Favorite Destinations: The Grand Canyon

“Hey Jeff, look!” I shouted across the lobby of the Grand Canyon Lodge to my friend and travel companion who was finishing up our registration for a cabin on the canyon’s north rim, “there’s still room for us on tomorrow’s mule ride down the canyon. It was the summer of 1987 and we were on one of many trips of a lifetime (aren’t they all). This one was a circle tour of the great American southwest. It had already taken us to the ancient ruins of Mesa Verde, the Great Sand Dunes – where we were stopped on the road by an honest to goodness buffalo stampede – the four corners and now to one of the world’s bone fide natural wonders. The Grand Canyon!

“So, do you wanna go?” Jeff has known me since childhood and I’m sure that he could tell by the way I was jumping up and down and screaming with almost a high school cheerleader type intensity that I intended to go whether he did or not. “Sure, why not?” he replied in his usual calm and casual demeanor carefully cultivated over the years to keep himself from becoming the center of attention – or more likely to avoid anyone thinking that he was associated with me, “it’s not like we’ll be coming back this way anytime soon.”

“Exactly what I was thinking and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to ride one again. There’s a weight limit.” Then, as now, there is indeed some physical requirements to take a mule ride at the Grand Canyon. You need to be 4′ 7″ tall or taller (1.4 meters), I presume that’s how tall you can be and still reach the stirrups, and weigh less than 200 pounds (just under 91 kg), which I’m sure is to conserve the back of the mule. I had just recently been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease which had caused me to lose weight at an alarming rate. This summer the disease seemed to finally be under control and I had recovered much of my previous weight but was still comfortably under the limit (I wish I could say the same about my current physique. But that’s the subject of several other blog entries). They took the weight limit seriously as I recall and weighed us both on the spot.

I should explain that our trip was not planned out well and it was almost a fluke that we were at the Grand Canyon at all. I had actually lobbied earlier during our journey that we should just keep going on to Disneyland. Jeff, once again proving to be the more level headed of our dynamic duo vetoed this idea because we “only have so many vacation days.” We were young and carefree (aka as ignorant) we did not plan out very well were we would spend the nights. We were camping and our experience so far was that spaces were plentiful in the national parks and forests that we visited each day (not true today by the way). Coming from Colorado, where my sister and her husband lived at the time, we approached the Grand Canyon from the east and our first decision when visiting was to decide which rim we would visit: north or south? The south was then, and still is, by far the most popular side of the canyon. It has many more “attractions” and, from what I’m told, a more touristy vibe. It sits on the high desert with the appropriate flora and fauna surrounding it.

The “historic” Navajo Bridge circa 1987. Photo by David P. Wahr

The north rim was, and still is, closer to the canyon in it’s natural state. It is higher in elevation and has a more mountain feel to it. The views are often found behind tall pine trees which are abundant and the air is a little cooler, even in the heat of the summer. In Tuba City we made our decision. Because it was closer to our next destination, Zion, we would go to the North Rim. In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t detour to California and not just because I would make many visits to the Golden State later in life, but because to miss seeing this Natural Wonder of the World would have left a hole in my heart the size of…well, the Grand Canyon!

Our arrival that day had been unremarkable. Shortly after leaving Tuba City (love that name), we turned north on US 89 and followed that to ALT US 89. We crossed what is now now “historic” Navajo Pedestrian Bridge stopping to admire the view of Marble Canyon which is the Grand Canyon’s eastern end. We also learned about the history of Lee’s Ferry from the monument posted there. Then on to the North Rim via Arizona 67 – which leads directly to the park and is your only approach from the north (turn left in Jacob Lake, can’t miss it). Both of us were surprised at how the scenery changed from desert to relatively lush forest as we got closer to the park itself. Wildlife was present along the road and we spotted some Mule Deer not to be confused with the actual mules we had just signed to ride the next day.

When we got to the park we were disappointed to find out that the campground was full. However, we were in luck as the Lodge had a few cabins left. Sleeping in an actual bed – even if we had to provide our own sleeping bags to use for sheets – sounded pretty good to both of us at this point in our trip so we secured a cabin for two nights. Not as comfortable as a room in the Grand Canyon Lodge itself, but clean and dry. Plus we didn’t have to stumble out into the dark at night to find the restroom. Which given that we were staying on the edge of a mile deep canyon was probably a good thing.

I’ll pause to remind you that this adventure took place 34 years ago. If you want lodging in Grand Canyon National Park today you’ll need to be sure to make a reservation well in advance!

So, here we were. In the lobby of a historic and rustic looking lodge signing up to ride a horse/donkey hybrid down into the canyon. Neither of us were experienced riders but we were assured that this wouldn’t be an issue since the mules knew what they were doing. “Besides,” I thought, “I saw Donald Duck do the same thing once in a cartoon. How hard could it be?” I had conveniently forgotten that Donald had totally destroyed the canyon by the time that cartoon was over…

It was only after signing up for the mule ride that I realized in my excitement that I had not gone out to actually see the canyon yet. It’s a good thing that we did sign up for the ride first, because as soon as I stepped out onto the patio overlooking the canyon I realized I may have made a mistake. In front of me was the totally awe-inspiring vista of the Grand Canyon itself. There is nothing I can say to do justice to the incredible grandeur of this first look. I’ll only say that pictures, television, even movies do not prepare you for the sheer size, color, texture, and wonder of it all. And they certainly did not prepare me for the verticality and depth of the walls! My latent acrophobia kicked right in and I got a little woozy thinking “we’re about to go down there?” There is a reason the Paiute called the canyon Kaibab. A name that in English translates to “mountain lying down.”

