What to Expect During a Grand Canyon Mule Ride

By Judith K. Tingley; Updated September 26, 2017

Of mules and men and the Grand Canyon

What to Expect During a Grand Canyon Mule Ride

Ever watch an old John Ford movie and see yourself in place of John Wayne, cantering through the scenic vistas of the Old West on your trusty steed? Well, life is not a John Ford movie, but you can still have a trusty steed, even though that steed is a mule. Further, your trail will be as scenic as anything Mr. Ford ever filmed – even though that mule won't be cantering, but rather treading slowly and carefully. A mule is a noble animal, steadfast and sure-footed, undeserving of its reputation as stubborn and grumpy. The mules put into service at the Grand Canyon are trained and dependable and worthy of hire.

A choice of rims

Xanterra Parks and Resorts is an authorized provider of mule rides on the South Rim of the Canyon all year round, while Grand Canyon Trail Rides (also authorized by the National Park Services) takes visitors for mule rides along the North Rim from mid-May to mid-October.

Mule rides on the South Rim

Xanterra offers a choice of a three-hour Canyon Vistas ride or a longer overnight ride to the famous Phantom Ranch. It is recommended that reservations be made 13 months in advance for these popular treks.

Qualifying as a rider

The mules of the South Rim are certainly qualified, but what about the riders? You don't have to be a proficient equestrian to ride, but Xanterra and its trail guides set certain requirements that must be met. These rider qualifications are valid as of 2017, but it wouldn't hurt to check ahead to avoid disappointment in case the policy changes.

The Phantom Ranch trip requires that riders weigh in at under 200 pounds fully dressed, including any gear. The Canyon Vistas riders can't weigh more than 225 pounds, again fully dressed with gear. Xanterra reminds riders that clothing and gear might add an additional 8 pounds or so of the total weight. Also, if a potential rider appears to be significantly overweight or physically unfit, he might be disqualified at the discretion of the trail guides.

All riders must be at least 9 years old and 4' 9" tall. Children aged 17 and younger must be accompanied by an adult. All riders must understand and speak English – this is in order to ensure that the trail guide's instructions are heard and fully understood.

Health and safety

A rider should be in good physical shape. Riding a mule isn't a passive activity; riders don't simply sit atop the mule and take it easy. In fact, riding is quite a workout, requiring muscle control, strength and stamina. Also, consider the fact that the ride is taken at 7,000 feet above sea level, often in very hot weather – riders should be aware of possible respiratory issues and dehydration.

Don't underestimate the importance of personal comfort. If unused to riding, a newbie can soon develop a very tender bum during the course of even a slow and steady trip. If you're in danger of such a painful fate, consider getting some padded underwear (developed for bicyclists but also serving other purposes).

When it's hot, it can be very, very hot, and when it's cold it can be freezing, at times with heavy snowfalls and other hazardous conditions. The trail guides reserve the right to call off rides when they feel that the safety of riders may be jeopardized.

Potential riders who are developmentally disabled or have serious physical challenges must contact Xanterra in writing so that the experts there can determine special needs and limitations individually.

Mule rides on the North Rim

Mule rides on the North Rim are organized by Grand Canyon Trail Rides. These mules are selected in part for their gentle natures; they are well-trained and trustworthy. North Rim rides are from one to three hours long and three routes are available. If you're jittery about the longer South Rim trails, you might enjoy a one-hour ride along the North Rim instead.

Riders on this trail must be 7 years old or older with a weight limit of 220 pounds. The three-hour ride to Uncle Jim's Point accepts riders 10 years old and above, with a 220-pound weight limit. The third route actually descends into the canyon to the Supai Tunnel. It also takes three hours; riders must be at least 10 years of age and under 200 pounds. All the other considerations mentioned above about the South Rim mule rides – such as physical condition and mental attitude of the rider and possible problems posed by extremes of weather – are of equal importance on the North Rim.

Happy trails to you

Now you've prepared yourself for your ride. You're in shape and eager to go. You will soon know just how much this experience is truly worth the effort, for nothing compares to a human being in communion with his steed as they go forth, each sensitive to the other's slightest movement, as a true team – even if it's only for an hour. Happy trails!

About the Author

Judith K. Tingley