Wranglers like Tawn Mangum take more than 100 people on daily mule rides into and along the Grand Canyon in the summer.
International tourists and people with disabilities are some of the customers for his mule tours on the North Rim, and more on the South Rim.
Mangum's daylong trips were recently cut to 4 miles round-trip when a rock-fall covered part of the North Kaibab Trail. (View a slide show here )
Now the National Park Service is taking a long look at all mule and packing stock use in the Grand Canyon, and weighing the benefits of mules against the costs of trail maintenance and conflicts with some hikers.
On one hand, the mules are a historical icon that help the less able-bodied see more of one of the natural wonders of the world.
On the other, hikers sometimes complain about them and their waste.
The trails used by mules are in poor shape, with trail crews unable to afford enough staff to keep up repairs, said Barclay Trimble, a deputy superintendent at the park.
Of the main corridor, the Bright Angel Trail, he says, "it continues to deteriorate," and cites a backlog of trail maintenance across the park.
Cutting back mule use in the canyon is one option the Park Service is considering, Trimble said.
The agency has about $1.5 million annually for all trail work in the Grand Canyon.
Trails supervisor Bill Allen says he needs twice that much.
The Park Service says the fees paid by mule riders to use the trails do not keep up with repairs.
Those who take tourists on Grand Canyon rides and haul supplies into the canyon — mule wranglers and packers — showed up for a Tuesday night meeting at the Flagstaff library about an hour from the Grand Canyon to say the livestock used as far back as the copper mining era should stay in the Grand Canyon.
Altogether, more than 50 people attended.
"The mules built the trails," Mangum said. "We're kind enough to let the hikers use them. And now they want to kick us off the trails."
Park Service staffers say many of the trails used and expanded by mules were ancient Native American trade and travel routes.
Casey Murph formerly managed mule trips on the South Rim for park concessionaire Xanterra, before moving into ranching.
He said he wishes there were more signs to educate hikers about mules, "so that folks who hike the trail know that they will encounter mules there."
His teams took about 40 riders per day along the South Rim.
"It's a huge historical icon for the country," Murph said.
Xanterra has a small crew that attempts to clean up mule waste on the trail.
Lately, they've been spending more time rebuilding trails than shoveling droppings.
MULES ONLY TRAIL
Harry Hadley conducted tours via mule in the Grand Canyon for 11 years.
"I loved it," he said. "I loved the people. And it gives people a chance — who can't walk down — a chance to see the canyon."
He proposes closing the major foot freeway to Phantom Ranch, the Bright Angel Trail, to mules and opening another shorter steeper route, the South Kaibab Trail, to mules only.
And on that, he could get some agreement from some hikers and the Sierra Club.
Hiking guide and author Wayne Ranney says the Park Service should add some day trips along the South Rim, which would be new, and reroute mules from the Bright Angel to the South Kaibab Trail.
Some of the wranglers agree with the idea of shorter day trips, and the Park Service is considering a trip to a point called Hermit's Rest, west of Grand Canyon Village.
Previously, there were other day trips on the South Rim, including to another scenic area called Shoshone Point, say the wranglers.
A day in the saddle down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon "is much too much of an endeavor for most car-traveling Americans," Ranney said.
While he says he "loves seeing mules down there" and could not care less about the droppings or urine they leave in the trail, Ranney has seen ruts more than 3 feet deep along the Bright Angel.
The Park Service should consider removing mules from the canyon entirely, said Jim McCarthy, a hiker, Sierra Club member and Flagstaff city planning and zoning commissioner.
He says it's worth considering what the Canyon's carrying capacity for the animals is, because trail construction sometimes means quarrying materials from the canyon.
"I think the real problem isn't the mules," he said. "It's the damage they cause to trails and what the trail crews do in trying to rebuild the trails."
The Park Service is planning to release documents regarding possible options for mules this summer, with a final decision due in December.
Typically, three major Grand Canyon trails are open to commercial mule tours.
Right now, the South Kaibab Trail is closed to mules for extensive repairs.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to give your thoughts?
Contact the Park Service by going the documents for mule operations and a comment form at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/grca.
Or write to Grand Canyon National Park, Attn: Mule Operations and Stock Use EA, P.O. Box 129 (1 Village Loop for express mail), Grand Canyon, AZ 86023.
