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Grand Canyon National Park Officials Release Stock Use Plan, Including Mule Ride Quotas


A stock use plan approved for Grand Canyon National Park greatly reduces the number of mule rides below the South Rim. NPS photo.

While mule rides will continue at Grand Canyon National Park under a new stock use plan, only 10 visitors a day will be allowed to ride below the South Rim, a decision lamented by some who say it will deprive many of venturing into the canyon's Inner Gorge.

"I feel like the Grand Canyon is a gift to people, and when you start restricting usage you make it almost impossible for elderly people to get down into the canyon, or the handicapped," Ron Clayton, a long-time mule skinner who began guiding mules below the South Rim in the 1980s, said Tuesday after the plan was released.

Under the decision approved by Intermountain Regional Director John Wessels on January 5, mule use will continue at "historically high levels," although the number going down into the Inner Gorge from the South Rim will be cut in half and will be solely for guests staying overnight at Phantom Ranch. No Inner Gorge day rides will be offered.

“Mule rides have always been an important part of the visitor experience at Grand Canyon,” said acting-Superintendent Palma Wilson in a park release announcing the plan's approval. “Our challenge with this plan was to balance that use with the protection of historic trails and to reduce the high cost of maintaining those trails. We believe this plan strikes such a balance.”

Mule use has been hard on the Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails, according to park officials. Nearly a year ago when the park released its draft preferred alternative for the stock use plan officials noted that roughly $3 million a year is needed to adequately maintain the park’s corridor trails. But, they said at the time, the park only receives $1.5 million to $2 million a year towards that cost. "Additionally, deferred maintenance costs on inner canyon corridor trails currently exceeds $24 million," they said at the time.

And mule use can be messy, with the animals' wastes at times forcing hikers to hopscotch around the splatters, piles, and puddles. Still, there are those who maintain priorities, not budgets, dictated the reduction in Inner Gorge mule trips.

“I don’t agree with their rationale, that they don’t have the budget to maintain those trails. It saddens me to see that," Mr. Clayton said during a phone conversation from his Arizona home.

While he agreed that mules have impacts on the trails, he noted that erosion does as well.

"Erosion is what they have to address. That’s going to happen if they have mules in there or no mules are in there. That’s where I’d like to see them address their attention," said Mr. Clayton.

Park officials said the "stock use plan allows a potential 20 percent increase in commercial mule rides over the present yearly average on South Rim trails, and a potential 13 percent increase over the present annual average on North Rim trails."

For a park with more than 4 million visitors, most who head to the South Rim, just 10 slots a day for a mule ride below the rim seems a bit odd to Mr. Clayton.

“It kind of makes it sound like we might have some elitists at the helm," he said.

Such limits reduce the number of park visitors who see the Inner Gorge to, essentially, "the very fit" and the "very young," Mr. Clayton said.

The mule skinner, who in the 1980s "was honored by being able to take the first paraplegic and first quadriplegic down into the canyon," said mule trips are strenuous and are not for everyone. Still, he said, for the elderly or those with handicaps that prevent them from hiking down into the Inner Gorge, mule trips serve a great purpose with a great reward.

"We find it’s tougher and tougher on the elderly, but it’s still a trip they’ll never forget once they accomplish that," said Mr. Clayton.

Under the new plan, instead of 40 riders a day on the Bright Angel Trail (20 that traveled as far as Plateau Point, and 20 to the canyon bottom and Phantom Ranch) there will be just 10 mules hauling guests down to the ranch. With the South Kaibab Trail currently under repair, there also will be 10 rim-bound mules a day up the Bright Angel Trail; once the repairs are finished in another year or two, rim-bound mule trains will head up the South Kaibab Trail, park officials explained.

The previous Plateau Point ride will be replaced by an above-the-rim ride that park officials said "offers greater flexibility and more opportunities for visitors."

The plan also limits trips to Supai Tunnel on the North Kaibab Trail to 280 rides per week with a daily maximum not to exceed 48 riders a day, a number that has been exceeded less than a dozen times in recent years, according to Grand Canyon officials. The plan also eliminates the Roaring Springs ride due to the steep, narrow nature of the Roaring Springs section of the North Kaibab Trail.

