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Grand Canyon National Park Officials Release Stock Use Plan, Including Mule Ride Quotas


A stock use plan approved for Grand Canyon National Park greatly reduces the number of mule rides below the South Rim. NPS photo.

While mule rides will continue at Grand Canyon National Park under a new stock use plan, only 10 visitors a day will be allowed to ride below the South Rim, a decision lamented by some who say it will deprive many of venturing into the canyon's Inner Gorge.

"I feel like the Grand Canyon is a gift to people, and when you start restricting usage you make it almost impossible for elderly people to get down into the canyon, or the handicapped," Ron Clayton, a long-time mule skinner who began guiding mules below the South Rim in the 1980s, said Tuesday after the plan was released.

Under the decision approved by Intermountain Regional Director John Wessels on January 5, mule use will continue at "historically high levels," although the number going down into the Inner Gorge from the South Rim will be cut in half and will be solely for guests staying overnight at Phantom Ranch. No Inner Gorge day rides will be offered.

“Mule rides have always been an important part of the visitor experience at Grand Canyon,” said acting-Superintendent Palma Wilson in a park release announcing the plan's approval. “Our challenge with this plan was to balance that use with the protection of historic trails and to reduce the high cost of maintaining those trails. We believe this plan strikes such a balance.”

Mule use has been hard on the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails, according to park officials. Nearly a year ago when the park released its draft preferred alternative for the stock use plan officials noted that roughly $3 million a year is needed to adequately maintain the park’s corridor trails. But, they said at the time, the park only receives $1.5 million to $2 million a year towards that cost. "Additionally, deferred maintenance costs on inner canyon corridor trails currently exceeds $24 million," they said at the time.

And mule use can be messy, with the animals' wastes at times forcing hikers to hopscotch around the splatters, piles, and puddles. Still, there are those who maintain priorities, not budgets, dictated the reduction in Inner Gorge mule trips.

“I don’t agree with their rationale, that they don’t have the budget to maintain those trails. It saddens me to see that," Mr. Clayton said during a phone conversation from his Arizona home.

While he agreed that mules have impacts on the trails, he noted that erosion does as well.

"Erosion is what they have to address. That’s going to happen if they have mules in there or no mules are in there. That’s where I’d like to see them address their attention," said Mr. Clayton.

Park officials said the "stock use plan allows a potential 20 percent increase in commercial mule rides over the present yearly average on South Rim trails, and a potential 13 percent increase over the present annual average on North Rim trails."

For a park with more than 4 million visitors, most who head to the South Rim, just 10 slots a day for a mule ride below the rim seems a bit odd to Mr. Clayton.

“It kind of makes it sound like we might have some elitists at the helm," he said.

Such limits reduce the number of park visitors who see the Inner Gorge to, essentially, "the very fit" and the "very young," Mr. Clayton said.

The mule skinner, who in the 1980s "was honored by being able to take the first paraplegic and first quadriplegic down into the canyon," said mule trips are strenuous and are not for everyone. Still, he said, for the elderly or those with handicaps that prevent them from hiking down into the Inner Gorge, mule trips serve a great purpose with a great reward.

"We find it’s tougher and tougher on the elderly, but it’s still a trip they’ll never forget once they accomplish that," said Mr. Clayton.

Under the new plan, instead of 40 riders a day on the Bright Angel Trail (20 that traveled as far as Plateau Point, and 20 to the canyon bottom and Phantom Ranch) there will be just 10 mules hauling guests down to the ranch. With the South Kaibab Trail currently under repair, there also will be 10 rim-bound mules a day up the Bright Angel Trail; once the repairs are finished in another year or two, rim-bound mule trains will head up the South Kaibab Trail, park officials explained.

The previous Plateau Point ride will be replaced by an above-the-rim ride that park officials said "offers greater flexibility and more opportunities for visitors."

The plan also limits trips to Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail to 280 rides per week with a daily maximum not to exceed 48 riders a day, a number that has been exceeded less than a dozen times in recent years, according to Grand Canyon officials. The plan also eliminates the Roaring Springs ride due to the steep, narrow nature of the Roaring Springs section of the North Kaibab Trail.

