Mention the mules of the Grand Canyon and you are bound to get an argument.
Some defend them as a priceless link to the earliest days of the national park and a godsend for tourists unable to make the climb out of the Canyon under their own power.
Critics say the mules destroy hiking trails and the National Park Service is unable to keep up with needed repairs.
So it's not surprising that when Grand Canyon National Park officials proposed a compromise, they took flak from both sides.
Frankly, we never saw the mules as an either/or choice. So a proposal that reduces their impact on some trails while shifting some of the rides to a new part of the park strikes us an appropriate middle ground.
The plan calls for a sharp reduction in rides on the most heavily traveled trail in the park, Bright Angel. If approved, there would be no more day trips to Plateau Point and only 10 rides a day down to Phantom Ranch, down from a total of 40 on the trail.
Frankly, if the number is cut so sharply, it might as well be zero and do away with the need for maintenance of any kind. Bright Angel is busy enough with human day-trippers and overnighters. The burden of maintaining it for mules just seems like too much.
And it is also unnecessary. The South Kaibab, although a longer trip to Phantom Ranch, is a perfectly serviceable trail most of the year. It's not as busy as the Bright Angel and the trailhead is not in the middle of Grand Canyon Village. Give hikers a choice of a mule-free way to descend into the Canyon, and we're betting hardly any will choose the South Kaibab, which should free it up for mule use at its current level.
The mules that previously descended Bright Angel will be redeployed along the South Rim for a new ride between Yaki Point and Shoshone Point. We think this is a brilliant move. Not only does it open up a previously underused section of the South Rim but it gets the mules as well as the tourists who ride them out of Grand Canyon Village and over to Yaki Point. If the humans are required to get there by shuttle bus, so much the better.
Some might quibble that by moving mules off Bright Angel and more hikers onto it, congestion in the Village will only increase. But we see hiking on the Bright Angel likely to increase regardless of whether mules are there or not. A new generation of younger, fitter visitors is on the rise, and a half-day hike down to the Indian Garden campground is a great way to experience the Canyon below the rim without risking life and limb. Separating humans from mules on such a narrow trail as much as possible seems a no-brainer.
As for who gets to ride the remaining mules below the rim, we've said previously in this space that preference should go to amputees and others in the disabled community who can physically handle the ride but not the walk. We'd suggest the rides be allocated to the disabled by lottery, much like rafting trips by private parties are now chosen. Few other parks offer regular mule rides to the able-bodied even though some have trails that are equally challenging. We wonder why the Grand Canyon continues to promote such an arrangement at the expense of those more deserving of a ride.
As for visitors to Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground who contend they can't possibly carry all their gear down and back, we'd suggest a compromise. Hire a mule to pack your gear in and out, but get yourself there by foot. With a strictly-enforced weight limit for gear, one mule could accommodate gear for three or four people. That would cut by up to 80 percent the number of mules needed to get a party to and from the bottom of the Canyon. Just because it is possible for mules to carry able-bodied people as well as gear doesn't mean they should.
Preferred Alternative B
South Rim Mule Rides
- Up to 10,000 commercial mule rides, including inner canyon and above-rim rides, would be offered each year, as compared to current annual average use of 8,315 rides.
- On Bright Angel Trail, up to 10 rides per day would be allowed to Phantom Ranch, but no Plateau Point day rides from the South Rim would be offered under this alternative.
- On South Kaibab Trail, up to 10 rides per day from Phantom Ranch; plus up to 12 pack stock round trips would be allowed to Phantom Ranch each day.
- An above-the-rim ride from Yaki Point area east toward Shoshone Point would be allowed at a level of 40 rides per day, with the concessionaire responsible for maintenance of the rim trail.
- Overnight below-the-rim private groups would be allowed with up to six stock and six people per group. Day use (allowed both above and below the rim) would be allowed up to 12 stock and 12 people per group.