A hundred years ago Teddy Roosevelt called the Grand Canyon one of the great sights every American should see. Today, I'd add just one postscript: For those who are able, venturing into the canyon on the back of a mule is even better than simply seeing it. And doing it from the North Rim, where less than 10 percent of all Grand Canyon travelers set foot each year, is the best way to go about it without having to fight a crowd for the best views.
'This is your parachute'
My own trip into the Canyon—my third overall, but first from the North Rim—begins just after breakfast on a warm Friday morning in late May. There are a lot of nervous people milling about the trailhead waiting to be assigned to the mule whose job it will be to bring them into and out of the canyon safely. My wife has already made fast friends with Ben, her tawny brown mule, while I'm forming a more adversarial relationship with mine. It's not until we successfully navigate the first few switchbacks of the North Kaibab trail that I start to feel comfortable putting my life in the hands (or hooves, in this case) of a mule with a tendency to hug the open side of the trail.
I'm a hiker by nature, and given the choice of walking or riding to the bottom of the canyon (or anywhere, for that matter), I'm far more comfortable relying on my own two feet than on a mule's four. But I've hiked the canyon before and today I'm trying something I've always considered the quintessential American adventure. A trail ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon has been on my life's to-do list for as long as I can remember.
Canyon Trail Rides is the only operation licensed to lead tours from the North Rim. It's a family business run by Pete and Keela Mangum, who've operated tours here for 23 years and in nearby Zion and Bryce National Parks since 1973. They employ about 40 guides between the three parks. Today my trip leader is Tom, a Wyoming native and veteran rider with a wide smile and an even wider fedora. Tom and the other guides like to joke, and one starts by insisting the saddle bag that holds our lunches is, in fact, a parachute—you know, "just in case." Since the "parachute" also happens to be strapped to the back of my wife's mule, I feel comforted knowing at least one of us is likely to make it back safely.
"Ride 'em like ya stole 'em!" yells Tom as we drop deeper and deeper into the canyon. I'm still trying to figure out what that means by the time he quiets down and lets the canyon do the rest of the talking. It's everything you'd expect and, paradoxically, nothing like it. It's massive and awe-inspiring, of course, but also surprisingly lush—with towering pines, pale white aspens, and a blanket of greenery swathing the whole of the North Rim. It's hard to believe this is the Arizona desert.
The day before my ride, a park ranger explained to me why mules are better than horses in the Grand Canyon: "Horses spook easily. A rock comes tumbling down the trail and a horse'll chase right after it into the canyon. Mules are steadier than that." A mule is a cross-breed between a female horse and a male donkey. That makes it bigger than most horses, and gives it the temperament necessary for such a dizzying job as scaling the Grand Canyon.
"We never put a mule on the trail the first year we get it," says Keela Mangum. "And we never use a mule younger than six or seven years old. It may take up to three years [of training] before a mule is ready for the Grand Canyon." Canyon Trail Rides starts its mules in Zion, then moves them to Bryce, and only after mastering those two parks are they put to work at the Grand Canyon, where they'll need to be prepared for precipitous heights, narrow paths, and numerous hikers.
This caution pays dividends on the trail. While mules are not recommended for people afraid of heights or of large animals, those who do make the trip can rely on their sure-footed rides to get them back safely: Park records indicate that no passenger mule has ever fallen over the edge. In addition to mule training, Canyon Trail Rides has strict rules about who can and can't ride. Fluency in English is mandatory, and no one over 200 pounds or under 12 years of age is allowed on the all-day trek. There's no cheating, either: If you look "overqualified" in the weight department, you will be weighed when you check in for your ride.
Arranging a mule ride
It's a lot easier to book a mule ride from the North Rim than from the overcrowded South Rim. Canyon Trail Rides allows bookings after January 1 of the year you wish to ride. They run full-day trips for $125, half-day treks for $65, and one-hour rides for $30. The trips tend to fill up between June 15 and August 31, but you have a great shot of getting a ride—even on short notice—in mid-May (when the North Rim opens) and early June, or from September through mid-October (when the North Rim closes). The Mangums recommend making a reservation as soon as you know your trip dates to be certain you get the day you prefer.
