We Ride Sport and Trail Magazine October 2018 - Page 14

The mules in "Park Mode" with

their heads hung over the cliff

for safety

The Canyon Ride

After matching us up with our mules (I got the dark brown

Molly, Harvey Girl - yeah), we headed out with a wrangler

at the front, and one riding drag at the back. There were

eight of us, so with the two wranglers, we were at the limit.

I appreciated how they kept the three groups of riders

together. Starting at an elevation of 6,841’, we headed

down the Bright Angel trail that started off with a couple of

long and easy switchbacks, allowing riders to get the feel

for their mule and a trial-run before negotiating the tighter

turns with the amazing drop-offs. A mile in, we met up with

the tighter switchbacks, allowing riders the first

opportunity to see mule riders both above and below them.

There were about nine good switchbacks in that section of

the trail. Riding narrower switchbacks in the Absaroka-

Beartooth Mountains had more than prepared our group

for this type of trail, but a few of the other riders, were truly

hanging on for dear life, although their mules did fine, and

eventually, they all settled down. I was truly impressed with

our first “stop and park the mules.” All of the mules almost

simultaneously turned and hung their heads over the cliff

and went into “park-mode.” I shall use that same strategy

on the switchbacks we ride in Montana.

At a mile and a half mile, there is a “Resthouse” for those

needing a bathroom break. Other Resthouses are located

at 3 ½ miles, 5 miles, and 8 ¼ miles. Our group was good,

so we continued on. The descent is quick. Just over four

miles in, the elevation drops below 4,000’ and continues

to just under 2,400’. As you head down the Canyon you

will come across a lot of hikers. They were all respectful,

stepping aside to allow the mules to pass, with many taking

pictures and videos. It made us laugh when some of them

told us we had “pretty horses.”

After riding for five miles, we stopped and dismounted at

Indian Garden for an early lunch. There is a nice shaded

picnic area, with restrooms, water for us and the horses,

and a big lunch that the park vendor flies in by helicopter.

We were given generously sized sandwiches, chips, apples

(most of us fed them to the mules), snacks and a drink.

After a 30-minute break, we hosed down our bandana’s to

cool us off as we knew the hot part of the trail was ahead

of us. It was 65 degrees at the start of the ride, but they

cautioned that it would most likely be in the high 90’s when

we got to Phantom Ranch, even in September. We had yet

to ride thru the “Devils Furnace”, sure to be warm with a lot

of heat radiating from the rock walls. One can only imagine

what it was like in late July or August.

Our wranglers continually checked to ensure we weren’t

over-heating, offering ice water they carried, even stopping

to assist a hiker that also needed cool water. Throughout

the morning, the wranglers shared information about the

geologic formations, human history, how the bridges were

built and entertained us with stories and jokes. As we

approached the Colorado River, you could see the results

of the recent monsoon rains, the river looked like chocolate

milk. As we rode along the ridge, we could see that a few

riders were anxious with the riding terrain. Once again, our

wranglers, stopped and offered cool water and a little

distraction, which seemed to calm even the most fragile


After crossing the Colorado River, you are at the bottom and

Phantom Ranch is just another half mile. Phantom Ranch

is a pleasant retreat, set back from the many camping spots

occupied by hikers along Phantom Creek. After

dismounting our mules and gathering our belongings, we

sat in the shade, sipping ice water while the Ranch Manager

told us about Phantom Ranch, our cabins, the Canteen, meal

times and where the Shower House was located. Our cabin