Riding Down Memory Lane: Mule Rides Grand Canyon Flashback

Writer Patricia McDaniel reflects on her mule rides Grand Canyon and realizes how it’s important to do Grand Canyon trip planning before leaving home. She shares how these early experiences made her a better solo traveler.

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Cover of 1955 "My Weekly Reader" with picture of young girl with bow in her hair reading the magazine
1955 “My Weekly Reader,” like the one Patricia would have read about mule rides at Grand Canyon | World History Commons [accessed April 15, 2023]

It was sometime in 1955 when my third-grade teacher passed out My Weekly Reader. “Aunt Em,” my favorite contributor, did not disappoint!

She wrote in vivid detail about her experience riding on a mule in one of America’s seven natural wonders—the Grand Canyon! Visions of the steadfast mule’s deliberate walk down the circuitous trail were relegated to the back burner of my mind.

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My scant pre-travel research about mule rides at Grand Canyon

historic postcard of people mule riding in Grand Canyon
Brief Rest for mule rides into the Grand Canyon, Hermit Trail, Grand Canyon (NBY 23047).jpg Public Domaine via Wikimedia

Fast forward to 1974. I’d just completed graduate school with a few weeks to squander. “Aunt Em’s memory of mule rides Grand Canyon was jettisoned to the front burner. A solo traveler’s journey was about to begin!

My scant research before traveling indicated that I’d fly into Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. It would soon be mule time!

There was a reservation booth for Grand Canyon mules at the airport. When I began asking the reservations clerk about my desire to take a mule ride in Grand Canyon, his countenance could barely conceal lines of mirth.

I quickly learned that the North Rim was closed in mid-April because of heavy snow. Snow in Arizona?

Did I have a bus schedule for Grand Canyon National Park when I disembarked? Did I have a directory of the park’s other amenities? Did I have lodging at the South Rim? Was I aware that dining expenses or the Grand Canyon mule ride cost weren’t cheap? Motel reservations? No, no and no ad infinitum.

Trying to make reservations for mule rides at Grand Canyon

looking into the Grand Canyon from a South Rim viewpoint at sunset
South Rim viewpoint during sunset | UNSTOPPABLE Stacey photo

However, I did know that I’d had enough “quasi mirthing” for one location. I left the airport and boarded a bus for El Tovar Lodge with visions of mule rides Grand Canyon dancing in my head.

When I arrived at the lodge, I figured I might as well repeat my spiel about booking a mule ride into Grand Canyon. A stifled laugh greeted me when I indicated I wanted to book a mule trip reservation for the next day.

(I did have enough sense to realize my riding capabilities and know I couldn’t withstand the two-day Phantom Ranch mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon!) Didn’t I know that these coveted mule rides into the Grand Canyon were booked months in advance?

Mounting naiveté

three riders on mules going down steep trail into canyon
Sunday, February 23, 2014. Taking a mule trip at the Grand Canyon is a century old tradition | NPS photo by M. Quinn

An April afternoon in the sweltering Arizona heat, plus mounting naiveté, encouraged perspiration, unlike anything I’d encountered in Indiana! When I arrived at the lodge’s reservation desk, I primed for a bevy of more silent smiles from the reservation clerk.

I had no idea if any rooms were available. If so, would I be playing “room roulette” for three nights? If the response was in the affirmative, how much would they cost? Would I be assigned to the most expensive room to generate more revenue for the lodge? Would I starve if I had to choose between eating and sleeping?

I was fortunate to secure reasonable accommodations, maintain my strength through continual nourishment and take the one-day mule ride in Grand Canyon!

An NPS ranger poses with a mule near the Bright Angel Trailhead before the mule rides into the Grand Canyon down the Bright Angel Trail in 2020 | NPS Photo

My Grand Canyon mule was patient. It’s been eons since the trip, and I don’t remember the mule’s name. I’m calling him “Hoosier” as a tribute to my home state.

Views of the Grand Canyon during mule rides Grand Canyon

Rider on mule has back to camera as hiker peers around corner of tight grand Canyon trail with majestic layered canyon behind

The Colorado River snaked along the bottom of the canyon, resembling a typewriter ribbon. My fear of heights was gradually thwarted. There were so many ever-changing species of vegetation as our group approached the halfway terminus of the Grand Canyon. Tiny spring wildflowers with pastel colors gave way to chunky cacti and other succulents.

I’d never taken a trip as a solo traveler prior to my Grand Canyon expedition. The trip was singular by default because it hadn’t occurred to ask anyone to accompany me. This mule riding in Grand Canyon was (and continues to be) the most memorable trip of my life! I could do exactly as I pleased when I wanted and what I wanted. No intervention of a “stopwatch”—a traveler partner or group!!

