Mule ride to the bottom
More than two years ago, I signed up for the Phantom Ranch lottery, and finally, in October 2021, I won a spot.
WoW! What is this place that is so popular you have to win the lottery to get in?
Phantom Ranch is a campground at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the banks of Bright Angel Creek, which flows into the Colorado River. The place is so popular with hikers that you must plan your trip years in advance.
When you accept your lottery and book your cabin, you must decide whether to hike down and up the canyon or ride the mules.
We decided to ride the mules, thinking it would be easier than a full-day hike in each direction.
In some ways, it is easier, but for the uninitiated, sitting on the mule for five hours has its challenges. I got to exercise some muscles I didn't even know I had.
But it was worth it. It turns out that the canyon has canyons, which have creeks and lush gardens that lead into the Colorado River.
You can't see all of that beauty from the Canyon Rim. Don't get me wrong, the views from the top are stunning, but there is so much more hidden deep in the canyon.
Later I will share a lot of information about planning the trip, preparing, and logistics. But for now, let us enjoy the sights and sounds of this epic trip.
Sights and Sounds of the Canyon
The trip starts from the Bright Angel Trailhead and gradually drops 4480 ft (ca. 1,366 meters). That is a nice number, but what does it really mean? Imagine two of the tallest skyscrapers stacked on top of each other – that is how high.
But thankfully, we needed to take those feet a few at a time, with rest stops along the way.
On the day of the trip, we gathered at the Stone Corral, where we met our guides and the mules.
The guides explained what to expect on this long journey, helped us on our mules, and handed us whips to wear around our wrists.
I was first shocked that we would be using whips on those hard-working mules, but the guides patiently explained that the whips wouldn't hurt the animals. They have thick hides and barely feel it, but the whip's movement and sound encourage them to continue.
After the introductions and the lessons on how to ride the mule and what not to do, we entered the Bright Angel Trail.
As we descended the trail, we also went back in time. Each layer of rock represents a different geological epoch, and the oldest layer near the Colorado River is about 2.5 Billion years old.
If you are interested in the geological history of the canyon, read more here.
To me, the multicolored towering canyon walls, rock formations, and deep valleys were more exciting than the geology lesson. Swiveling my head from side to side, I almost had a whiplash from trying to catch all the stunning scenery.
After a steep 20% grade descent for 1.6 miles, passing through two arches and a long switchback, we reached the first rest stop, aptly named "Mile-and-a-half Rest house".
Important Facts: The first mile and a half are close to the Rim and almost always in the shade, so during fall and winter, it could be cold, and the ground could be icy.
The rest house has restrooms and a water fountain, but the bathroom was closed for renovation – luckily, we didn't need it. You can also refill your water at the fountains, but those are usually closed in fall and winter.
As we descended, we gazed down below at a distant green valley. This lonely oasis in the middle of the canyon was beckoning, but we still had a long way to get there.
Looking back and up around 1000 feet (ca. 305 meters), we could see the canyon's towering walls. Some of the iconic buildings are still visible at this point.
After many more switchbacks and stunning views and dropping another 100 feet (ca. 30 m), we arrived at 3-mile-resthouse – another opportunity to rest, use the toilets, and refill your water bottles (seasonal).
By this time, my buttocks, thighs, and back were aching, and I wished I could get down from the mule to hike to the next stop, but the guides won't allow it. If they let riders get down, then there is no way to control the mules and encourage them to keep up with the group.
I think they need to find a way. It would have been a much better experience if we had been able to hike and ride interchangeably.
From the Three-Mile rest house, a series of switchbacks known as Jacob's Ladder took us down the Redwall Limestone.
As we approached Indian Garden, the grade flattened out and made for easier riding. I naively thought that the worst was behind me, but we still had much more elevation to shed.
At around mile 4.5 and about 2900 ft (ca. 884 m) lower from rim, Indian Garden is a lush oasis with many trees and shrubs and was a welcome respite from the long ride.
This rest stop offers pit toilets, water (year-round), and shaded benches for the weary. We were happy to take advantage of the facilities and enjoy a box lunch in the shade while the mules had a well-earned rest.
Important note: Indian Garden is the last stop where you may find some cell service. We took the chance to connect with family and send some jealousy-inspiring photos.
Soon after leaving Indian Garden, we crossed a junction to Tonto Trail and kept going south along Garden Creek as it cuts a ravine into the terraced ledges of Tapeats Sandstone.
A chockstone around 5.25 miles (8.45 km) marks the beginning of the Tapeats Narrows, where the creek has sculpted channels and plunge pools into the bedrock.
As we rode through the narrows, we enjoyed the sounds of rushing water and the verdant vegetation, and we had to cross the creek several times. We also heard a thundering waterfall but could not see it.
After the narrows, we crossed the steepest part of our trek, the Devil's Corkscrew. This lightning bolt-like trail gashes its way through the dark cliffs of 2-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist, the oldest rock in the Grand Canyon.
Those twists and turns led into tight, sharp switchbacks that descended about 500 feet (ca. 152 m) in a half mile. Beyond the corkscrew, the trail leveled out as we followed Pipe Creek.
Interesting Fact: The South Rim gets its water from the North Rim. To get it across the canyon, the water must be sent down a long pipe to the bottom and pumped up to South Rim.