The adopted plan allows the following:

South Rim operations

* Commercial stock use: Up to 10,000 commercial mule rides a year (current average use is 8,315 rides).

* Bright Angel Trail: Up to 10 mule riders a day, plus up to two guides, from the rim to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River. Day rides to Plateau Point will no longer operate.

* South Kaibab Trail: Up to 10 mule riders a day, plus guides, from Phantom Ranch to the rim. In addition, up to 12 supply mules, including guides, will be allowed daily to Phantom Ranch.

* Above-rim ride: Up to 40 mule riders a day, with at least one guide for every 10 riders, on a loop route from the South Kaibab trailhead to the rim near Yaki Point, continuing east another mile before returning.

* South Rim stock facilities: The historic mule barn in Grand Canyon Village will continue to house a small number of commercial mules. Most of the concessioner’s stock will move to the South Kaibab trailhead mule barn and corrals, which will be improved to accommodate more animals.

* Private stock use: Up to six riders and six mules/horses on overnight trips below the rim. Day-use group size will be up to 12 riders and 12 stock.

North Rim operations

* Commercial stock use: Up to 8,000 commercial mule rides a year (current average use is 7,072 rides).

* North Kaibab Trail: Up to 48 riders a day, with no more than 280 in a seven-day period (average of 40 a day) to Supai Tunnel, with no more than 30 riders on the trail at one time. These numbers reflect changes from the original EA, based on public demand and meetings with the mule ride concessioner.

* Ken Patrick Trail (above rim): Up to 40 one-hour mule riders a day to the Uncle Jim Trail junction, with no more than 20 mule riders on this section of trail at one time.

* Uncle Jim Trail: Up to 20 half-day riders a day to Uncle Jim Point North Rim stock facilities: The hitching rail at Uncle Jim Point will remain in place, and a one-stall composting toilet will replace the existing facility, with weekly (or as needed) cleaning and routine maintenance.

* Private stock use: Up to six riders and six mules/horses on overnight trips below the rim. Day-use group size will be up to 12 riders and 12 stock.

* Commercial use at Tuweep and Whitmore Trail: Up to six stock-use groups a year at Tuweep under a commercial use authorization. These groups are limited to 12 riders and 12 stock, including guides, and are for day-use only. Stock use will be discontinued on Whitmore Trail, which is remote and not maintained.

Additionally, the park release said "the stock use plan will help Grand Canyon address the impact of heavy, continuous use and limited trail maintenance funds on the park’s 42 miles of corridor trails – the three main routes into the inner canyon."

Park officials note that Grand Canyon visitors have taken guided mule trips since the early 1900s, before the park was officially established in 1919. Today, an average of 15,400 visitors a year ride mules on commercially guided trips down into the canyon and above the rim. The number of private mule and stock use is unknown because day-use permits are not required, but on average, about 60 private riders a year make overnight trips.


NPS Public Relation Specialists did well with the numbers that bely the reality of the changes. By many accounts the above the rim rides on the South Rim are a disappointment with many wanting refunds because the Ride does not reflect the Inner Canyon Ride's "transformational" effect. What is also missing from the press release is the imprint on this effort by the same couple that was responsible for the Hubbell Trading Post affair. Both the Hubbell Trading Post AND the Grand Canyon Mule Rides have a diminished iconic presence now, both, with century old historic and cultural value. Both sites were apparently no match for the ignorance and arrogance of the NPS leaders in charge. NPS stature has also been diminished here. If NPS would embrace these symbols for the value that they have contributed and correct their mistakes it would go a long way in returning respect for the agency.

Thanks Kurt for your article on the Canyon Mules.
If it would be okay to post a link that has been up for the last three years since the threat to the rides became apparent. It's a good bunch and are saddened with the EA release.

Boy this sounds way too familiar to the plight of Cape Hatteras, Replace the word Mule with ORV...

Erosion versus humans lets blame the humans (The low hanging fruit of the NPS)

Outside influences seem to run the NPS who was doing much better before they interfered.

There is documentation on how very little NPS has done to maintain the trails ... the evidence points to unrelenting moves in retribution after Spt. Steve Martin and his wife created a disruption in an encounter with the mules on the trail.