But, I eventually recovered. Jeff and I spent the remainder of the day exploring the North Rim from point to point. Starting with the short Bright Angel Point trail and ending up as far down the road as we could go (the Cape Royal overlook). We then made our way back the Grand Canyon Lodge to watch the sunset over the canyon. It’s not a flashy show but there is something soothing and fascinating about watching the colors shift as the day passes into night. And because it was a clear night the stars were out in a dazzling finale to the sunset. But, no stargazing for us. We had to be up earlier in the morning for our trek below the rim.

I do not recall our exact starting point or if we had to take a shuttle to get there, but I’m sure it was near the head of the North Kaibab trail. Our guide was a pleasant, but firm, young woman who after sizing each of us up assigned us to a mule. I got a sturdy looking steed named Elderberry while Jeff was paired up with the aptly named Shortcut. We would soon find out why he was so named, but I’m getting ahead of myself. After the usual warnings about following the rules, trusting the mule, and being sure to follow all directions from our guides, we mounted up and began our journey. Oh, and one last thing before we left. We were told that each year a few people do fall over the edge of the canyon and die. Not to make us nervous or anything. That’s unlikely to happen – if we follow the rules and instructions. Did I mention that we had signed a waiver yesterday back at the lodge?

The trip down the North Kaibab trail started pleasantly enough. The first part was in a wooded area and the morning was still cool. It took a couple switch back turns to realize that the mule was doing all the driving and that I was holding on to the reigns mostly for effect. It had been several years at this point since I was last on horseback but I quickly fell back into the rhythm of the mule’s steps. We continued our descent marveling at the geological changes in front of us. As you travel down the canyon you are literally looking back into the Earth’s geological history. Each layer of rock tells a story to those who know how to read it. The weather changes as we descend as well. The top of the canyon may be a mountain forest, but the bottom is more like a Sonoran desert! I would venture to say that most people who run into trouble while hiking the canyon have made two errors in judgement: 1) they didn’t really understand how hard it is to climb uphill and 2) they didn’t bring enough water. Fortunately for us, because we were on a guided trip and the mule was doing all the hard work we would be in good shape. Or so we thought. But I digress…

I’m not sure how far we descended into the canyon. But it seemed like a long way. The trail was narrow at times and often it seemed that the mule might be a little wider than the trail itself. But Elderberry was sure footed and made the trek with ease. While I was staring down hundreds (thousands?) of feet the mule stared straight ahead without a care. Maybe she (or he, I didn’t check and I suppose at some level it doesn’t matter because mules can’t reproduce like its mother, a horse, and father, a donkey, could) was watching her step. Whatever, downward we continued.

I suspect we stopped at the Roaring Springs Day Use area, but it could have been all the way to the Manzanita Rest Stop. In any case it took about three or four hours to get down to what our guide called “the bottom.” Though she also pointed out that we were several miles still from the river. I don’t recall seeing Roaring Springs though we must have passed them. There was a small creek where we stopped for lunch, which I presume was Bright Angel Creek which is the only stream in the part of the canyon we were in given that there was no run off from snow (it was July after all). Sadly this adventure took place in the age of film. So I had to conserve my pictures. Today, I would have taken pictures of signs, people, our mules, etc. This also explains the poor image quality of the pictures which accompany this post (that and my cheap scanner).

One thing that I do remember clearly is that were we stopped had perhaps the most unique pit toilet design that I have ever encountered before or since. And remember, as a person with Crohn’s I’ve seen more than my fair share of toilets. It was a compostable design, which isn’t that unique today, but it was also designed to give you an “open air” experience. Though it was surrounded by what appeared to be wooden slat walls they were arranged in such a way that when you were inside you could see out! They didn’t completely disappear, obviously, but the effect was a little unsettling especially since there was no roof either. It was almost like you were a bear doing what a bear does when it’s in the woods. On the plus side, you could see if someone was approaching and shout “occupied” before they discovered you in your most vulnerable position. I’m guessing that that design didn’t win over many fans because based on the videos I’ve been watching to refresh my memory of the trail it has been replaced with a more traditionally designed outhouse. At least a three-holer from the looks of it!

After a too brief lunch and opportunity to explore the area and even splash in the creek it was time to remount our trusty mules and make the trip back up and out of the canyon. This is when the first hint of the physical issues I would experience later presented themselves. My legs had apparently stiffened up without my knowledge and were not too happy with the idea of getting back into the saddle and they weren’t as upset as my bottom was. But, I didn’t want to walk up the trail so saddle up I did. We all got into line, Elderberry falling dutifully behind her buddy Shortcut and we began our ascent.

We were about half-way up by my reckoning when the unthinkable happened. I was startled by a loud “snap” in front of me. Shortcut was startled too because he jumped and I mean jumped towards the edge of the precipice and what appeared to be a bottomless ravine! Jeff shouted something, which I can’t repeat here, and time slowed down while I watched in horror thinking that he was about to go over the cliff. “How am I going to tell his family?” I thought (because it’s always about me after all). The guide turned to look back at the scene unfolding and I swear her face went white with fear as she shouted “hold on!” We were told to trust our mules and we found out why. Shortcut recovered his footing and then as if nothing happened continued his dutiful march to the top. With a sigh of relief the guide instructed Jeff to stay calm and keep going . When the trail widened up a little bit further she would come back and fix the strap that had broken loose.

When we finally reached the top and Jeff had thanked Shortcut for getting him back safely I told him what I had thought when I saw him and the mule head towards the edge. He just replied, “That’s funny. All I could think was ‘how am I going to keep this mule between me and the bottom?'”

Jeff always was the more pragmatic one.

Note: Since my visit in 1987 the rules have changed regarding mule trips and they were severely limited in 2011 to prevent erosion of the trails among other reasons. The day trips are shorter so you don’t get to the “bottom” any more unless you are spending the night in the canyon. If you’d like to take one more details are here. As with lodging you’ll want to reserve well in advance.

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