 6 or 7 trains that day. It was a slow day as mule trains go I guess and the trail was a disaster. All the urine, green apple dumplings, ruts, and then the walk arounds from this mess, where possible; are causing further trail erosion. Some of the areas on the trail there is not much stand aside room to let the trains pass and when a mule decides its time to take care of business, well the splatter is down right disgusting.

My position is not IF the trails are shared because there should be room on them for all, but spacing and the number of mule trains allowed on a daily basis needs to be seriously considered and discussed!. The mule trains need to be kept available to get those who choose not to walk down or cannot; down into the canyon to see and enjoy. However, that needs to be balance with those walking down and for those of us that choose that method we should not feel or think that we are walking in a sewer. I can only imagine what it is like on one of the south rim trails in the summer on a 100+ degree day with all the trains.

I agree with all of the above post. Me, my wife, and 2 sons made the day trip to Plateau Point. Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable experiences in our lives. It is imbedded in our memory forever. KEEP the mules!!

I agree that they should keep the mules. I hiked Kaibab and Bright Angel some twenty years ago. If I wanted to visit the bottom of the Canyon again the only way would be by mules. Please keep them.

I agree keep the mules. Did that when I was child and If I do it again I will use the mules.

I didn't see too much of a problem with droppings, although I didn't take the Bright Angel Trail.

I would note that the mules don't accommodate everyone. If your entire weight (includes everything) is more than 200 lbs you won't be allowed to ride a mule down.

As for the way down, it's still possible to get a reservation at Phantom Ranch if you're willing to hike down and back up. People are staying in the campgrounds near the Colorado River, so it's not as if human beings can't get down under their own power, although I realize most people don't have the fitness level to do so. I saw one ranger early in the morning who made it most of the way up, so a reasonably fit person could train to do it.

I agree with John's reply. The mules are a part of the history of Grand Canyon and should stay. The National Parks are for all of us to enjoy, there are visitors that are unable to hike into the canyon for various reasons, they should not be denied the only way at this time to enjoy this remarkable natural wonder. The many should not be penalized because of the few who are unhappy.
Thank you,

Mule riders are exactly as much of a "special interest group" as hikers: the last time I was at Grand Canyon I couldn't have afforded a mule trip (however, I was under 200 lbs). I don't think that I as a hiker should have to be a second-class visitor, _frequently_ leaving the trail to make way for mule trains and walking through their excrement. [A couple of meetings with mule trains and dung I can step around seem reasonable to me.] I think that both kinds of visitors should be accommodated, and that the planning process must account for increasing usage for both.

I highly doubt that NPS will eliminate all of the mules: if total elimination of mules is an option listed in the EA it will be there for completeness, to show that they considered all alternatives and rejected some (a straw horse?). To quote from the superintendent's letter: "The presence and use of mules in and around the canyon is a longstanding tradition and one that the park would like to continue." Everyone please submit your comments to the website: they will help justify rejecting the no mules "alternative"!

The options seriously considered will be how many mules per day on how many & which trails. I hope that the answer will not be the opposite extreme of "as many mules as possible on all trails every day", benefiting the concessionaire and riders at the expense of hikers and the resources, and making it like a ride at Disneyland or a walk in Cades Cove in the springtime (or time at the top on the south rim for that matter). At the same time I would like to see something that increases rather than decreases the capacity for both hiking and mule trips, so that trips down the canyon don't become a lottery or multi-decade waiting list like the river trips are.

I don't like having to give way repeatedly to oncoming mule trains. My preference would be either a posted schedule alternating days or weeks of mules / no mules on all of the major trails (staggered so that on any given day mules are allowed on some trails but not on others), which lets mule riders use every historic trail, or designated mule trails and hiking trails, where the mule trails can be built a bit sturdier (they're in the process of rebuilding some of the trails now after 70 years of wear & tear). Either permanently designated mule trails or weekly rotation could allow for requiring the concessionaire to remove the dung from trails or sensitive parts of trails if nutrients are a problem, or if the hiking experience is to be improved.

Those options alone don't increase capacity. If designated mule trails (fixed or rotating) or sections of trails could be made one-way for each day or half-day, more mule trains might be accommodated without head-on meeting of trains, thus fewer delays and a less-crowded experience for riders, and the ability for some hikers to tuck in between mule trains. [Making all trails shared but one-way on any given day or half day would work for me, as my net speed out of the canyon is about that of mules, so I wouldn't pass or be passed by mules, but runners are much faster and others are slower.]

If you have better suggestions, please submit them to the park planning website.

