The National Parks Service celebrates its centennial birthday on August 25, 2016, with the Grand Canyon dedicated in 1919. What better way to celebrate this historical milestone than to go on a journey of a lifetime?
This trip was a year in the making, with our traveling party comprised of myself, my sister Carole, Carole’s husband Bob, and our close friend, Dianne. Dianne, Carole, and I are dressage riders, and while Bob may be a non-rider, he was certainly a willing participant.
After two days of travel, we all managed to convene at the Bright Angel Lodge at south rim, Grand Canyon. When I arrived at the Grand Canyon, I was drawn to the rim. It is so stunning, so enormous, with so many colors and shadows that are always changing. The Grand Canyon was carved by both wind and rain, but primarily by the mighty Colorado River that roars at the bottom of the canyon. It is indeed a natural wonder of our world. As I watched two condors glide by in the sun, I could scarcely believe that by the following evening I would have reached the canyon’s base.
Dawn brought Carole, Bob, Dianne, and I to the corral where we would be assigned our mules for the trip. I always put “beginner” in the space that asks for a rider’s experience to ensure I receive a reliable steed. I also made certain to lay on the charm with a big smile to our guide, and was assigned a large, stalwart mule named Lucy. Carole claims it was my knee braces, back brace, and helmet which swayed our guide and not my smile. We can agree to disagree.
Carole was paired with a smaller dark mule with a seal muzzle and gentle eyes named Burt, while Bob was placed with Big Steve. Big Steve was a draft cross mule akin to a woolly mammoth. Dianne was issued a smaller sorrel molly mule named Mattie. At the corral, the mule skinners (wranglers), Ed and Jewel, tied our slickers on the back of our saddles. We all had quirts (a woven/braided whip that the wranglers referred to as “motivators”), slipped over our hand and tightened at the wrist. Carole chuckled at this, saying she knew I would never use mine. The chief wrangler, John, gave us the rules of the road and offered us our money back if we changed our minds.
“Change our minds?” we exclaimed. “Never!”
Let the journey begin.
It was a bright, sunny day in the upper 30s as we began our descent into the canyon, on the Bright Angel Trail. The snow had mostly melted, but during the first mile and a half there was ice covering much of the trail. The mules did a good job of keeping their footing, while skating every other step, but the idea of sliding off the side of a cliff was unnerving. Each step our mules took in the downward journey represented 20,000 years of geologic time. Our guides pointed out animal tracks in the stone, pueblo granaries, and incredible seaweed fossils in the walls beside us.
We stopped for lunch at a small oasis called Indian Gardens. There was a clear, babbling brook for the mules to enjoy a water break, and a campsite surrounded by towering cotton trees for us to relax and eat our meal. Then on, on, we went, splashing through the creek as the temperature continued to climb even as we descended. A nerve wracking journey of switchback trails known as Jacobs Ladder ensued, with our mules carefully stepping over rolling rocks, and occasionally hanging their heads over the cliff in order to make the tighter turns.
As we rounded a bend, we got our first look at the bridge we would need to cross in the distance. In order to cross the bridge, we would first have to pass through a dark tunnel that was carved through solid rock.This tunnel was scarcely large enough for a mule and rider. Our guides reminded us not to take flash photography in the dark tunnel, as it could panic the mules. As Jewel put it, “We are almost there. We don’t need a rodeo now!”
My helmet clinked on the entrance to the tunnel, reminding me that I needed to duck down further. However, we made it through and without any more time to think, the mules started crossing the bridge. At sixty-five feet above the roaring Colorado River, I was jubilant!
All too soon we arrived at our destination of the historic Phantom Ranch, where we dismounted under spring green cottonwood trees. The cantina was the epicenter of the ranch, which was built by Mary Colter in the 1920’s with a rounded river stone foundation and dark brown lumber with green accents that blended into the surrounding landscape. Mary Colter personally supervised the building of the ranch and the embodiment of her vision for it. It was hard to imagine a woman in her midfifties swinging across the Colorado River in a cage to supervise the building of her dream ranch. She was truly a woman ahead of her time.
The Phantom Ranch was once quiet elitist, with historical visitors being ranked amongst celebrities and US Presidents. We were a part of the humble masses known as national park visitors, distinct however, as only one percent of Grand Canyon visitors make it below the canyon’s rim. Our mules were given two days of rest while we hiked and explored the north Kaibab trail. All too soon, it was time to begin our journey back with our trusty mounts.
Thank you to the mules who delivered us safely on our journey to the center of the earth and back! This was truly a spiritual ride, and the unforgettable adventure of a lifetime.
Note: USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.