Touring Grand Canyon National Park: Take It Sitting Down

The Grand Canyon has a new taxi service. It’s totally green and only for off-road touring. Like a New York cabby, these guys have a no-nonsense attitude, occasionally talk back, and are famously stubborn, but the resemblance ends there. The rides have long, pointed ears and four feet.

Mule-back tours in the canyon date back to 1887 during the mining era. Prospectors didn’t find riches, but they did notice the increasing crowds that flocked to the canyon rim. They repurposed their efforts and hit an endless vein of pay dirt when they started mining tourist dollars instead of silver. Riding into the mile-deep canyon became the traditional, and still-popular, way to see the canyon from the inside out.

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The Canyon Vistas mule ride earns its name at every stop along the trail. Photo by George Oxford Miller.

Now, for the first time ever, visitors can ride along the rim for spectacular views up and down the canyon and ten miles across to the North Rim.

“When the National Park Service started refurbishing the South Kaibab Trail, we had to move the Phantom Ranch mule rides to the Bright Angel Trail,” Bruce Brossman, Xanterra marketing director, said. “Limits on the number of mules permitted on the trail meant we had to discontinue the half-day ride to Indian Gardens halfway down. We created the Abyss Overlook ride, but it went through the woodlands a short distance from the rim. Now, the Canyon Vistas ride follows a brand new trail along the rim. The Park Service built it especially for the mule ride.”

A special bus takes us from the Village mule barn to the stables at Yaki Point. We saddle up and head for the rim on the 4.2-mile roundtrip trail literally yards away from the chasm edge. Mattie-Le Booth, our wrangler, wears a period lacy blouse along with her jeans, hat, and boots–items as stylish, and functional, today as a century ago.

“Mules have always been the traditional work animal in the West, especially in the mountains,” she assures us. “They have a self-preservation gene so strong they won’t do anything that harms them, like getting too close to the cliff.”

At the first stop we square off facing an expansive view of Vishnu’s Temple rising out of the gorge. Mattie-Le gives a short geology lesson, one of six interpretive explanations along the way.

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Mattie-Le Booth leads the Canyon Vistas tour and explains the canyon features at interpretive stops. Photo by George Oxford Miller.

The scalpel of erosion carved massive battleships, pinnacles, hog-back ridges, and buttes in a sculpture garden on a scale that challenges the human mind. On a distant ridge, Desert Tower, the only manmade object visible, is a minute dot on the horizon.

Mules are such an important part of the Grand Canyon experience that a fulltime saddle maker custom makes every saddle to fit each mule. A staff farrier replaces shoes every six weeks and in the winter adds little spikes to use on icy trails.

The stoic mules plod along to the turn-around point, occasionally snatching a bushy bite. On the return, we marvel at the panorama from the opposite direction. No dismounts, but the mules are a lot easier to stop for photos than horses. As a bonus, hikers also can explore the path less traveled, and the long-eared taxis won’t be honking horns.

If You Go

Check in at Bright Angel Lodge, $122/person, 888-297-2757. Tours with 20 riders leave daily March 15–Oct. 31 at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Nov. 1–March 14 daily at 10 a.m. Weight limit 225 pounds, minimum height 4 ft. 7 in.

Hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants required; no packs, one-item around neck, fluency in English required. A take-home, soft-sided, logo canteen is provided.

George Oxford Miller wrote the best-selling app Guide to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, and Williams.