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.

Comments

Here's a report on the new Preferred Alternative to the 104 year old Iconic Inner Canyon Mule Ride to Plateau Point. This is beyond sad!

And this... from tripadvisor.in "I took the Abyss Overlook Mule Ride. I didn't read their description well enough. I was excited to take a mule ride in/on the Grand Canyon. Please be aware that this ride is NOT in, on or near the canyon. You ride for a little over an hour through a "plain" woods, hitch up your mule to a post and then walk a few minutes cross a road and the you are at the "Abyss Overlook". If you like to spend $$$ to ride a mule through some woods, then take this trip. If you want to see the Grand Canyon, then take the free Park Service bus to the very same overlook from the Grand Canyon Village

The description does not mention the sewer effluent stream that goes along the trail through the pines, nice:).

To/for Spirit Coyote: It is wonderful that U are fit enough to make the trek down and back up into The Grand Canyon, and not having to "waste money" as U describe the cost to ride a mule down/back from the Canyon Floor. HOPEFULLY your fitness and overall health will permit U that opportunity in your later years of life. U apparently have no respect for those citizens, some of whom have been mentioned, whom are para-plegics/handicapped persons and do not posess the wellness to permit them to hike into the Canyon.
I myself have endured by-pass surgery in 2009, and suffer from periferal neuropathy, and would LOVE having the physical fitness to hike into the Canyon floor, but that is not possible during my mid-seventies of age. So, I MUST and WILL make my reservation for the mule ride and overnight stay at Phantom Ranch, in order I may enjoy and achieve the #1 item on my "BUCKET LIST", which has been on my DO-LIST since 1984.
IF required, I would be happy to clean up after my assigned mule during the ride if that would be a requirment, in order this 'old farm boy' could ENJOY the inner Grand Canyon as apparently will be provided by the mule ride.

Dear Mr. Tough guy,
I am so happy that you are a strong, healthy, tough guy. That is something I always wanted to be. You are indeed very lucky. Sometimes it's hard to look around and see the simpler, weaker people who also long to be active in a way that best works for them. Out of respect and responsible actions I can only hope that you would reconsider you harsh response to people who use the mule rides to get down to the canyon. You truly fit the today generation where everything is about ME!
Recently I rode the mules down to the Supai tunnel. I really wanted to go much farther down. The hikers I met on the trail were nice wonderful people. I'm sure the two guys I saw peeing on the trail were nice to. As for the rocks that had 'I love you' scratched into them, I suppose those hikers had the right to do that too! NOT!
We ALL need to get along and share! Let the mule concessions continue. Let the healthy and hearty hikers enjoy the work out. Mule urine and poop is not hazardous waste! Step around it!
Greet each other in happiness! The outdoors are for everyone!