Grand Canyon National Park Officials Want To Keep Mule Rides in the Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park officials are proposing to continue mule rides in the park. NPS photo.

Grand Canyon National Park officials, who have been mulling the continued use of mule trips in the canyon, are supporting a plan that would allow 10,000 mules rides a year on the South Rim and as many as 8,000 on the North Rim.

That preferred alternative is contained in the Environmental Assessment released Tuesday. The assessment, in the works since last May, will be open for public comments for 45 days. The document took a look at the environmental impacts associated with commercial, private, and administrative stock use, and tried to arrive at a reasonable plan for managing mule rides in the park.

Objectives considered by the planners included: 1) Provide opportunities for mule and stock use within Grand Canyon National Park to as large a cross section of visitors as practicable; 2) Establish appropriate levels and types of stock use (i.e. number of stock per day, group size) on park trails that will allow for improved maintenance and reduced resource impacts and costs associated with trail maintenance; 3) Through improved maintenance and operations, reduce conflicts between stock users and hikers on park trails, and; 4) Identify optimal stock facility locations, including associated infrastructure size and locations for improving health, safety and overall visitor experience.

There are five alternatives contained in the assessment. All have the following common elements: continued limited commercial use at Tuweep, no commercial stock use on Whitmore Trail, trail monitoring, use of an adaptive management strategy, continued trail maintenance and funding, temporary trail closures, removal of mule waste from trails, education of trail users, implementation of annual limits on commercial mule rides, general retention of stock facilities, and continued administrative stock use.

The Preferred Alternative, Alternative B, also includes the following, pending the ability to maintain park trails:

South Rim Commercial Stock Use

* Up to 10,000 commercial mule rides, including inner canyon and above rim rides would be offered each year. (current annual average use – 8,315 rides)

* On Bright Angel Trail, up to 10 rides per day would be allowed to Phantom Ranch. Plateau Point day rides from the South Rim would not be offered under this alternative.

* On South Kaibab Trail, up to 10 rides per day from Phantom Ranch; plus up to 12 pack stock would be allowed to Phantom Ranch each day (round trip).

* An above the rim ride from Yaki Point area east toward Shoshone Point would be allowed at a level of 40 rides per day (the concessioner would be responsible for maintenance of the rim trail through their operating plan).

* The current mule barn in Grand Canyon Village would house a small number of concessioner stock; the majority of concessioner stock operations would be moved to the South Kaibab Trailhead.

North Rim Commercial Use

* Up to 8,000 commercial mule rides, including inner canyon and above rim rides, would be offered each year. (current annual average use – 7,072 rides)

* On the North Kaibab Trail, up to 40 rides per day would be allowed to the Supai Tunnel with no more than 20 rides on the trail at one time. The North Kaibab Trail would be open for commercial stock to the Supai Tunnel, but not to Roaring Springs.

* Up to 40 one-hour rides on the Ken Patrick Trail to the Uncle Jim junction would be allowed per day with no more than 20 mules on this section of trail at any one time.

* Up to 20 half-day rides to Uncle Jim Point would be allowed daily.

* The hitching rail at Uncle Jim Point would remain in place and a one-stall composting toilet would be installed to replace the existing temporary toilet.

Private Stock Use

* Overnight below the rim groups would be allowed with up to six stock and six people per group. Day use (allowed both above and below the rim) would be allowed up to 12 stock and 12 people per group.

Under all Action Alternatives, a monitoring and adaptive management strategy would be used to assess trail and resource conditions, the Park Service said.

Of course, permitting so many mule trips in the park is one thing, maintaining the trail infrastructure is an entirely different, and expensive, issue. Here's how the Grand Canyon officials explain it:

Inner canyon corridor trails are subject to significant annual erosion, seasonal flooding and rockslides, and acute wear from mule concessions on both the North and South Rims of Grand Canyon National Park. Due to years of continuous use and limited funds the trails have fallen into disrepair.

Inner canyon corridor trails are difficult to navigate for both hikers and mules, and in some areas, multiple trails have developed because the trails are too steep or extremely rutted. Support walls and structures need upgrading and rebuilding to improve safety conditions for both hikers and stock users alike.

Each year, the park receives numerous complaints regarding trail conditions and mule waste on the trails. Both stock users and hikers have expressed concerns regarding the safety of stock users, the lack of knowledge regarding trail etiquette from hikers and discourtesy from some stock users.

An annual budget of approximately $3 million dollars is needed to adequately maintain the park’s corridor trails; however, the park only receives between $1.5 and $2 million annually through entrance fees, concessions franchise fees and other sources for trail maintenance and repair. Additionally, deferred maintenance costs on inner canyon corridor trails currently exceeds $24 million (GRCA PAMP 2006) – unless management actions are taken in the near future, trails will continue to fall into disrepair and deferred maintenance costs will continue to increase.

Through the proposed adaptive management strategy, the park would monitor the cost of trail maintenance, trail conditions, total deferred maintenance costs, stock and hiker use levels, and resource conditions. This information would be used by park managers to implement additional actions if necessary (i.e. park managers could choose to further limit stock use or close trails to stock use permanently or seasonally or limit human use (seasonally, number per day, etc.)).

The EA can be reviewed online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/grca by clicking on the project name, and then scrolling to “Open for Public Comments.” Comments can be submitted online at the same Web address (the preferred method), mailed to Steve Martin, Superintendent, Grand Canyon National Park, Attention: Stock Use EA, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, Arizona 86023 or provided at one of the public meetings listed below. Comments will be accepted through April 30, 2010.

