The Grand Canyon is most beloved for the raw power of its majestic views, but Grand Canyon history is fascinating too. Learning some of the stories behind the development of this world famous tourist destination and being able to make a personal connection to that history through the world famous mule rides (of all things!) was thought-provoking…and fulfilling.
As we have discovered America’s history during our many years of RV travel, I have felt a special attachment to the late 1800s and early 1900s because, as a child, my much adored great-uncle, who was born in 1885, lived with my family until his death when I was 11.
Throughout my life, whenever we’ve encountered anything to do with his era, I’ve thought of him and wondered whether he saw it, or was aware of it, or what kind of stories he might have heard about it from friends and relatives.
Near the end of his life, he would often say that he’d lived during a period of history that had seen more change than any other: growing up with horses, buggies and trains for transportation, witnessing the transformative rise of the automobile followed by the airplane, and finally flipping on a TV to watch astronauts ride a rocket ship to the moon and back.
One of his treasured memories from his young adulthood was the trip he took to the Grand Canyon around 1907. Sitting around the dinner table in urban Massachusetts in the 1960s, we heard about his ride on a mule down the Bright Angel Trail and the beauty of the El Tovar hotel.
I couldn’t picture any of it, though. Not the Grand Canyon, not the narrow cliffside trail, maybe the hotel, but definitely not my very ancient great-uncle as a nimble young man astride a mule!
So, on this trip to Grand Canyon, I wanted to peel back the layers of what modern tourists see at the Grand Canyon, especially Grand Canyon Village, and try to envision something of what the experience might have been like back around 1907 for a newly minted Art Institute of Chicago graduate who was in his early 20s.
He rode the train from Chicago to get to there, of course, and today thousands of people come to the Grand Canyon by train everyday on the same tracks that the Santa Fe Railraod completed in 1901.
The arrival of the train in the tiny settlement on the edge of this vast and charismatic chasm changed everything about it.
Settlers had lived in the area since the mid-1800s, and everyone who dared make a go of it struggled to make a life for themselves in the harsh and remote land. Most were miners and cattle ranchers. The few people who saw the tourism potential built their own private roads from Flagstaff and Williams through 70 miles of forest to their own rustic properties at different points along the rim. Many homesteaded their land.
Before the train arrived, only a trickle of die-hard travelers would visit Grand Canyon, taking the train to Williams or Flagstaff and then catching a stage coach or renting a buggy to travel one of the private roads to a proprietor’s guest house or tent somewhere along the rim.
What is now an hour and a half car ride generally took two bumpy days by horse, and most travelers stayed in tents.
The big money railroad men recognized the immense tourism potential of the Grand Canyon, and after completing the train tracks, Santa Fe Railroad went on to build a stunning resort hotel in 1905. They called it El Tovar and positioned it right at the end of the train tracks and next to the Bright Angel Trail.
At this point in time, destination spa hotels in remote locales were rare or didn’t even exist. Not only were the rooms beautifully appointed, but there were two barbershops, a solarium, hot and cold running water, and the freshest food imaginable.
The El Tovar hotel had a chicken coop for fresh eggs, two roof gardens, a music room, an art room, a billiard hall and a gift shop! Staying there was an elegant and all inclusive affair.
Unlike today’s tourists, many of whom drive straight to the rim, say “WOW!” a few times, get a selfie and then leave, a journey to the Grand Canyon in those days was a trip that deserved a fairly long stay, making those barber shops a necessity.
A room at El Tovar cost $4.50 a night as compared to just $1.00 to $3.00 for a tent or rustic hotel room. However, a stage coach ride cost $15 while the train was a mere $3.50. (For reference, rooms at El Tovar are going for $394 per night now!).
No doubt customers did some quick calculations and realized there was no reason to undertake a two day bone jarring journey on a small private road to a second rate hotel or tent when you could watch the world go from a comfortable window seat on a train for a mere three hours and stay at a top flight resort for a similar outlay, depending on how long you stayed.
Not surprisingly, the stage coach lines and livery stables went out of business shortly after the Santa Fe Railroad began bringing tourists to El Tovar and other hotels at the head of the Bright Angel Trail. The smaller hotels and guest tents that were miles away from Bright Angel Trail along Grand Canyon’s rim soon went out of business too.
Sadly — and shockingly — in the end, only one of the original proprietors that homesteaded and initially developed the land on the rim of the Grand Canyon made a profit on the sale his property!
The hub at Bright Angel Trail eventually became known as Grand Canyon Village, and the tourism age for this iconic spot was off and running. It would be decades before the other areas along the South Rim were further developed or redeveloped.
One such place is Grandview Point, 13 miles from the Bright Angel Trailhead. Today, it is just an overlook with a parking lot and a very steep trail heading down below the rim past remnants of the mine that once put Grandview Point on the map. However, nothing remains of the Grandview Hotel, and it is hard to imagine where it might have stood.
With all of this info swimming in our heads (the stories are told on plaques along the Rim Trail in Grand Canyon Village and in a PDF document I’ve linked to at the bottom), we gazed at the El Tovar Hotel in wonder.