Around mile-7, we arrived at another set of plunge pools and waterfalls where Garden Creek flows into the Pipe Creek drainage.
Willow trees, prickly pear, and brittlebush line the banks as you descend gently to the River House rest area.
A side trail leads to the shore of the Colorado River and Pipe Creek Beach, while the Bright Angel trail continues to the right of the pit toilets.
We turned east and continued above the river, traveling across dunes for the next 1.5 miles (2.41 km).
Our guides warned us to keep the mules motivated because they love to roll in the sand. It would be a bad experience for the rider if the mule decided to play in the sand.
The ride along the Colorado River offered more stunning views of the river and surrounding cliffs. Sometimes we were close to the shore, while others we were high up the cliffs.
We arrived at a suspension bridge that allows hikers passage across the swift Colorado River and supports the trans-canyon waterline. But this was not our bridge because it wasn't made for mules.
We continued along the river on River Trail for another hour to get to the black suspension bridge that took us across the river and to our destination, Phantom Ranch.
At Phantom Ranch, we met with the manager, who gave us our cabin assignments, meal times, and general information about the campground.
Our package included a one-night cabin stay, dinner, and breakfast.
The cabin was small but comfortable, and the dinner was acceptable. The steak was chewy, but I enjoyed all the sides that came with it.
Breakfast was your typical American fare with eggs, pancakes, sausage, biscuits, and lots of coffee.
Before dinner, we had a couple of hours to go exploring. So we went on a short hike along Bright Angel Creek and up the canyon. After dinner, it got dark too soon, so we couldn't do much.
In hindsight, we should have booked the two-night stay, which would have allowed us a full day to explore the area.
The trip back up the trail was a reverse of the trip down. This tour usually goes back on the North Kaibab Trail, but it was closed due to a rockslide.
But going back on the same trail does have some advantages. We saw the fantastic views from a different angle and enjoyed some thrilling moments again.
Things to do while at Phantom Ranch
So you made it to the ranch after a long mule ride or hike. Now what?
You can always take advantage of the bench seats, picnic table, and chair outside your cabin to relax and enjoy nature.
But if you feel like more adventure, hike down to the small beach on the Colorado River next to the black bridge. Stop at the Pueblo Archeology Exhibits on your way to the beach for a brief history lesson.
For a little more exercise and a lot more river views, take the River Trail loop. The 1.5-mile trail crosses the Black Bridge before paralleling the Colorado River, eventually crossing back to the north side on the Silver Bridge. For the best views, try walking early in the evening before sunset.
An even longer hike would take you north on the Bright Angel trail to Clear Creek Trail. This is a strenuous hike from the get-go, but your reward is a panoramic Phantom Overlook, located close to one mile up the trail, which offers scenic views that peer down onto Phantom Ranch and the Bright Angel Creek drainage.
The Mules and Guides
We were warned from the beginning to trust our mules and guides. Most importantly, don't lean in the opposite direction if you feel the mule is too close to the edge because that could confuse the mule.
Those sturdy beasts have been taking riders through the canyon since 1887 – not the same mules, obviously.
Each mule is first ridden by the guides to train them and get them ready for guests, so by the time I sat on top of my mule Sahara, he had plenty of experience on this route.
The guides were terrific! They led the mules and us through the many switchbacks and steep inclines and provided a continuous commentary about our surroundings and the canyon's history.
They also had to keep an eye on the trail to warn hikers to stay out of the way.
The guides also gave us whips to use to motivate the mules along the trail.
The whips don't harm the mules, but the movement and the sound of the whip encourage them to continue.
Planning and preparations
As I mentioned earlier, this is not a trip you can take on the spur of the moment.
You must get on the lottery months in advance, and if you were lucky enough to win, you still must make your reservations.
Important Note: Lottery submissions for May 2023 and beyond will not be processed. Portions of the Bright Angel Trail are anticipated to be closed at different times throughout the project.
Once you reserve your place for the mule ride and the overnight stay at Phantom Ranch, you still need to make plans for your stays before and after the trip.
We booked four nights at the Bright Angel Lodge, with our planned ride in the middle. So for one night, we wasted our cabin on the Rim in exchange for convenience.
The night before the trip, we checked in at the Bright Angel Lodge activity desk to collect our overnight bags, get instructions and sign waivers.
Important Note: The activity desk closes at 5:30 PM. So if you can't make it the night before, you will need to check in early in the morning.
After signing up, Xantera sent a list of requirements: height, weight, clothing, etc. You must be 200 pounds (ca. 91 kg) or less to ride the mules down, and yes, they do weigh you in.
You get a bag for your belongings and a water canteen on checking in. Only pack the essentials. If you plan to stay two nights at phantom ranch, you will get two bags.
Wide-brimmed hats are required to protect from the sun, and they do sell them at the activities counter and in the gift shop.
You can bring your phone for photos, but it must be set to airplane mode and hung on a string around your neck.
Don't expect to use the phone while on the mules, except for capturing the incredible views. Moreover, don't expect cellular service or Wi-Fi at phantom ranch. Your last chance to connect with friends and family would be at Indian Garden.
The weather changes dramatically between the Rim and the bottom, so wear layers of clothing and start shedding them as you change elevation.
During our visit, the temperature was 34 degrees at the Rim and 90 degrees at the bottom. We quickly shed our outer layers as we descended, and wished we had brought shorts and t-shirts for the bottom.