We formed a row up against the worn, splintered split rail fence, like football teams at the line of scrimmage, we faced our opponents. A half dozen pack mules stood at attention, their reins draped over the post, standing across from us patiently awaiting their instructions.
Like my gym teacher in middle school pairing us for square dancing, the head rancher assessed our riding ability and introduced us to our trusty steeds for the morning, I was paired with Biddy, sweet but spunky.
Or Would You Rather Be A Mule?
Aside from some experience horseback riding I’ve never been on, or even around a mule before. I had a preconceived notion that the animals were stubborn and stupid, probably from this Little Lulu cartoon my sister and I watched as kids.
So I’ve obviously gotten a chance to learn a lot more about these pack animals since this song from 1944…
Mules, I’ve come to learn are smart and hard working creatures. I also found out that a mule is a product of a horse mating with a donkey, and that mules themselves can’t procreate. They have athleticism and endurance making them the perfect animal to carry packs and passengers up, down and around the Grand Canyon. Mules have been used in the area since the late 1800’s, they were used to entice visitors who didn’t want to make the trek by foot by still wanted to experience the new terrain. Since then there are several tours you can still take by mule both along the South and North Rim and an overnight trip into the Canyon with a stay at Phantom Ranch. The wait list for the overnight can be up to a year long so it’s wise to plan early.
Our group road along the rim, it was my first time seeing the Canyon in person and on the back of a mule who is walking adjacent to the edge with a mile long drop is an amazing viewing perspective not for the Acrophobic. The guides were so knowledgeable, both having decades of experience on horses and pack animals, riding trails through the Grand Canyon day after day, knowing the landscape he would line up our mules along the ridge line sharing the geographical and anthropological history of the gorge, pointing out specific trails in the distance and indigenous plants that Native Americans and Canyon explorers would rely on.
Total Loss for Words
So growing up you see the Grand Canyon in photos, videos, it’s in the background of some famous movies and your best friend probably went there on a summer road trip and told you all about it the first week back to school. I knew the specs, the sheer size and I thought I could fathom its scale in my mind, but upon first view, I was still dumbfounded. It is one of the only famous landmarks where with all of my attempts to visualize how I thought it would look in my head, in person it’s magnitude amazed me. Then, when you get into the geological background your mind really gets blown. It’s taken over 17 million years to create the Grand Canyon with other evidence of history dating back 2 BILLION years, including prehistoric traces. You feel like a tiny speck.
At some parts the Grand Canyon stretches 18 miles across, and squinting into the floor there are sections where the Colorado River looks like a delicate string snaking through the jagged rock. This is one of the main contributors in the creation of the canyon, the flow of water constantly cutting through creating a channel over time. The ecosystems of the canyon are impressive. There are five different zones throughout the region all with varying plants and wildlife dependent upon the elevation, temperature and rainfall.
Another mind blowing fact about the Grand Canyon is the National Park that surrounds and protects it. There are over 1 million acres of land in the park space. Driving through the park gives you a better idea of the size, I only had the opportunity to spend two full days exploring and quickly realized you could take your whole vacation here camping and hiking. It’s so massive is has it’s own school and library within the park.
Travel Tip: I used the library wifi to do some much needed work one afternoon, it’s quiet and a great place to relax. The deer just graze around the parking lot so you can sit outside and have wildlife as your coworkers.
How to get there?
By far the best and most iconic American way to see the Grand Canyon is by taking a good old fashioned road trip. I drove through New Mexico and Arizona in a rental car and then flew out from Phoenix but the possible itineraries are endless. Las Vegas is a short ride away and a popular destination point in conjunction with the canyon trip. Get all of your information about the park on the National Park Service site.
When to go?
If you plan to stay in and around the park a little planning needs to be made in advance. The South Rim is more popular than the North Rim so during the busy season the South will be a lot more crowded. Most of the region is a desert climate, I was there in late September and it was still hot hiking in the afternoon heat. The best times to go are March through May or September through November, when the temperatures are right and the crowds are thinning out. Be aware that due to weather certain sections of the park close down, for instance the North Rim is closed from mid October and reopens mid May.
What to do?
The outdoor activities are endless and range from just shy of lazy to super hero hiker. You can take transit throughout the grounds of the park, conveniently dropping you and picking you up at observation locations scattered throughout the canyon so you can view some of the more iconic areas. There are hikes that start near visitor centers that vary in ability and if you want to get really serious, you can venture down into the canyon making for a tough adventure. Check out the FAQs HERE on the parks website. There are mule rides, jeep excursions, rafting trips, and helicopter tours if you want to see the canyon from another perspective than on foot. Whatever way you decide to do it, make sure you just enjoy the all the beauty.