The adopted plan allows the following:

South Rim operations

* Commercial stock use: Up to 10,000 commercial mule rides a year (current average use is 8,315 rides).

* Bright Angel Trail: Up to 10 mule riders a day, plus up to two guides, from the rim to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River. Day rides to Plateau Point will no longer operate.

* South Kaibab Trail: Up to 10 mule riders a day, plus guides, from Phantom Ranch to the rim. In addition, up to 12 supply mules, including guides, will be allowed daily to Phantom Ranch.

* Above-rim ride: Up to 40 mule riders a day, with at least one guide for every 10 riders, on a loop route from the South Kaibab trailhead to the rim near Yaki Point, continuing east another mile before returning.

* South Rim stock facilities: The historic mule barn in Grand Canyon Village will continue to house a small number of commercial mules. Most of the concessioner’s stock will move to the South Kaibab trailhead mule barn and corrals, which will be improved to accommodate more animals.

* Private stock use: Up to six riders and six mules/horses on overnight trips below the rim. Day-use group size will be up to 12 riders and 12 stock.

North Rim operations

* Commercial stock use: Up to 8,000 commercial mule rides a year (current average use is 7,072 rides).

* North Kaibab Trail: Up to 48 riders a day, with no more than 280 in a seven-day period (average of 40 a day) to Supai Tunnel, with no more than 30 riders on the trail at one time. These numbers reflect changes from the original EA, based on public demand and meetings with the mule ride concessioner.

* Ken Patrick Trail (above rim): Up to 40 one-hour mule riders a day to the Uncle Jim Trail junction, with no more than 20 mule riders on this section of trail at one time.

* Uncle Jim Trail: Up to 20 half-day riders a day to Uncle Jim Point North Rim stock facilities: The hitching rail at Uncle Jim Point will remain in place, and a one-stall composting toilet will replace the existing facility, with weekly (or as needed) cleaning and routine maintenance.

* Private stock use: Up to six riders and six mules/horses on overnight trips below the rim. Day-use group size will be up to 12 riders and 12 stock.

* Commercial use at Tuweep and Whitmore Trail: Up to six stock-use groups a year at Tuweep under a commercial use authorization. These groups are limited to 12 riders and 12 stock, including guides, and are for day-use only. Stock use will be discontinued on Whitmore Trail, which is remote and not maintained.

Additionally, the park release said "the stock use plan will help Grand Canyon address the impact of heavy, continuous use and limited trail maintenance funds on the park’s 42 miles of corridor trails – the three main routes into the inner canyon."

Park officials note that Grand Canyon visitors have taken guided mule trips since the early 1900s, before the park was officially established in 1919. Today, an average of 15,400 visitors a year ride mules on commercially guided trips down into the canyon and above the rim. The number of private mule and stock use is unknown because day-use permits are not required, but on average, about 60 private riders a year make overnight trips.


I ride mules, I hike, I swim, I explore in a 4x4,I enjoy the outdoors in many ways. My choice is not based on the cost of the enjoyment. Rather it is based on the enjoyment and the experience. I don't begrudge anybody that wants to walk or ride, but I do begrudge it when they feel that "Their" opinion or choice of mode of transportation is the only one that is right. I Don't drive a Toyota Prius because it is my freedom to choose what I drive. What I see here is the same thing that was common when I designed and built log homes....The people that had the most influential opinion had never been in a log home. There is nothing wrong with regulations on mule traffic in the Grand Canyon just like there are speed limits on the Interstate. But restricting mule traffic to an absurd limit by people that have not truly experienced the views from a mules back or have a solid understanding of the facts is like post a speed limit on I-40 of 25 miles an hour by somebody that thinks cars have no place in transportation. Based on the expressed theory that it is wrong to use money to avoid walking one might want to consider how they got to the Grand Canyon to "Take a walk" in the first place. Then on the other hand, I would rather walk in 100% organic by products than the byproducts that humans create by the millions of tons. Spend a little time with a mule. Look in his eyes. You can trust 100% that that mule will take care of you. That mule can be more trusted than most people. Mules don't do stupid things, people do and people don't ever want to accept any personal blame. It is always easier to blame someone or some thing, so lets blame the mules, they can't fight back.

