On a chilly morning near the Grand Canyon’s busy Bright Angel trailhead, a man with muddy boots, cowboy hat, bulging cheek and drooping mustache fixed his gaze on a handful of nervously smiling tourists.
Preparing his audience for what was ahead, John Berry, the 47-year-old livery manager for park concessionaire Xanterra, told the group, “Your legs are going to be numb after the next two hours.”
The tourists nodded as they eyed the mules behind him. They had signed up for the ride to Phantom Ranch. Every day as many as 10 riders join guides on this journey down 10 miles of narrow trail to the canyon floor, about 4,400 feet below. Usually, the group sleeps at the ranch and ascends the next day on South Kaibab Trail.
As one of the Grand Canyon’s greatest rituals, the ride dates to 1887, and modern trips book up to 13 months in advance. (The cost is about $400 to $515 per rider, depending on the size of the group.) “This is the biggest mule operation in the United States,” Berry said. “Heck, we could be the biggest in the world.”
But it has been bigger.
In 1914, National Geographic estimated the South Rim’s tourist mule traffic at 7,000 riders per year. These days it’s half that or less. After decades of dispute between traditionalists and hikers who say the mules accelerate trail damage, the park has capped Xanterra’s mule traffic at 10 recreational riders per day below the South Rim.
What prepares a man for this gig? Basically, said Berry, “I’ve been with mules all my life.” He was 13 when his family took over a string of pack stations in the Sierra Nevada near Bishop, Calif., in 1980, and before long he was taking mules into the high country.
Since then he has gone back and forth between the family business and the Grand Canyon. He has been in charge of the Grand Canyon mule rides since 2012.
The operation includes about 60 “dude mules” — animals with the surest hoofs, best manners and mildest tempers — along with 80 others that carry packs or work with trail crews. As boss, Berry manages the guides, matches riders with mules, keeps in touch with guides by walkie-talkie, makes contingency plans when the weather changes and rides the canyon about once a month.
He tries out every new mule himself. And most workdays, he handles the pre-ride briefing, which contains life-or-death instructions peppered here and there with Wild West patter.
“We don’t sugarcoat it,” he said. “It’s a tough, hard ride. If you’re not used to riding, you’re going to be sore in places you didn’t even know you had.”
Still, for most customers, these animals and this trail are the stuff of happy memories, not regrets.
“We show people one of the best things they can ever do,” Berry said. And he’ll keep doing it, he added, “until I retire or they fire me.”
Desert View Point’s perfect panorama
Because it’s 25 miles east of Grand Canyon Village, Desert View isn’t on the park’s shuttle bus routes, and many travelers don’t get there. But it’s a great stop for at least two reasons.
One is the panorama from Desert View Point. As its name suggests, the cross-canyon view from here incorporates the dramatic canyon walls and a flat expanse of desert to the east and, to the north, a stretch of the Colorado River as it trickles and roars between the canyon walls.
Bring a picnic lunch — or better yet, a picnic dinner (and a warm coat) — and linger while sunset colors wash over the scene. On a clear day, the park service says, you can see 100 miles.
The site’s other principal asset is the tower, which, on first glance, you might mistake for an 800-year-old ruin. In fact, architect Mary Colter designed it in 1932 as an homage to the ancestral Puebloan people. It’s four stories, a steel-and-concrete skeleton beneath a skin of plaster and stone masonry.
The interior is open, the walls decorated with ancient-looking murals. (Hopi artist Fred Kabotie painted many of the works in the Hopi-themed room; others are faux pictographs and petroglyphs.) On the top floor, you’re 7,522 feet above sea level — the highest point on the South Rim.
Colter’s design is said to be patterned after ruins at Hovenweep National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. But it made me think of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent a lot of time in Arizona, began designing that rounded structure (with open interior and walkways along the exterior walls) in 1943.
The Desert View complex also includes a visitor center and a seasonal campground.