By the numbers
100+: Mules entering Grand Canyon daily in peak summer season
$100,000 to $400,000: Costs per mile to repair a trail frequently used by mules
$1.5 million: National Park Service annual trail budget for all Grand Canyon trails
$20 million: Estimated cost of catching up on all trail work at the Grand Canyon
150: Number of mules that live and work at the South Rim
14: Number of wranglers managing them
20: Riders headed to Plateau Point daily, plus 2-3 wranglers
20: Riders headed to Phantom Ranch daily, plus 2-3 wranglers
Fun facts about mules at the Grand Canyon
A cross between a horse and a donkey, mules are typically sterile, and unable to reproduce.
The South Rim's mules come from a ranch in Tennessee, and are gradually trained to go a little farther into the canyon over time, says hiker and mule rider Jon Streit, the director of operations for Xanterra South Rim.
Each of his company's 150 mules at Grand Canyon Village has a name, and is identifiable to the wranglers who work with them.
In months of snow and ice, the mules receive cleat-like pieces of metal welded to their shoes, to aid with traction. During heavy snowfall, their keepers also shovel snow and ice off impassible sections of the trails.
Mules are used to carry boaters, hikers, gear, and trash out of Phantom Ranch, a lodging and meals facility at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Mule operations run every day of the year at the Grand Canyon.
Young, fit mules typically work five days out of every week.
When mules are ready to retire, Xanterra looks to a list of people who have asked to buy a mule formerly from the Grand Canyon, and sells to them. There's always a demand.
To beat summer temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, mules headed to the South Rim are often packed at 3 a.m. in the summer months.
Riding is not as easy as it sometimes looks, Streit said, because it requires abdominal and leg strength to command the mule and stick into the saddle.
"A lot of people have the perception that it's the easy way to get down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon," he said. "It's a demanding ride. It requires physical stamina."
Riding mules in the Grand Canyon
Two companies offer mule tours into the Grand Canyon.
Xanterra South Rim offers two rides on the more populated side of the Grand Canyon, and both cover some distance.
Canyon Trail Rides offers easier and shorter trips on the more remote North Rim, which is located more than four hours by car from Flagstaff, Ariz.
Xanterra's day-long trip enters the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail and descends 6.1 miles to Plateau Point, at an elevation loss of 3,120 feet, to peer into the inner Grand Canyon and at the Colorado River. Riders return the same day. The company calls this a 7-hour ride.
Xanterra's overnight trip goes to Phantom Ranch, a main population center and visitor destination deep in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The overnight ride includes more than 4,000 feet of elevation change and 10.5 miles each way, and riders sleep in cabins and are served meals.
Xanterra's rides typically book 13 months in advance.
On the North Rim, Canyon Trail Rides offers an hour-long ride for riders ages 7 and older along the canyon rim, and another half-day ride.
Canyon Trail Rides also offers a half-day ride that descends 2 miles and 1,450 feet into the Grand Canyon along its northern rim.
Canyon Trail Rides typically has daily rides available.
Mule trips range in cost from $30 for a one-hour ride along the North Rim to $668 for a rider staying two nights at Phantom Ranch, not including tips.
Riders entering the Grand Canyon are limited to 200 pounds, dressed.
If staying along the rim, the weight limit is 220 pounds.
Experienced horse and mule owners can also bring their own horses or mules for use on major trails in the Grand Canyon, and along the rim, but must apply for competitive permits just like backpackers. These permits typically run out in the spring, summer and fall, so most people apply four months in advance, on the first day of the month, by fax and by mail.
Canyon Trail Rides is at (435) 679-8665.
Xanterra South Rim is at (888) 297-2757.
The issue, in brief
Because the mules helped to carve old mining and exploration trails now used by hikers, some say the Canyon should be open to the animals.
The Park Service largely agrees, but is now considering to what extent.
—Deep pools of urine and piles of manure on trails
—Deep ruts in the trail that outpace Park Service funds available to repair them
—Hikers sometimes pushed aside or against embankments by mules
—More, shorter trips for tourists atop the South Rim
—Fewer 7-hour round trips to Plateau Point
—Designate one major trail for hikers, the other for mules
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