10 Solo travel tips for authentic ways to find adventure

Arizona travel writer Stacey Wittig sits near Kaibab Trail with her back to the camera. She wears backpack and wide-brimmed cowboy hat

Forty-some years later—including trips local and abroad—have firmly convinced me that this is the true way to experience an adventure! Some travel tips for the neophyte solo traveler to consider:

1) Toughen up in advance

Toughen up in advance, and don’t let individuals within the tourism industry intimidate you. You’re providing the tourism employee’s salary.

2) Ask question upon question

In this instance, I asked the individual taking reservations for mule rides at Grand Canyon if he would waitlist me. I informed him that I had three days to take the trip. Each day I planned to arrive an hour early. Surely someone would oversleep, have a sick kid, miss the bus, run out of gas or simply forget.

Forty-five minutes into my first day of waiting, I was notified that Hoosier was waiting for me! Had I been with two or three others hoping for mule riding in Grand Canyon, the luck of the draw wouldn’t have been in my favor!

3) Select the clerk who appears most empathetic

If more than one clerk is taking reservations, select the one who appears most empathetic. Notice how each clerk treats each individual upon check-in. This may require a bit more time and appear less efficient, but attentive assistance far outweighs the “efficiency.”

4) Stay energized

It had been a long day. The same accommodating clerk suggested that I eat a warm and embracing meal at the least expensive restaurant at the lodge. I was also advised to visit the snack bar in the morning and order food to go. Another alternative would be to visit the juice cooler and bakery. Fresh citrus, granola bars, and other hand-held eatables would be available (It’s Arizona, you know!)

5) Seating for one?

If a restaurant is crowded, it’s possible to nudge one person into the dining room, plain and simple. True for a seat for one on mule rides Grand Canyon, too!

6) Travel clothing

Inventory your existing wardrobe. Does anyone need to visit the gift/clothing store to purchase the latest designer styles? Or will your threadbare straw hat suffice in the broiling sun during your mule riding in Grand Canyon?

Do Grand Canyon mules really care if it’s Dollar General haute or the most trendy chapeau? As a product of the 1960s, I didn’t feel the need to conform. This mantra is equally applicable to a senior.

7) Dressing in layers is elemental

Is it better to have matched and color-coordinated outfits, or is it better to wear Goodwill chic when experiencing mule rides Grand Canyon? With the latter, you may either throw or give away clothes, thus providing additional space for souvenirs you wish to take home.

8) Why travel solo?

Remember that with each traveling companion, creativity is automatically stifled by 25% for each individual of a party of four. Reality check? Are you pleased being at the beck and call for 75% of your valuable traveling time?

9) Blend in with the locals

Solo travelers find blending in with the locals much easier than those that travel in groups. This way, you avoid the “herding” ploy.

10) Fear of name tags?

I’ve never suffered from “tag-itis.” Not even once. Who needs a white and blue-bordered name tag when you’re on your own?

The road less traveled via mule rides in the Grand Canyon

New riders get prepared for mule rides Grand Canyon
Riders about to leave the stone corral at Bright Angel Trailhead for a trip into the canyon | NPS photo by Michael Quinn

“I took the road less traveled, and it has made all the difference.” The elusive blue highway was replete with Mom and Pop eateries.

Memories besides mule rides at the Grand Canyon include:

  • the sole proprietor of a tiny Italian market (where I was given a bag of pignoli cookies),
  • a rowboat ride on Moraine Lake where conversation and warm apple dumplings were shared with my guide, and
  • eating slices of warm Paska with soft butter (a Russian Orthodox Russian treat) in the church basement of Brownsville, Pennsylvania.

They will never be replicated.

Did I mention that I espouse bullhorn tours? FYI: These church ladies practiced excellent salespersonship—loaves of Paska were purchased for future housewarming gifts!

Patricia McDaniel is a writer who studied at Indiana University. She organizes the Historic National Road Yard Sale that extends for 824 miles from St. Louis to Baltimore.

What does a Grand Canyon mule ride cost?

Check the Grand Canyon mule ride cost here at

www.grandcanyonlodges.com/plan/mule-rides

UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was NOT provided with accommodations, meals or other compensation for the purpose of this guide. The Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, Stacey earns a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of keeping this travel blog active. 

Further, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Thanks for reading.

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2 thoughts on “Riding Down Memory Lane: Mule Rides Grand Canyon Flashback”

    • Thanks for your comment, Diane! I loved Patricia’s story about mule rides Grand Canyon, too! Where is your next adventure?

      Reply

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