Community News

Stubbornly steadfast: Mules have kept the Grand Canyon moving since the 1880s

June 6, 2018



GRAND CANYON – Thousands of years ago, in what’s now Turkey, someone bred a horse with a donkey. The mule was born, and the sturdy hybrids soon were put to work across the globe.

Cars and trucks have replaced mules in most places, but the beasts of burden still reign supreme at the Grand Canyon.

This is especially true on the South Kaibab Trail, where young mule packers leading a lumbering line of the creatures, all carrying full bags, are an everyday sight. Supplies and souvenirs from the South Rim go down to Phantom Ranch, and trash comes up. 

But that’s not the only cargo the mules carry.

On a recent afternoon, smiling tourists, each riding a mule, whooped as they crested the South Kaibab, returning from a one-night trip to Phantom Ranch, the bunkhouse at the bottom of the canyon.

John Berry was there to greet them.

“How was it?” he asked.

“It was wonderful!” one woman yelled as another howled like a coyote yipping at the moon.

“Now, there’s a bunch of happy people,” Berry said.

With his bushy mustache and cowboy hat, Berry looks the part of a livery manager, who works with the mules for the park and resort management company Xanterra.

He gives a lot of credit to the wranglers who guide these trips, but he knows who truly makes the rides possible.

“I kind of think of a mule as a four-wheel-drive pickup truck,” he said, “where a horse would be more like a Cadillac.”

Mules are sure-footed and tough, Berry said, and they don’t spook easily. They’ve carried an estimated 1 million people in and out of the canyon since the late 1800s. The rides are daily, stopped only by dangerous weather and government shutdowns.

Berry was here when the government stopped running for two weeks in 2013.

“And these mules were so bored, out here in the corral,” he said. “They were fighting each other and kicking each other. They were just bored. I truly believe that they love to work.” And lots of people in the canyon love to work with them.

Kaibab Bob injured himself stumbling off the trail – as pack mules will, every once in a blue moon. That doesn’t happen to the mules that carry people, however. Berry tells new riders the same thing: In more than 100 years, these Canyon rides have never lost a visitor because of a mule.

During a recent safety talk, held right before the group headed down the trail, he was funny but frank.

“This is no pony ride at the county fair,” he told the crowd, huddled against the wind and cold of a snow flurry. “This is a tough, hard ride.”

He went over how to get the mule “to brake” and how to keep your cool by not looking down into the intimidating vastness of the canyon. By the end, a little girl from Boston was in tears.

“She’s really scared now,” said her mom, before trying a pep talk.

Within minutes, the girl summoned her courage. As Berry helped her onto her mule, her eyes were wet but she was trying to smile.

“Now, you take care of John S for me, OK?” Berry said, and she responded with a barely audible “OK.”

A few minutes after the group disappeared below the rim, Berry radioed one of the wranglers, who was riding just in front of the girl.

“How’s she doing, Cindy?” Berry asked.

“She’s good,” a calm voice said over the receiver. “We’re talking about cats.”

Berry chuckled, looking relieved.

“Well, good,” he replied.

A few hours of riding later, the little girl declared that someday, she wants to be a wrangler, too.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite NewsArizona PBSKJZZKPCCRocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.