The National Park Service will host three public meetings, as announced last week, to provide information and answer questions on the EA. The meetings will be in an open house format with a brief introduction at the beginning of each meeting provided by park staff. The public is invited to stop by at any time between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. at one of the following locations:

March 22

Grand Canyon, Arionza...................South Rim/Community Building

March 24

Kanab, Utah.............................Holiday Inn Express, 217 South 100 East

March 25

Flagstaff, Arizona......................Little America Hotel, 2515 E. Butler Avenue

Comments

We have ridden the mules to the bottom of the canyon and spent the night at Phantom Ranch. It's a great way to see the canyon. Hikers were complaining about the "waste" in 1988 when we made the trip and all I can say is, step around it. This isn't a mall parking lot.

This part of americana should be avaiable to all americans even though I personally will probaly never see the Grand canyon due to the cost of the trip. This form of travel is the only form of transport for the persons in the bottom of the canyon. As I understand there are helicopter transports but that takes away from the natural beauty and solitude of the whole trip. Sometimes you have to leave the high tech world behind and keep it simple. , One more thing, I step in cow and horse _ _ _ _ every day, it wont hurt you.

I have taken the mule ride down the North Kaibab trail to Roaring Springs (1987). I have also hiked South Kaibab trail to Phantom Ranch and the Bright Angel trail out from Phantom Ranch (2004). I understand the appeal of mule rides and do not wish to see them stopped, but as a hiker I would like to see two limits to their use. First, I would like them to leave one of the two main trails from the South Rim for hikers. Second, I would like to see better spacing between groups than I saw when we were near the top of the Bright Angel trail. We had to wait for three separate mule groups within a 20 minute time period.
The only helicopters we saw/heard were bringing lumber for the rebuilding of trails. I think most helicopter usage is near Havasu Falls.

I have no problem with the mule rides per se, but it has to be noted that being at ground level smelling that stuff is rather unpleasant. There were some areas where it was a veritable minefield of partially digested mule waste and the only way to step around it was to fall off the trail.

Perhaps this is impractical, but has there ever been a suggestion to require that any mule droppings must be cleaned up by the concessionaire? It would seem to be a fairly simple matter of having a final mule in each train delegated to carry a bag of waste. If I bring a dog to a local park and it does its business on the trail, I would have to pick it up.

The trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the mules was one of the highlights of my childhood (it was my twelfth birthday present, after begging my parents for years I was finally old enough).

It was 123 degrees at Phantom Ranch when we arrived there, and Bright Angel Creek was *so* cool and wonderful.

Yea to NPS for their commitment to culture and tradition - and keeping the inner canyon accessible to those who cannot hike.

I feel mule rides should continue but with a recognition and lessening of their impacts. I have hiked both South Kaibab and Bright Angel numerous times and the Mule waste is an issue. Given the volume of mules on the trail we are not talking about a few droppings but large piles of dung and pools of urine. I have had to maneuver around pools of mixed urine and dung, some 10-20 feet in length and several inches deep. When mixed with snow on the trail it sometimes makes hiking the trail repulsive. With no way to get around it you simply have to hike through it and long sections reek of urine and dung. Winter tends to be a better time to hike and there are also far fewer mule rides as an added plus.

The waste issue is one of the reasons that I avoided hiking the 2 trails over the last 10-15 years and focused on some of the more remote trails. I did return to hike the trails with my kids this last fall and it was a pleasure hiking down the South Kaibab since the trail was closed to all mule trips due to the trail undergoing reconstruction.

I completely agree that concessionaires, who take in far more money than the NPS does, should be responsible for hauling the cr*p out and should pay for a large portion of trail reconstruction, given that mules are far more damaging to trails than hikers. If there were no mule rides the trails could be maintained to a much cheaper standard than at present.

AZ Hiker,

I believe the mule concession does do a lot of trail maintenance and mules are used to haul the equipment used to do this maintenance. Also mules pack in a lot of the food and drinks that hikers like to buy at Phantom Ranch, are used occasionally in rescue missions, and also pack in supplies for the park rangers. I am a former Inner Canyon Ranger and I agree with the other posters. Mules are a part of the Bright Angel Trail history and tradition.

There are plenty of other Grand Canyon trails available to people who are offended by stock use.

As a former mule wrangler (1981,1982,1989) along with having hiked the canyon initially in 1980 which led to my going to work as a mule guide I fell in love the the canyon for all the obvious reasons that attracks other BUT if you look back to the biginning of Grand Canyon history the mules have been there from the beginning and are a huge and main reason the canyon is so enjoyed by hikes and nature lovers! If not for the mules and amazing ability to navigate the canyon safely and have the ability to pack the loads they do many trails and facilities we all enjoy would not have been possible and many many folks who could have never been able to hike it....whoa to the folks that can't truly appreciate what the mules represent to the Grand Canyon and to complain about them is simply a narrow minded and selfish view point. Many toursists during my time there came just to see the mules leave to go down the trail because that is what so many have over the past 100 plus years come to know about the canyon the most! What a shame it would be if mules were banned or severly cut back do to some people upset over a little mule waste! There are many more and worse issues that should be addressed than some hikers that can't handle the odor or a little effort to step around it.....funny tho mule waste is hay and water and yet during my time as a guide I was sickened by how much I found where hikers left their own human waste right on the side of the trail and many other places.......watch the mule ride video if they still have it in the curio shops called "mule ride" it tells the whole story of how imortant the mules have been to the canyon since the beginning!! Happy Trails! enough for all to enjoy! Just share it!!