Leading Longears

For 130 years, mules have been the best way to experience the Grand Canyon.
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For 130 years, mules have been the best way to experience the Grand Canyon.
Credit: Xanterra Parks & Resorts

Credit: Xanterra Parks & Resorts

When the Santa Fe Railroad built a new terminus at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 1901, they hoped to make their money back with gold the local miners brought to market. Then the tourists arrived.

“It didn’t take miners long to realize there was more money in taking tourists down into the canyon on their mules than there was in actually mining with them,” explains John Berry, livery manager of Xanterra Parks and Resorts, the exclusive providers of mule rides on the South Rim.

Guided rides into the canyon started in 1887, when Captain John Hance—the Grand Canyon’s first Anglo settler—ran an ad in the Flagstaff Arizona Champion promising a tour for anyone brave enough to descend the canyon’s switchbacks. As tourism grew, so did mule ride operations. Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, John Muir, and Frederic Remington all had their pictures taken sitting astride a mule on their way down to explore the iconic American canyon.

“These Grand Canyon mules are a pretty famous bunch of mules,” Berry says proudly of the 150-head herd. “They’re known all around the world. And we’re the biggest packing operation in the country, if not the world.”

Berry started leading pack lines when he was 12 years old, working for his parents in the Sierra Nevada mountains. After 25 summers and a stint as a government packer, he eventually found his way to the Grand Canyon.

“The rides we take are pretty much the same as they were back in the early 1900s,” Berry explains. “We do the same two-day ride that goes down Bright Angel Trail, stays the night at Phantom Ranch, then comes back on South Kaibab Trail.”

Also unchanged is the appeal to tourists. The waiting list for a Grand Canyon mule ride can be upwards of a year.

Being a mule wrangler in the Grand Canyon goes beyond leading rides. Mule packers are also responsible for resupplying Phantom Ranch—a historic lodge at the base of the canyon—365 days a year, and for keeping a careful eye out for hikers in need. Berry says, “We save people’s lives in the canyon yearly. It can be more than 120 degrees in summer at the Phantom Ranch and we’re always helping folks get water or calling in rangers to help them make it out.”

Although many see mule wrangling as a seasonal job, for Berry, it’s a year-round pursuit. And it’s not just the occasional heroics or even the hallowed history that keeps him contented in the saddle. “It’s a pretty good feeling, being on a good mule,” the veteran wrangler admits. “It just gets in your blood.

 “I just love mules. I really do.” 

Credit: Xanterra Parks & Resorts

Credit: Xanterra Parks & Resorts