I agree with most of the posts. I took the 1 day mule ride yesterday. It should be on everyones list of things to do if they can. I would certainly understand the complaints of hikers. However, hikers have other trail alternatives that don't have mules. When I was younger I could have hiked the trail, but now that I am able to afford the trip to AZ and the Grand Canyon, I am greatful that I was able to see the panoramic view from the plateau.

I have hiked the Canyon numerous times over the years. I do consider the mules and their mess to be a great inconvience. However, they are not going to go away. Over the years I have decided that the corridor trails (aka: the freeway) are occassionally useful to connect to other trails. I have no problem with maintaining the status quo re: the corridor, as long as it prevents the concessionaires from using other trails for mules. I strongly oppose expanding use of stock on any trails other than the corridor. There are alternatives for serious canyon hikers that are mule free as well as very little contact with the hordes of people who utilize the corridor. Leave the corridor and the South Rim for the tourists. That makes the areas that require more effort (e.g. the North Rim, Tanner, Nankoweep, Red Canyon, Tonto, Point Sublime and etc.) freed up for those of us who are more willing and capable of making the extra effort.

My wife and I have been to the Grand several times and we have ridden the mules to Phantom Ranch and we have hiked rim-to-rim. For us, both experiences were uniquely memorable and profound beyond the justice that any written word can bring. The mule trip to Phantom Ranch was later gifted to my mother and sister as a Christmas gift because I discovered the experience to be so very profound. Upon the completion of their trip, they couldn't have agreed more. For many, the mules offer the only way to reach the inner depths of the canyon, and anyone who has been there learns immediately that one cannot truly appreciate the overpowering beauty and majesty of The Grand from behind the railings on the rims. On our rim-to-rim hike, we, of course, encountered several mule trains, and this was expected. Encountering the mules on the trails was just another part of what experiencing The Grand is all about. Never did we feel the mule’s presence as undesirable. On the contrary, the presence of the mule trains only enhanced our overall experience. As time goes by, the mules remain one of the few aspects of a Grand Canyon experience that reflect the history and heritage of the visit in a truly hands-on way. One hundred years from now, portions of a mule ride to the bottom of the canyon will feel just as they felt in the early 1900's. The day will likely come when a mule ride into the depths of the Grand is the only remaining experience that represents the historical heritage of the Grand. The hands-on, sometimes-dirty, dusty, hot, sweaty, uniquely beautiful and spiritual experience, that is accessible to the many, that is remembered for a lifetime, should certainly be preserved.

Yes, mule use should continue. It's a unique historical aspect of Grand Canyon NP. And, sustainable use is sensible. The problem lies in a definition of sustainable. Rafting through the canyon seems to be an appropriate analogy for sustainable use. Some kind of lottery system may be needed.

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography

I agree that mules provide accessibility to those who wouldn't otherwise have it; and I also understand that Phantom Ranch could not exist in its present form without mules (even removing the tourists - the ranch has to be supplied with food, tools, etc.); and the Park Service could not do their work without mules (trail construction supply, inner-canyon ranger station supply, etc.).

However, we have to remember that as mentioned in the article; we taxpayers are incurring the cost of damage and repairs to the trail, caused in large part by mule traffic. What we need to decide is how much use are we willing to pay for a commercial operator to make money at Grand Canyon? Are we taxpayers willing to spend a multi-million dollar per year maintenance cost so that Xanterra can make money? Are we happy to spend our tax dollars on trail maintenance so that someone else (the relatively few who get reservations for a mule ride) can have that experience?

Removing the mules would dramatically reduce the maintenance cost on trails maintenance. Without mules, these trails could last decades and have a relatively low cost of maintenance. With mules, Americans are paying millions per year for relatively few to enjoy the experience and so that one single company can make a profit.

Things to think about. Mules = great cost to the taxpayer, less mules = less cost to the taxpayer.

I believe we need a balance. Trips as are should be limited because of the huge price tag and the continual need of repairs, and the general overall condition of the trails do largely to mule traffic. But I don't think they should be eliminated completely. How about continuing the overnight trip but discontinuing the plateau point trip? How about an alternate rim trail being constructed? I don't want to remove mules from Grand Canyon, but I also don't think the price we are paying for it right now is fair.

My 10yearold son and I have ridden our own mules to phantom ranch three times in January and February.
This time of year the trails at the top are frozen with thick ice. There are not many hikers on the trail.
But at phantom ranch the temperature is pleasant. Also reservations are easier to get. Maybe they should do the majority of the rides in the winter months. It would break my heart if the mules where removed from the canyon because my son would not be able to take his son or daughter.