Having completed the full-day ride, I recommend it wholeheartedly. It's not for everyone, though, and I stress this since there's the perception that it's not strenuous because "the mule does all the work." Maybe so, but riding a mule is a job in and of itself, and you'll be sore by the end of the day. My knees hurt about 10 minutes after we started down the trail, and my back started protesting not long after that. It's worth the discomfort, but make sure you're prepared for it before you sign up.
It's also worth the extra $60 to upgrade from a half-day hike to a full-day, assuming you can block out a day for it. You go further into the canyon—beyond the Supai Tunnel area that burrows directly through the rock, then all the way down to Roaring Springs, where you stop for lunch and take in a massive waterfall before returning home. The one-hour trip seems like a waste to me. It follows the Uncle Jim Trail around the perimeter of the canyon but never enters the canyon itself. A better strategy, if you have two days, is to hike the five-mile Uncle Jim Trail on your first day—it's a gentle and shaded loop path—and get a look at the twisting North Kaibab route far below. Then you'll have a greater appreciation for just where you're headed on the full-day ride the next day.
Where to stay
The Grand Canyon Lodge towers over the North Rim as if constructed from the canyon itself. Built in 1928 and rebuilt in 1937 after a devastating fire, the main lodge building houses a dining hall, sun room, ranger talk area, and two expansive porches that teeter right on the edge of the canyon. Rooms start at just under $100 a night and are the only in-park North Rim accommodations that don't involve a tent.
"The lodge has a 97-percent occupancy rate even before it opens in the summer," says lodge manager Daisy Hobbs. "We take reservations up to 13 months in advance." Hobbs recommends making reservations as far ahead as possible by calling 888-297-2757. Outside the park, the Kaibab Lodge (18 miles from the North Rim, rates from $95) and Jacob Lake Inn (45 miles away, rates from $82) are your best bets for nearby lodging.
More impressive than the overnight accommodations at the North Rim is the Grand Canyon Lodge's dining area, which boasts rim-side tables and hearty meals like bacon-wrapped meatloaf and wild Alaska salmon, plus the always-popular lava fudge cake (a personal favorite) for dessert. You don't have to be an overnight guest to reserve a table here, which works out well if you've opted to stay outside the park. Dinner reservations are required and can fill up weeks in advance, so it's a good idea to arrange your meals ahead of time as well. Hobbs says dining hall reservations can be made up to 60 days ahead of time.
The North Rim is about 270 miles, or just under five hours, from Las Vegas. It's about 350 miles and nearly seven hours from Phoenix. It's almost always cheaper to fly into Vegas than Phoenix simply because of the number of airlines competing on Vegas routes.
Your options once in Vegas are to either spend the night—it's usually about $40 a night at someplace cheap and clean like the Stratosphere—and then rent a car and drive to the canyon, or to pick up a rental car and drive directly to the canyon. It largely depends on when your flight arrives and whether or not you have the stomach for the Vegas kitsch.
Renting a car from the Vegas airport isn't as expensive as you'd think. I got a five-day rental for just over $100 going through Payless. It would have cost me twice that with Hertz, though, so be sure to compare rates before you reserve.
A guy walks into a saloon...
There's an old joke about the Grand Canyon that goes something like this. How can you tell the hikers from the mule riders when they meet at the saloon at the end of the day? The hikers will be sitting because they can't stand up, and the riders will be standing because they can't sit down. Funny but true. So is this: Both the hikers and the riders are likely to have pretty big smiles on their faces.
The Grand Canyon does that to you. If you're able, it's worth every ounce of effort it takes to go down and see that great sight up close.
Author's note: Check back next month for a look across the Grand Canyon, when I'll offer some tips for beating the crowds at the popular South Rim.