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Early Grand Canyon Mile Riders
Early Grand Canyon Mule Riders Photo courtesy Cline Library, Northern Arizona University - Kolb Collection

Grand Canyon Mule Trail Rides

According to Ron Clayton, manager of the Grand Canyon Mule Operation, "This is not a pony ride at Disneyland." He prepares those who want to take the trip for a tough, hard trip, and an exhilarating experience. Riders have a choice of two separate trips leaving the South Rim of the Canyon: the first is a one-day ride down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point where the mule riders can look out over the Colorado River. The second is an overnight ride that ends at Phantom Ranch, where riders can spend one or two nights exploring the bottom of the Canyon. Mules are well-suited for traversing the Grand Canyon. They are three times as strong as a horse, more sure-footed, intelligent, and trainable. Their supposed stubborn nature is due to their strong sense of self-preservation.

One of the first sights that current day mule riders see is the Kolb Studio, built in 1904 by brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, who took the first photos of early-day riders. They operated their photography business for 70 years, and shot photos of almost 70,000 mule trains. Once past Kolb Studio, the mule train begins its first series of descending switchbacks. Once into the wilderness, the riders go to Jacob's Ladder, 20 switchbacks that end on the Plateau level. When the single-day riders reach Plateau Point, they return back Bright Angel Trail to their starting point, while the overnighters continue on to Phantom Ranch. Only the mule trains descending all the way to Phantom Ranch experience the "Devil's Corkscrew," a series of switchbacks that descends to the River Trail. The two-mile River Trail was constructed in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal work program. Due to the difficult conditions, 80 CCC workers took two years to complete it. At the end of the River Trail is the Black Bridge, a rigid suspension bridge crossing the Colorado River. Built in 1928, it required the labor of some 40 Havasupai Indians who carried 2300-pound cables from the South Rim to the river. After crossing the Colorado River, it's an easy ride to the Phantom Ranch, a hunting camp on the floor of the Canyon built in the first decade of the 20th century. The entire trip to the Canyon floor takes about six hours. The next morning, the mule train saddles up and heads across the bridge and up the South Kaibab Trail.

Through the years, more than 600,000 have ridden mules in the Grand Canyon, but not all on the trails used today. The first of many entrepreneurs to offer mule rides in the canyon was Captain John Hance, the first white settler at the Grand Canyon, who began his business in 1887. Today, Ron Clayton offers the service to Grand Canyon visitors. Clayton's pioneering efforts in offering mule rides to the disabled -- including quadriplegics, blind people, and double amputees -- has earned him the 1998 "Horseman of Distinction" award from the North American Horsemen's Association.

Project documentation consists of 25 pages of text and six historic black and white photographs of early Grand Canyon mule riders.

Originally submitted by: Bob Stump, Representative (3rd District).

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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