Without knowing who they were, the guide chastised them, as he was instructed to do with anyone in the same situation. The direct result was the loss of this guide's job, but it didn't stop there. The Martins became the "enemy" of the entire mule operation because he and his wife had been held to the same standards of safety as everyone else. The writing was on the wall, and Martin has consistently and doggedly used his connections and his position with NPS to bring the mule rides down.

I have a hard time believing that the people who consider themselves so "tough" when they hike the canyon are the same people who are so "sensitive" that they are bothered by a little mule manure. Come on, now!

This comment was edited to remove gratuitous remarks. -- Ed.

The rim ride that has replaced 75 percent of the mule rides into the canyon is nothing that even resembles a Grand Canyon mule ride. It is nothing more that an ordinary trail ride through common northern Arizona pinyon and juniper, and the mule riders never will see that canyon once from the saddle.

They will finally tie the mules up in a parking lot next to a few dozen tour buses, then they can walk a few hundred feet and then see the canyon from there for a few minutes, then turn around and leave the canyon, mount up and ride away from it again.

It is insulting to any one who had ever been on an actual grand Canyon mule ride, that this chinsy, rinky dink trail ride would be called a Grand Canyon mule ride.

Casey Murph
Former manager of mule operations,Xanterra
Grand Canyon Arizona

Mr Clayton states, “It kind of makes it sound like we might have some elitists at the helm"

I never understood why someone who opts out of more expensive transportation (in this case mules) and chooses to walk is then disparaged as an "elitist." The same attitudes seen here regarding the mule rides are seen throughout any debate regarding travel management on public lands.

These sentiments even cropped up on this very forum. Skeptic stated "I have a hard time believing that the people who consider themselves so 'tough' when they hike the canyon are the same people who are so 'sensitive' that they are bothered by a little mule manure. Come on, now!" Well, you know what, I am tougher than someone who needs an ATV, a mule, or some other assistance to access the back country. Also, while i'm out being tough, I prefer to do it without climbing mountains of shit and wading through lakes of hot urine. The mules will take many thousands of people on rides, but it will now have a more limited impact on those of us who actually take responsibility and prepare ourselves for the Grand Canyon and other back country areas we access.

Again, my question is, why does this make me an "elitist"? Is toughness no longer an American virtue? To be a real American do I have to waste my money on mule rides and ATVs instead of just making the effort to keep in shape? I guess I wouldn't care, but this whole cultural notion that real Americans don't walk is taking a tremendous toll on our ecosystems.

Please, i'm serious, I want to hear some insight on why personal responsibility and thrift make me an "elitist" when it comes to my choice to walk (instead of ride) into the wild.

You are an elitist by the fact that you state everyone else is not like you and should not be allowed the same things as you.

Tell this to a handicapped or elderly person tough guy.

I took Mr Claytons elitist remark to represent the fact that they are limiting these rides to just ten per day leaving open the fact that these rides are not available to all who either CHOOSE them or need them to enjoy the same adventure your elitist legs allow you to enjoy.

Reply to Stubbs:

Maybe the mule rides should be reserved for the elderly and disabled. Others can walk, with limited impact to the canyon or the experience of other visitors. Its not the fault of "elitists" that the Grand Canyon is deep and the walls are very steep. That's the way the world is. However, visitors can CHOOSE to prepare themselves for the physical world and then do some exercise before traveling to the Grand Canyon.

I realize its a zero sum game. Mule rides benefit you and hurt me (I have to walk through the mules' output). Limiting the mule rides benefits me and hurts you (you have to walk). It isn't a one way street, where limiting the mule rides is some scheme designed by walking, physically fit "elitists" to persecute couch potatoes.

What I still don't understand, is why someone is not an "elitist" when they promote a circumstance where you can use money to avoid the effort of walking while at the same time diminishing everyone else's ability to enjoy themselves, but I am an elitist when I say everyone should keep their money and just walk.

As I stated in my previous post, this just doesn't just apply to mules at the Grand Canyon. This is relevant to all public lands travel management debates. Why are people that advocate discreet and inexpensive activities like walking considered so distasteful and disparaged as "elitists"? Why is someone who pays a lot of money to avoid walking and having to prepare (e.g., exercise) for the physical world not considered an "elitist"? What is the cultural context for this?

This comment was slighted edited to remove some 'colorful' language regarding mules and their output. We really do try to offer a product the entire family can read. -- Ed.

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