The Grand Canyon mule rides are legendary. Ever since that Brady Bunch episode, the idea of riding down into the canyon on a mule has been something I wanted to try.
Since I like to hike but am not in the shape I should be, the mule ride was the only realistic way I was going to be able to see much of the inner canyon. Don't be deceived, though. The ride itself DOES require stamina and should not be attempted by those of poor health.
I have always struggled with my weight. When I had my son 8 years ago, I gained even more weight, which I haven't yet been successful losing (and keeping off). When my friend Carol called to tell me she'd managed to book us onto the mule ride during our brief stay in the Canyon but that there was a maximum weight limit of 200 pounds, I was hovering at about 205 pounds. This was in April, and I assured her that I would make sure that this would not be an issue for me. How difficult would it be to lose 5 pounds by September, after all? This seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wasn't going to let it pass me by!
Unfortunately, the best laid plans... by vacation time, I was still hovering in the 198 to 199 range. Luckily, we spent the week before the Grand Canyon in Payson (see my other review) hiking, and I was feeling hopeful that the extra exercise and healthy eating had done the trick.
We arrived at the Grand Canyon Friday evening of Labor Day weekend. Our ride was scheduled for Sunday. We checked in Saturday morning at Bright Angel lodge before breakfast. (I wasn't taking any chances!) My weigh-in was nerve-wracking, but I made the cut-off without a problem.
I read the paperwork on the risks I was taking by participating in the ride and happily signed. They gave me the bright-yellow slicker with "Mule Ride" stenciled on the back. This was to be my "ticket" for the ride. They also give us brand-new souvenir-worthy botas (wine skins) with instructions to bring it back full in the morning. They were very serious about making sure you understood the rules on clothing and cameras. A long-sleeved cotton shirt was required. This attire is counter-intuitive since you know you're going into the heat of the canyon, but they explained that they would hose us down partway down and the long sleeves were important for both sun protection as well as to allow the water to evaporate and cool us off. Temperatures at the bottom of the canyon frequently exceed 100 degrees F (especially in the summer), so staying cool and hydrated are serious considerations. They only allow you to bring a single camera, and it must be on a strap. There are no exceptions. This group takes safety very seriously. I thought that was a very good thing.
We were required to meet at the Stone Corral at the top of Bright Angel Trail first thing the next morning. Once assembled, the mule skinner provided orientation on what to expect and how to handle the mules. Though they kept us laughing as they went through the important information, it was clear that they were serious about enforcing the rules for everyone's safety. They provided each of us with a "persuader," also known as a riding crop, and schooled us in how to use it to good effect.
I have to admit to being a bit apprehensive after the warnings about keeping our mules close together. They warned us that the mules were trained to ride nose-to-tail and that we should take care not to let them lag behind. Being mules, after all, they were inclined to test your resolve by hanging back. They then ran to catch up as you came around the many turns on the way down the trail. This running is where the trip becomes potentially dangerous, since each mule behind you will also run and the riders are prone to falling off (not a pleasant thought, since falling off means falling down into the canyon!).
They broke us up into smaller groups and assigned us to our mules (mine was Joe Bear). The trip was about to start. Somehow, I ended up as the lead mule behind our guide. There were several guides and the groups had staggered starts down the trail. Our guide greeted the hikers as we passed them, and when we encountered a group of backcountry campers he'd seen the day before on their way back up, he'd ask how their night was and trade quips.
We stopped periodically to rest the mules, receive information on the history of the canyon, and ask questions. The first time you stop on the trail, it is a little nerve-wracking. The mule is trained to turn to FACE the canyon. This is important, since this way if they get startled and take a step back, it's into the wall, not the canyon! It affords some breathtaking views and photo-ops for those of us on the trail. If you have a fear of heights, this is when it will hit you. Luckily, that's not a problem for me!
After the first half-hour, I finally started to feel more at ease. After about 3 hours of riding, we arrived at Indian Gardens. This is an oasis of sorts. There were restrooms and shade as well as wonderful cold water so we could refill our botas and drink our fill. At this point, the temperature was still only 95 degrees F or so, downright cool by Canyon standards! Our guide explained that normally they would hose us down here in preparation for the last leg of the trip out to Plateau Point, which is completely open and gets very hot. Then they would normally spend 15 minutes or so at the point and head back to Indian Gardens to eat lunch. Since the temperature was so reasonable, we would be able to actually have our lunch out at the Point and enjoy some extra time there. So, after a brief rest, we got back on our mules for the trek across the plateau.
From Plateau Point you get a good view of the Colorado River. Sometimes you can see some of the rafters going through the rapids below. We didn't have our timing right that day, however, and didn't see any. What amazed me was that after 1 1/2 hours into the canyon, the river was still a VERY long way down. The Canyon is so massive, it's hard to even imagine its size, even when you're standing on the Rim. However, this view helped me put it into a bit of perspective.
After a leisurely lunch (provided by the trip), we started the long ride home. The trip back up the Canyon went a little slower than the trip down. But by this point, I was feeling pretty comfortable on Joe Bear and even felt brave enough to shoot a few frames of video while riding. By the last half-hour of the ride, I was more than ready to hop off that mule and never see it again, though!
I enjoyed the trip and would do it again--next time, I'd like to try the one that goes all the way to the bottom and includes an overnight at Phantom Ranch. I definitely have a new respect for those intrepid souls who hike the canyon on foot. It was tough just riding the mule only partway down. I can't imagine trying to tackle that whole trip under my own power in only one day! The trip enabled me to see parts of the Canyon I otherwise wouldn't have been able to. A trip of a lifetime I won't wait a lifetime to repeat!