Mulish Meander: See the Glory of the Grand Canyon Seated on a Saddle

Delve into the glory of the Grand Canyon,  a deep gorge, protected by UNESCO, carved by the Colorado River in Northern Arizona.


On the rim of the Grand Canyon, perilously clopping along the craggy verge, I don’t have to look to know that the rocky shear plummets down for a gobsmacking mile to the Colorado River basin below. I open one eye, and see a whirl of pink, green, and golden hues—just a blur of bliss. As, I shut my eyes again, my mule steps yet closer to the edge, as if he’s trying to look into the abyss for me. I shudder, and try looking side-eye at the mind boggling view. It both tantalizes and terrifies me. Ten miles across the canyon, on the other side, I see a tower, tiny as cactus, pointing to the sky. Below, lionhearted tourists, including some on mules,  clamber down the canyon’s serpentine trails, like diligent ants in a line. The canyon’s millennium-old strata, a mish-mash of texture and color, the faraway North Rim, and a corona of clouds like Baroque curlicues in the sky, combine to produce palpable poetry. 

Some people ride horses bareback. Instead, I’m riding a mule with my eyes closed. 

At once, dread takes over again,  I emit that hissy sound, which I normally associate with my nervous grandmother. With that, Ed, my cowboy guide, turns to me. He’s has had enough of my cowardice. He looks me right in my one open eye, and says:  “Trust your mule. Enjoy the ride. He has no interest in going over that edge.” 

And, suddenly, those words—advice from master to student—resonate. My fear dissipates. I am one with the mule—even though he’s scuttering on the rim with nothing but air between us and the stone-scattered bottom.  With a newly acquired zen, I yield to my equine caretaker. A unit now, we follow Ed for a few miles on a trail, which showcases the brilliance of this two-billion-year-old, inexpressible, seventh natural wonder of the world.  Flanked by aromatic pine trees to my right, I notice little details—butterflies flitting, wildflowers popping from apertures in the rock, and hawks gliding in figure eights above my head. At intervals, Ed suggests we stop, turn our mules toward the canyon and teeter steps closer to the periphery. Pointing out geological formations, from towering buttes to flat mesas to needle-sharp pinnacles, he also shows me hoodoos that look like hand-crafted clay belfries, and ruffled rock faces that glimmer in the light. He tells stories, too— tales of the Grand Canyon that bring its history to life. 

He’s has had enough of my cowardice. He looks me right in my one open eye, and says:  “Trust your mule. Enjoy the ride. He has no interest in going over that edge.” 

 I’ve wanted to ride a mule at the Grand Canyon since I was in second grade. That’s when I first read the classic, Brighty,  a book about a miner and his burro, by Marguerite Henry, still sold in the national park’s bookstores today. Ironically, the book isn’t as popular as the top selling tome, “Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon,” which I’d like to inculpate for my on-saddle panic attack. But, just thumbing through a collection of horrific, macabre deaths isn’t what caused my seizures of fear on the rim. It was, as Ed, said, not trusting my mule. The truth is that mules, the hybrid result of a horse and donkey, have been transporting canyon visitors since the 1800’s safely and with surefooted diligence around the canyon. According to sources at the canyon, more than 600,000 intrepid travelers have ridden mules, without ill effect, since 1887. Today, riding a mule down the canyon, a ten mile plus journey, is one of the iconic ways to experience the glories of this geological phenomenon. Many trudge down on this all day journey, sleeping at the bottom of the canyon at rustic Phantom Ranch, then waking to ascend in the morning. For most, it reigns as the experience of a lifetime. 

by Becca Hensley

But you don’t need a mule adventure to delve into the glory of the Grand Canyon,  a deep gorge, protected by UNESCO, carved by the Colorado River in Northern Arizona. Its ancient layers reveal some of the oldest exposed rock on earth. A sight to behold, it can be accessed from its South Rim, a 25-mile length of desert paradise, or experienced on its more untrammeled North Rim, a more inspirited adventure. Visitors can explore the canyon with verve on river rafts, on hiking trails or by bus along its rims. Mules, whether along the verge or down the canyon, stand out as a way to connect with the landscape’s gravitas and history. 

Sometimes the journey is as entertaining as the destination. While many tourists choose to drive from nearby outposts, such as Sedona or Flagstaff, others fly in by small plane or helicopter for a bird’s eye view. To channel bygone times, consider climbing aboard The Grand Canyon Railway, a (now revived and restored) train, which first carried tourists to the site in 1901. Commencing in Williams at The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, the train makes daily round trips to the park, providing the option for day trips for overnight stays. 

Sometimes the journey is as entertaining as the destination.

I finish my mule ride exhilarated. When I return some borrowed gear to the Bright Angel Lodge, the concierge waves me down. “I told you, you’d come back in one piece,” he says laughing. I nod. “It’s all about trusting the mule.” 


The Train: Not only does the train transport riders, it also does a “silly” Western show, beloved by some riders and shunned by others. If you’re traveling with kids, they’ll love to see cowboy bandits riding alongside the train. During the December holidays, the Grand Canyon Railway becomes a Polar Express, taking elated children for a ride to the North Pole, a magical stop, located about mid-way to the Grand Canyon.

The Stay: If taking the train, consider spending the night beforehand at The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams. Once at the canyon, El Tovar, the park’s iconic, historic lodge wows with period architecture and a regal demeanor. It occupies a prominent spot on the rim.

The Mules: Book activities, such as mule rides and rafting, in advance. The programs, operated for the park service by Xanterra, have some of the best guides in the national park system.