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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.


Lets take it to the next level of elitisms and have the NPS destroy all trails down and up and force you to rapel into the canyon and rock climb out. The non elite elderly, handicapped and couchpatatoes either can take a copter (oops these are eliminated also as they distract the elitist tranquil surroundings) or watch it on tv (filmed by the very elitist who decline your access)

You are very correct as there is a huge intolerance in the environmental community of people who cannot walk or hike for miles without assistance. The mindset that these people do not deserve the same rights and access to the NPS systems as they tend to block the trails with their wheelchairs and trip others with their white canes...

I don't get the term "elitist" being bandied around here to describe either those who will pay or those who are physically fit enough to hike down then up the canyon trails. The overnight ride is almost $500. I also saw some people going down the South Kaibab Trail who weren't exactly super fit. I think the average middle-aged person could probably hike down a few hundred feet and make it back as long as it's done early enough in the morning (before the heat picks up). The view is spectacular even if just a short distance down.

I also understand the concerns. I tried going around some of that mule poop. The only thing I've seen nastier than that was bison turd.

Still - I think the mules are an important part of their history. I remember summers watching reruns of "The Brady Bunch" and the multi-episode story arc where they visited the Grand Canyon and took a mule ride down to the bottom. Although I never rode a mule at the Grand Canyon, the idea holds a special place in my heart even after dodging mule poop. The mule ride starts at about 6 minutes in:

It does make sense that perhaps the rides could be reserved for those with a demonstrated physical need. However, the quotas that have been established seem rather arbitrary.

I had written something earlier to head off what I knew was coming, LOL. It was good, too, but my lap top lost it so this is a bit late. I did get a chuckle, oddly. I've had the same reactions of both Spirit and Matt. Flip side of the same coin, really. Everything seems divisive these days. At any rate it seems out of place and not becoming of what the Canyon is about. What goes unseen in the arguments, at times, is the great middle ground of visitors that, through the Canyon experience whether it be on mules or their own two feet, realize that what they are coming away with is that it isn't about them. EVERYONE has something to learn in the Canyon on a daily basis. We all are at different levels of the learning curve and I welcome the passion that both of you bring to the argument. I am also expectant of the breakthroughs that are just around the next corner. I've seen it repeatedly on the trail where I've ridden up on overheated, in trouble (some seriously) hikers that are not into polite conversation, LOL. Whether it was the extra water I would always pack for my riders and for just these situations, for people in trouble on the trail, it was very fun to turn these situations around with everyone involved feeling better for the experience. Amazing how attitudes change with a little cool water pored over the heads of people in heat issues.
I, also, do a LOT of hiking in the Canyon particularly since I've been involved in the preserving of the mule legacy in the Canyon which is another story (can't work for a concessionaire). I have many in my family that are back country adventurers whether it be on their own feet or riding horses or mules. My father was a past president of a hiking and mountaineering club in Washington State where during his tenure he and two club members dedicated Mt. Mathis in the Olympic National Park. The issue should not be resolved with picking one group over another but to just put the issue above our own desires as the Canyon teaches us so well, if we pay attention. Sounds more lofty than I meant but I've seen it so often on the trail that I'd like it to be THE moving factor for the differing views to find breakthroughs.
Rock On Canyon,

"who actually take responsibility and prepare ourselves for the Grand Canyon and other back country areas we access"

that is the elitism (and arrogance) right there. the ASSUMPTION that those who choose to ride mules into and out of the canyon are irresponsible and unprepared, or fat, or lazy, or ignorant because they don't CHOOSE to experience the canyon the same way you do. i think i shall make the ASSUMPTION that those who hike instead of ride have issues with trust, and control, and are just big fraidy cats who are askeered of mules. stupid, no?

if you are so much tougher and better prepared than the rest of us, i wise and strong one, why do you insist on hiking the EASIEST trail in the canyon, the BA? hmmm? there are more than 250 miles of trail you can use, where you won't have to worry about getting doody on you fancy goretex hiking shoes. on some trails, you won't even see any other people, and can have the canyon all to yourself :-)

i don't suppose it ever occurred to some that when one takes the 2 night mule trip, one has an entire day to hike and enjoy the bottom, for instance the 12 mile Ribbon Falls hike, or go half-way up the S Kaibab and back to Phantom.

too many people are just buying into the spew put forth by the NPS that the MULES damage the trails ... i guess they've never heard of erosion. hikers, you want a nice smooth trail with no ruts, no challenges, no big steps, stay on the damn pavement. the mules have no problems negotiating the trails that were made by mules for mules. the park has purposely neglected trail maintenance for more than 20 years, and now their claims of no money for repairs ring hollow. educate yourselves on what's actually happened people, instead of being ignorant sheep.

Sounds odd but why discriminate in favor of just the handicapped. It isn't a bus ride to the bottom. There are many that have never even been on an animal that come to the Canyon and might not be ready but would come back years later and climb on a mule and go into the Grand Canyon. I REALLY respect anyone who pushes their comfort zone and does something like that. It is amazing what it does to a young (or old) person growing up in this video game world and somehow gets to do the ride. Parents attempting to expose their children to something bigger than themselves, glowing with the growth they see in themselves and their children after the family adventure. It is very good and something the country needs more of. Okay, enough writing. Gotta get into the Canyon for the good stuff.


too many people are just buying into the spew put forth by the NPS that the MULES damage the trails ... i guess they've never heard of erosion. hikers, you want a nice smooth trail with no ruts, no challenges, no big steps, stay on the damn pavement. the mules have no problems negotiating the trails that were made by mules for mules. the park has purposely neglected trail maintenance for more than 20 years, and now their claims of no money for repairs ring hollow. educate yourselves on what's actually happened people, instead of being ignorant sheep.

What's with all the insults?

My reading of the history of the various trails in GC is that they were often built by either the natives or by people looking to charge an entrance fee. I didn't get any history that they were necessarily designed for pack animals.

I certainly think they're an appropriate part of GC, but is there anything that can be done about the waste? Dog walkers in a city park have to pick up their droppings. Can't maybe a small pack train come by and pick up the poop on a regular basis?

what insults?

Uh...:) one thing people learn when they go into the Canyon is that "they aren't in Kansas anymore." I know it's tough but as hard as some might try, it ain't Kansas! No offense intended, LOL.

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