As a former grand canyon mule packer and trail guide, with 20 years of experience every day in the Canyon on a mule, I would like to offer perspective. First, it should be pointed out that there are over three hundred miles of trails inside grand canyon, and every single mile of trail was built originally for stock use. Over the past 100 years, stock has been resriticted to less than thirty miles of trails to use, while the rest remains open to hikers. If a hiker wants a mule free hike, they should have no trouble making that happen.
The mule operation makes between 300,000 and 500,000 a year, and from this revenue about 100,000 a year is guven to NPS for trail maintenance. They pay their share. For the past 15 years, NPS trail maintenance crews have squandered the money they have received for trail work. They have built bike paths to nowhere on the rim, they have gone on river trips that last weeks (on the clock) but they rarely are at work on trails in the canyon. In fact, if anyone has seen work being done on the Bright Angel or Kaibab trail in the last ten years, chances are these were mule hands, trying hard just to keep the trails passable and stay in operation.
A trail is a linear absence of vegetation, and in the desert this amounts to a wash. These washes (trails) are on grades up to 20 %. The trail damage has been caused by the effects of erosion. NPS used to fix this damage right away, but not anymore. They have dropped the ball, and now they seek to pass the buck and blame mules.
I have never understood why some hikers resented sharing the trails. The mule folks have always been happy to share the trails they built and maintained with hikers. Seems like one sided decency to me....

What would the mules like to do?

ditto, Bonnie.

What's going on here? You feel like you have the RIGHT to ride on an animal's back to see the floor of a canyon? do you feel good about making a poor animal carry you for 6 hours? if you are too lazy, then guess what, take photos from the rim. If you are handicapped, etc., then there are plenty of other ways to enjoy this and all other national parks. Walking to the floor of the Grand Canyon is a privilege, and certainly not a right. i cannot believe what i have been reading. i know there are several other reasons to stop using mules on the trails, but there is certainly an issue of animal cruelty.

If you walk, it's free. If you want to ride a mule, it costs money. The "special interest" argument is specious because it's the more exclusive rich folks that offer it.
The mules destroy the trail. The park is spending big bucks on a multi-year program to try to repair them. The mule use destroyed the resource and added costs, yet as a hiker I paid the same entry fee as the mule rider. In effect, I'm paying more so that the mules can ruin my experience. The only way the mules should remain is if mule riders pay an extra fee so the park can repair the damage that the mule-riding "special interest" incurs.
It's true that not everyone can walk to the bottom of the canyon. But at 55, I had no problem. If you are not up for it, be satisfied with walking a nice trail for a shorter visit. Or maybe we should make a 4-lane freeway down so that everyone could go see the 'pristine' canyon. And just think- the whole visit would take just minutes!
And last- on my hike in the canyon last weekend, my shirt turned green from mule droppings kicked up in the pulverized mule dust. I wonder what color my lungs are now?

Actually, not all of the above is correct. The majority of trails in the Grand Canyon have their origins as game trails and Native American prehistoric and historic routes into the Canyon. Only a realatively small number of the total number of trails in the canyon were improved by prospectors and miners in the late 1800's, early 1900's (like Hance, Bass...) or during the early 1900's for tourist (Hermit, South Kaibab) for access by stock.

When the NPS trail crew is on a river trip they are working on trails along that corridor that lead to attraction sites, such as the Nankoweap granaries.

The NPS routinely works on the Bright Angel, South Kaibab, and North Kaibab trails, in some cases, assisted in their work by a trail crew employed by the South Rim concession company. The funds the NPS receives from the mule concession pays for work on inner canyon trails.

The money used to fund the rim trails, such as the greenway trails mentioned above, come from other funding sources. And while those trails seem to go nowhere, there is a phased plan to connect such trails from one attraction site, say Hermit's Rest, to another, such as the Yavapai Observation Center, or Yaki Point. These trails provide access to the rim for hikers, bicyclists, and persons with disabilities. These greenways encourage and enable employees to safely walk or bike to work, reducing vehicle use and allow people, who might not be able to do so otherwise, see the rim and travel along it for significant distances, safely.

The dried mule droppings do not bother me, but the puddles of mule urine do emit disconcerting odors (and I do not hike the canyon in waterproof/urine-proof boots). Nevertheless, I will find it upsetting if the the authorities decide that the mules must wear diapers. A mule driver at Phantom Ranch told me that the "powers that be" are talking about requiring diapers on mules.