The argument that has been used is that mules are responsible for all the trail damage. The denial that erosion and the lack of trail maintenance over last 60 years does not support the public's interests (or the resource). It would seem that erosion had nothing to do with the formation of the Grand Canyon, LOL! The picture here is the damage resulting from just one rain storm this year without any mule traffic on it for the previous 18 months (South Kaibab). Just shining a little light on the discussion here, respectfully:). Mistakes were made in the EA process and need to be corrected.

With respect to all those that are intimately involved here and are transformed into better people by the Inner Canyon experience I'd like to add the following:

The Canyon does make us all small. Such a burden being BIG, LOL!
What I'd like to avoid is to further an adversarial situation that doesn't really do the Canyon justice. The mule/hiker experience is so intertwined and positive by MOST opinions. The most endearing quality that I hear expressed about the Canyon is that it is so humbling and puts us in a good place, if we survive,LOL!
I take exception to what Supt. Steve Martin has done here with the Mule Issue at the Canyon as well as with the HubbellTrading Post. The iconic and personal value to the public have been diminished. Mistakes were made and a correction is warranted. RG

Oh ive seen something nastier than that bison turd or mule poop you talk of. I worked in the canyon as a mule packer and trail maintenance for a long long time. Pick up a rock beside the trail, yep, likely there is human feces under it.
This deal about the mule poop disgusting rings hollow to me, I know what nasty creatures the human packpacker can be.

Well since I last visited there has been some very lively discussion here! I did notice some small confusion that I can help clear up. With regards to why and who constructed the trails, almost all the inner canyon trail network was originally constructed as mining access trails, where pack animals, including mules and burros were used to bring out ore. Notable exception being the south kaibab, which was built for political leverage to force Ralph Cameron to relenquish his right to the bright angel trail to the government. Native people had many routes into the canyon, and you hikers know the difference between a route and a trail. Without exception, these trails were ALL built for stock use originally.
I had to laugh at the fellow,(we assume) who bragged himself up on how tough he was to hike the canyon instead of ride. HA! This fellow does not know Ron Clayton, the toughest man I have ever met, and one who would not be caught dead "afoot" if he could help it. I would like to see this tough hiker work side beside by Ron and take bets on how long he lasts.
What it all has come down to is competition over resources , people. Mule riders came first. Recreational hikers are recent pilgrims. Many recreational hikers dont want to share, for whatever reasons, so they have worked toward taking the place over for their own purposes. (Yes its elitism). Its nothing unique in the west.
Now that the pioneers have taken the arrows, the pilgrims move to push them out and take over.
Such nobility!
Casey Murph

Submitted by 20 year veteran of rides originating from North Rim, KM:
First of all, the Superintendent said that due to the excessive stock use on the trails, they are eroding the trail and that's 90% of the issue on the trail. That isn't the case. I know because I've worked there for 20 years. When I first came to the North Rim, we took twice what we take now and the trail was in better shape. The trail crew knew how to keep the trail up and they would let us help them. They would let us work with them and help. Now they don't spend much time at all down there.

All last summer, 90% of the trail work that was done on the North Rim was on the rim, it was not even in the Canyon. The trail crew is not down there like it used to be. The picture of trail damage on display (at public meeting) on the North Kaibab Trail is at a place that we don't even go anymore. That's part of what we don't do. The trail crew had to fix it like they have to EVERY year for the 20 years I've been here because it is on a flood area. When it rains, it floods and washes out, so that picture looks like they're having to fix it from the mule use. No, it's because it flooded, it floods every year whether the mules are there or not!

Note: No apparent erosion in the Grand Canyon, LOL! A revisit of this issue is suggested :).

