Riding Mules at Grand Canyon National Park

Sure, you can see the Grand Canyon by foot or bus, but why not experience this must see National Park from the back of a mule?

by Jocelyn Pierce

Grand Canyon National Park is a destination on many bucket lists. Expansive and awe-inspiring, the iconic park attracts nearly five million visitors a year. With views of sandstone canyon walls, mesas, plateaus, and the Colorado River, visitors truly get a sense of the meaning “grand.” There are endless possibilities for exploration within the park and visitors can get around by helicopter, boat, bus, foot, or Equitrekking’s preferred method of travel--by mule.

Mule Riding Bright Angel Trail Grand Canyon

Mule rides at the Grand Canyon are very popular so be sure to make your reservation far in advance.

More than 600,000 people have chosen to see the Grand Canyon from the back of a mule since Captain John Hance offered the first mule ride at the Grand Canyon in 1887. With the sure-footedness of a burro and the larger size and strength of a horse, the mule is the ideal mount for traversing the steep and narrow Grand Canyon trails. Visitors need not have riding experience to enjoy the mule trips. The mules have a great safety record and are chosen for their sound temperament.

Mule trips are available at both the South and North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Most of the park’s visitors choose to see the South Rim as it has many of the famous Grand Canyon vistas and is more accessible. However, the North Rim is far more wild and secluded, offering visitors solace and a break from the crowds. Both the South Rim and North Rim offer several unique mule trips sure to leave a lasting impression.

South Rim

Xanterra South Rim, the concession in the park and operator of lodges, restaurants, gift shops and tours and activities, runs mule trips at the South Rim. Tours can be booked up to 13 months in advance. If you wish to take a mule trip on the South Rim, plan ahead and sign up early.

Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail Horseback Riding

Even though the average distance across the Grand Canyon is 10 miles, it takes about five hours to drive the 215 miles between the South Rim and North Rim Villages.  

In 2013, Xanterra South Rim offered a new mule ride, The Canyon Vistas Ride, a four-mile ride that travels along the east rim of the canyon on a new trail built by the National Park Service.

“The Canyon Vistas Mule Ride, which goes along the rim, is the perfect introduction to a mule ride for newer riders but also so spectacular that anyone would enjoy it,” said Bruce Brossman, Arizona Regional Director of Sales and Marketing at Xanterra Parks & Resorts.

The three-hour tour departs from the main livery barn in Grand Canyon Village twice daily through October and once daily through mid-March. From the livery barn, riders will board an interpretive tour bus to Yaki Barn near the South Kaibab Trailhead.

Canyon Vistas Mule Ride South Rim

The new Canyon Vistas mule ride is a four-mile ride that travels along the east rim of the canyon on a new trail built by the National Park Service.

During the two-hour mule ride, wranglers stop several times along the trail to discuss geologic formations, cultural history, fire ecology and the Colorado River, along with other significant topics.

“The Canyon Vistas mule ride is more than just a mule ride, it’s actually an interpretive educational trip,” said Brossman, “Instead of follow the leader out, follow the leader back, riders will stop at numerous overlooks and learn bits of ecology, geology, native American history, history of the mule, and a number of other topics.”

For visitors wishing to extend their stay and see more of the Grand Canyon, Xanterra also offers overnight rides to Phantom Ranch. The Phantom Ranch mule trip is extremely popular but is also very limited, with a cap of only ten riders per day.

This tour leaves from the corral adjacent to the historic Bright Angel Lodge. The descent down the Bright Angel Trail is 10.5 miles and takes approximately 5 ½ hours. A lunch break will take place at Indian Garden, and then riders and mules will proceed along the rock face of the Inner Gorge, across the Colorado River on the Suspension Bridge, and up Bright Angel Canyon on the north side of the river to Phantom Ranch.

Grand Canyon Mule Ride South Rim

The mules have a great safety record and are chosen for their sound temperament. 

“The more experienced you are the more fun you will have on the Phantom Ranch ride,” said Brossman. “It’s a strenuous 5-5½ hours in the saddle, but nonetheless novices could do it.”

Guests stay the night at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon near the Colorado River in cozy cabins, complete with a hearty meal. In the morning, guests depart after breakfast and return to Bright Angel Lodge via the South Kaibab Trail, one of the most popular trails for panoramic views. The return ride back to the rim is about 7.8 miles and takes about 5 hours.

“I think people are interested in the history of the Grand Canyon, and the mules are a big part of that history. They built the trails and they’ve carried people in and out of the Grand Canyon for a long time,” said Brossman.

Xanterra South Rim mule rides may be reserved by calling 1-303-297-2757 or toll-free within the United States at 1-888-297-2757.

North Rim

Those choosing to experience the quieter, more secluded North Rim can take a mule tour with Canyon Trail Rides from May 15 through October 15.

Canyon Trail Rides is owned and operated by the Mangum family, who along with their experienced guides have been taking riders through Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks for over 20 years.

Trail rides go out every day with the option of a one-hour ride along the rim or a half-day rim or inner canyon trip. All levels and types of riders are welcome.

“The one hour ride that goes along the rim is perfect for kids or people who might be a bit wary of riding a mule, said Tawn Mangum. “It’s a much easier ride than the half-day trips.

Guests wishing to take the half-day mule trip have two rides from which to choose. The inner canyon ride descends 2,300 feet down the North Kaibab Trail to the Supai Tunnel, taking riders through every ecosystem to be found between Canada and Mexico. After a number of switchbacks, the trail reaches the Supai Tunnel.

Visitors can also opt for a half-day mule trip to Uncle Jim’s Point via the Ken Patrick Trail to Uncle Jim’s Trail. Riders will have an amazing view of the North Kaibab Trail and Bright Angel Canyon.

“There are only two ways to get inside the Grand Canyon¬¬–– either hike or ride a mule,” said Mangum.

Visitors of all riding levels who may not otherwise venture into the backcountry can have a whole new experience from the rim or inside the canyon with a sure-footed mule.

Canyon Trail Rides mule rides may be reserved by calling: 435-679-8665

About the Author: Jocelyn Pierce is an avid equestrian and lover of travel and photography. Her passion for adventure has led her on numerous excursions throughout North America and Europe. When she’s not riding and competing her homebred mare, she enjoys hiking, camping, and snapping photographs.