On A Steep Learning Curve

The Sun-Herald Traveller

21 June 2015

Tatyana Leonov tackles the Grand Canyon’s trails – on a mule.

The wind picks up and I tighten the scarf around my neck as I peer down into the expanse that is the Grand Canyon. Tall in stature and sporting a mane of scruffy curls, our mule wrangler Kenneth doesn’t appear to feel the sudden gust.

‘‘The scariest bit is the start,’’ he says as he yanks off his suede cowboy jacket. ‘‘After a few minutes you forget how narrow the trail is. These mules have been navigating tight tracks their whole lives.’’

I’m not the only one in the group feeling a little anxious. I know my husband well enough to notice that he, too, is apprehensive. And I can see some of the others in our group chatting nervously among each other.

We’ve chosen a short ride (three hours, two hours in the saddle) but you can book much lengthier jaunts in the Grand Canyon National Park. There’s a one-day option and even a two-day expedition with accommodation in a ranch on the canyon floor, for those who want a little more time in the saddle. But we’ve just arrived from Vegas with sore heads and I feel no desire for my buttocks to go that way too.

Mules have been part of the Grand Canyon scenery since the 1800s when they were used in mining (to transport both people and goods). More recently, the mules themselves have become the attraction and Kenneth says that more than 600,000 people have taken a mule ride here.

Once we are all sitting on our mules we commence the picturesque journey. We’ve chosen the Canyon Vistas Ride, a 6.5-kilometre track that was launched in 2013, specifically because it winds its way along a newly built trail on the east rim of the canyon and the views are said to be spectacular. It’s true! Five minutes in I don’t even remember being anxious and sit back to enjoy the shifting magnificent panoramas as the mules slowly amble along. The Grand Canyon is 446 kilometres long and although I know I’m only seeing a fraction of the massive stretch, I’m constantly reminded of its grandiosity as I gaze down into the depth.

Following one after another down the zig-zagging trail, I can see why miners brought these animals to the area. Sure-footed and clever, they easily navigate around boulders and dips. Half an hour into the ride and everyone looks more relaxed. Most people in the group begin to use just one hand to hold the reins, cameras pop out, and Kenneth stops now and then to chat about the canyon’s history, geology . . . and the mules.

The Grand Canyon mules of today are not only tourist movers, some are still used to haul mail, trash and various other supplies in and out of the canyon. From a distance we see a convoy of mules transporting buckets and this time everyone in the group pulls out a camera for yet another postcard moment in the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park mule rides are popular and high-season dates can be booked out many months in advance, so plan ahead. See nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/ mule_trips.htm.

The writer travelled at her own expense.