I think that the hikers who don't want to share the trails with the mules are selfish and ill-informed, with a large sense of self-entitlement. If they don't like the mules, then why don't they hike on some of the other more than 250 miles of trails in the canyon? Why do they insist on the (relatively) easiest trail, the BA for their use? Those hikers complain that mule riders are just too fat and too lazy to hike (which of course is not true), well if they are so fit, then they don't need to use the easiest trail. Which, BTW was made BY mules FOR mules; that is why it works so well for mules and hikers.

Yes, I realize that not all hikers feel this way. Many of the hikers are wonderful people and not selfish at all. Many people enjoy hiking and riding, as long as they are in the canyon, they don’t care. They appreciate the fact that the mules brought EVERYTHING to the bottom for Phantom RANCH to be built in the first place, and that mules continue to supply all the beer and food they enjoy at Phantom, and to pack out the trash. They know that what trail maintenance is done, must be assisted by MULES, because people can’t do it alone.

They are well informed enough to know that the problem with the trails is not caused by mules, but by the lack of proper maintenance on the trails for the past 20 years and more. Trail maintenance funds have been diverted to pet projects, and the trails were allowed to deteriorate. Then when the trails are a mess, the blame is put on the mules. Talk to people who have been around for a while and know something (and are not employed at the park, and thus able to speak freely). Try reading the series of articles by Terry Wagner in Western Mule Magazine.

Informed people who are honest with themselves appreciate the fact that the mule wranglers, on a day-to-day basis, have the most responsibility in the entire park And that in more than a century of taking people on mule back down the canyon, the mules and the wranglers have the best safety record of any in the park. Plus, the wranglers always carry extra water to assist hikers and riders and can be in radio contact with assistance for injured hikers often times much more quickly than one could find a ranger to do so. Hmmmmm, I wonder how much of the money spent to rescue injured and recover dead hikers could otherwise be spent on properly maintaining the trails?

There is, unfortunately, a group of “vocal locals” who think the canyon belongs to them; that if one doesn’t care to see it their way, with Camelbak, and Powerbars attempting a new record on their latest rim-to-rim, one does not deserve to see it except to gaze from the rim. This group would love to see mules out of the canyon entirely (except for their supplies of course!). They many eventually get their wish.

Please visit my group and get to know some of the people who are members, and know much more than I and have been very helpful in opening my eyes. Watch some of the videos—those mule hooves do NOT strike like pickaxes and destroy the trail! All the riders weigh less than 200 pounds, and many don’t even approach that—fat? Look at the young and not so young riders (all taller than 4 7)—lazy? Look at the photos posted of the S. Kaibab, freshly repaired and 18 months mule-free, after the first rain storm (erosion anyone?) and tell me that is damage caused by mules.

Grand Canyon Mule Riders and Wrangler Appreciation

P.S. Notice how many hikers have many, many visits to the park? Gosh, they can't allow some people to have a once in a lifetime experience on mules because it might spoil their umpteenth visit to Phantom. Must be nice to have the money and time to make so many visits to the Grand Canyon. And you can bet your sweet bippy that the hikers are oh so happy that now more of the cabins are freed up for them instead of mule riders.

Submitted Public Comment by Keith Green, long time Canyon Resident and NPS Interpretive Ranger, Retired.

"I just want to say that I'm legally blind and I really understand what an impact this would make to anybody with any kind of inability that couldn't hike in the Canyon; although, yeah, you could go down the river, but then you only see what's down at the River, you don't get to see what's on the trails. To eliminate the trips to Plateau Point, one of the most beautiful places in the Canyon, and to eliminate the trip down to Roaring Springs on the North Rim, would be a real disservice to anybody with any kind of disability who cannot handle the trail. I used to be able to handle the trail, but now, you know, I'm just getting to the point where-I'm only 62, but I'm too, it's to hard for me to hike on the trails, so I can't go down there anymore unless I can go down on the mules.
And so, like I said, I'll say it again, eliminating the mules to Plateau Point and to Roaring Springs would pretty much tell anybody with a disability that can't go to those places.

Note: Keith, has for years, given wildly interesting, Interp. talks at Shrine of the Ages relating effectively what can be learned from the Canyon.

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