By Sasha Miller • June 27, 2022
Traveling to the Grand Canyon is a beloved memory for most. Seeing the vast landscape of steep-walled canyons, drainages, and the mighty Colorado River is worth coming back to year after year. Four and a half million people made this journey in 2021, and nearly every single one of them spent at least a bit of time on the almost 600 miles of trail within the park. These trails are the lifeline of the national park, but so much goes into keeping them this way.
Every year, millions of people experience the magic of the Grand Canyon by taking in the views at the overlooks, hiking around or into the canyon, or taking the Grand Canyon Mule Ride down to the bottom of the canyon.
Forty thousand people will use these trails to hike throughout the canyon, sometimes walking down to the Colorado River or hiking along the many valleys and gorges. Trails provide a safe way for hikers to navigate the confusing and sometimes outright dangerous terrain. Trails have been a part of the canyon for as long as people have been in the canyon, about 12,000 years. The native people to the canyon used these trails as paths to crucial life sources like food, vegetation, and water.
Today we primarily use these trails for adventure, recreation, and research. There is a prestigious title you can gain in the canyon: a one-percenter. To be a part of this elusive club, you must be part of the one percent of people who have spent at least one night in the canyon during any single year.
Horses are an iconic figure in the American West, however in the Grand Canyon, the mules reign supreme. The Grand Canyon Mule Ride was first offered in 1887 by Fred Harvey, who was the only provider of mule rides on the South Rim. In the 134 years since the ride’s inception, over 600,000 people have gotten to see the canyon from the back of a mule.
Mules aren’t just a means of transportation; they are a lifeline to the small ranch at the bottom of the canyon, Phantom Ranch. Every board, log, toilet, and washing machine at the bottom of the canyon were carried down by these strong, sturdy equines. To this day, Phantom Ranch is still one of the only places that receives all its supplies, sends out its trash, and processes mail by equine. Mules were also used to establish many of the trails, carrying 50,000 lbs of dynamite, 30,000 drill bits, and any additional supplies needed during the creation of these trails. Without the mules, Phantom Ranch or any of the trails couldn’t exist, and most would not be able to experience the inner canyon. They are an indispensable asset to the national park.
The Bad and the Ugly
Some say that the road best traveled is paved in gold. In this case, it is paved with erosion and mule poop. With the bustling nature of the trails in one of America’s busiest parks, these trails are beaten down, eroded, and dirtied every single day of the year. Hikers and mules alike will wear down the trails by kicking loose rocks away, stirring up the delicate soil, and damaging the few plants that hold the soil in place. This dislocation of resources and sandy, light nature of the soil causes massive erosion from the strong winds and monsoons that sometimes whip through the canyon. After major events like these, hundreds or thousands of dollars are needed to get the crews and supplies out to repair the trails. Trails will also be littered by hundreds of pounds of trash and thousands of pounds of mule excrement throughout the year.
Fortunately, there are some passionate and committed people who work as the trail crew in the canyon. But due to the bustling use of the trails, it is easy for these workers to become overloaded and the budget of the National Park Service is not adequate to keep up to the demands these trails need.
Trails are such an important part of the Grand Canyon’s tourism. As these trails become increasingly difficult to maintain every year, we as a society have to do our part in keeping these trails usable for years to come.
Sasha Miller is a freelance writer with equestrian experience ranging from competitions to ranching and outdoor guiding. She’s worked as a guide for horse-drawn wagon trips outside of Denali National Park and as a Grand Canyon mule skinner, and now rides and resides in Colorado.