There are usually 12 mules a day delivering supplies for, mainly, hikers such as yourself John and Phantom Ranch which has 13 full time employees which also cater to mostly hikers. Add on NPS mules that also haul supplies for the Ranger Station both there and to Cottonwood. Add on NPS mules and concession mules that do trail work of some kind everyday. As far as paying their way, the surcharge that could be put on every hiker that goes into the Canyon to cover search, rescue and in some cases, retrieval of room temperature hikers would COMPLETELY eliminate hikers altogether from the Canyon it would be so exorbitant. 250 rescues a year exclusively by helicopter at $3000 per hour. Some searches go on for weeks. Occasionally there is a rider that needs to be evacuated. I had one such situation in three years of guiding. I also do a lot of hiking. Some others in my family ride and some are extremely accomplished hikers and outdoorsmen. Knowing both worlds well, in my opinion, I enjoy the Canyon more on a mule. For me there isn't the need to prove to myself that I can do it. I can and have many times. Just by putting your confidence in something other than your own two feet is transformational for most. Some would be afraid to do that. The Canyon is about (what I've seen) breakthroughs and like someone else has said, we ALL have something to learn here.

Just remove hikers from the Canyon would also solve the problem since the great majority of mule support and helicopter rescues are for hiker benefit. Ex Superintendent Steve Martin would like your argument better. He may even like my argument as long as he has his raft trips and personal mule rides with Ted Turner:):). Could be a ring of truth to this, LOL!

I've hiked down and I've ridden down. The ride is breathtaking because you can enjoy the scenery and take photos without having to mind your step. You are also able to enjoy the view from a higher vantage point. The hike is grand as long as you can afford to take the time to view/record the sights without endangering yourself or losing your footing. That having been said, there are other trails that a hiker can take that aren't used by the mules.

I wouldn't trade my mule ride down to Phantom Ranch for anything. If they want to cut cars from entering Grand Canyon National Park, cut down on the number of mule trains and hiking permits they can, but the park will just become even more exclusive. Back in '92 when I rode down it cost over $100 for one night af Phantom ranch (I forget how much) and we had to make our mule reservations over a year in advance. And this is just a typical family from inside the USA. But when we got to the Grand Canyon, we were amazed by the vastness of visitors from all over the world. Limiting or eliminating Mules/visitors/cars might be better for the environment but at the same time so sad that less people would be able to enjoy the Park in their lifetime. But if they do cut down, only the more affluent or hopefully more eco-minded people would go, making the overall park quality better long term. I hate to see ignorant people littering at such a beautiful place. I say keep the mules, but keep out people without common sense.

Years ago, I was hiking down the South Kaibab trail very early in the morning (3AM or so) and I walked right into a standing pool of mule urine. It was a bit dismaying, but it wasn't really that big a deal. Indeed, with the perspective of time, it was one of the more memorable events associated with that project and that trip (stabilization and excavation of the small pueblo along the trail between Phantom Ranch and the suspension bridge). I have made a fair number of trips in the Canyon, both line of duty and personal, and while the mules are a bit of a hassle, they really have tradition on their side. It is interesting to see some of the actual figures associated with mule use and trail upkeep. It is worth pointing out that hiking use also causes trail erosion and damage, especially at the volume incurred on the Bright Angel and Kaibab.
It is definitely true that mule free hiking cn be experienced on the many other trails in the park. They are much better bets for experiencing solitude, a rare commodity on the BA&K.

Tradition is on the side of the mules. I say keep them, pools of urine and all, but give serious thought to alternative scheduling, excrement cleanup, and other measures which will improve everyone's Grand Canyon experience.

Don, I certainly appreciate your sentiments and the work you did on the ruins near the Black bridge. The conversation in many circles and subjects often does not get past the I, me, wants missing the big picture. When I first came to the Canyon, the Canyon itself and the mules were a given but I never expected to truly enjoy the people that are (for many young and old) transformed to a better place by the experience of being in the Canyon, growing in confidence in their mule (and themselves), discarding emotional burdens and seeing the world in a different light. A very good light, indeed. And I got to hang out with the young and not so young that were humbled and grateful for the experience making them all better citizens. I also do a lot of hiking on the remote back country trails so I appreciate my feet also but I believe part of the transformation that riders experience is that they gradually put their confidence into something other than their own two feet and it seems almost biblical to watch it come over many. The handicapped in various ways both physical and mentally find a special partner in their mules as found in many therapy situations. Yes, the mules do have the edge in tradition and much, much more:). Again, I appreciate your sentiments and your contributions to the Canyon.