There’s a charming beer garden out back with a view of the Grand Canyon that is a delightful place to while away the afternoon.
One of the nicest features of the El Tovar, to this day, are the big shaded porches that are filled with wooden rocking chairs and porch swings. This is yet another perfect place to unwind with a world class view.
The Bright Angel Lodge is another historic hotel that is very close to El Tovar. Originally a cabin and some tents dating back to 1885, it was renovated 50 years later by Mary Jane Colter into a complex that incorporates several historic buildings. A few of the doors have vivid Indian designs on them.
In the 1930s Mary Colter began exerting a strong influence on the construction of new buildings at the rim. She designed the Hopi House to resemble the stone pueblos of the Hopi Indians nearby.
Other artists had studios in fantastic dwellings that hang right out over the rim. What an inspiring place and view for a studio!
This was all wonderful and interesting to learn about, but it was the mules I was really after. I wanted to get a photo of the mules coming up the Bright Angel Trail after their overnight at Phantom Ranch at the bottom.
When I asked around to see what time they usually returned, a mule ride leader I saw giving instructions to a group of customers told me they arrived between 1:00 and 1:30, although “it’s an inexact science!”
I got to the trailhead at 1:00, and a bus stop attendant right there told me they hadn’t come up yet that day. Yay! So, I stood in the sun waiting patiently for two hours while Mark and Buddy amused themselves in the shade by El Tovar. But the mules never showed up!
I spoke with a concierge at Bright Angel Lodge, and she told me they actually come up between 11:30 and 12:30 at this season due to the heat. So, I arrived around 11:00 the next day and milled around at the rim for a while first. Suddenly I caught a whiff of mule sweat and dung. Oh no! Were they already here?
I rushed over to the mule corral next to the bus stop at Bright Angel Trailhead, and there they were, lined up side by side. A wrangler was attending to each one. The sight was something from another era.
I ran over to the wrangler and quickly got swept up in conversation about the mules, the rides and the history. His name was John, and he’d been guiding the mule rides since December, although he’d done guiding elsewhere for many years.
He proudly told me that this mule outfit had taken a million people in groups of less than 10 at a time down to Phantom Ranch and back on the narrow, twisting, cliff-hanging Bright Angel Trail since they began operations in1890, and not one mule, not one wrangler and not one guest had ever died.
He casually mentioned that people die rafting the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon all the time, and that people fall off the edge to their deaths quite frequently too.
“These mules are the safest way to get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” John said earnestly.
For inexperienced riders, though, I’ve heard the several hour long journey can leave you very sore in certain places and struggling to walk when you get to Phantom Ranch! And then you have to ride your mule back out again the next day!
I asked him if mules are stubborn, and he said that they’re actually super smart.
“They can sense 32 different things that might go wrong if they put their foot in a certain place, and they just won’t take the risk if they think it’s unsafe.” And they hold their ground on that opinion!
He gestured to another wrangler, Simon, and said that he’d been guiding these Grand Canyon mule rides for 16 years. John said he’d learned a lot from Simon.
Simon introduced himself as a Navajo, and when I asked if he’d mind if I took a photo of him with his mule (named Paco), he not only posed next to Paco but quickly mounted him for another photo.
Once seated on Paco, Simon began talking about the meaning of the Grand Canyon to the Navajo and how it is a sacred place for them. He loves being able to bring visitors into this beautiful canyon that he holds so dear, and share God’s wonder with them.
He went on to describe a huge monolith stone that is shaped like an Indian face that you come to after going through the second tunnel on the Bright Angel Trail descent. It is a sacred rock for the Navajo, and they refer to its spirit as the Keeper of the Canyon.
“When we reach that point in the trail, I always say a prayer for our group, asking God for a safe journey for everyone on our way to Phantom Ranch and for a safe journey home the next day. In English it goes like this…”
He then recited the prayer.
I was touched by his sincerity and openness, and I imagined his guests sitting on their mules and listening to him saying this prayer to the Almighty while they were next to the towering rock Indian face.
Then he said, “In Navajo it goes like this…” and he suddenly launched into the prayer in Navajo.
My mouth fell open and I felt a shiver run up my spine…I was mesmerized watching him as he gazed up at the sky saying this lovely prayer in the language of his forebears.
When he was done, I was speechless. I wished I’d recorded him with a video, but it was such an intimate gift he’d gave me that it wouldn’t have felt right.
We chatted a little more and then he suggested I go to the Mule Barn where I could read the prayer if I wanted to. So off I went.
A bunch of mules were roaming about outside the barn nibbling grass and hay, and two wranglers were working inside. I started chatting with one of them, explaining that my great-uncle had ridden a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon around 1907. “This mule barn was built in 1907” he grinned.
Suddenly, he turned and said, “They’re here!”
I looked out the door and there were John and Simon coming around the corner with all the mules from the ride they’d just finished in tow. I snapped away taking pics as they approached, my heart singing as my wish for a unique Grand Canyon mule experience was completely fulfilled.
We can’t step into the past and live it exactly as it was, but if we’re lucky, we can capture the spirit of a time and place and feel its essence envelop us.
I don’t know what captivated my great-uncle’s imagination most about his visit to Grand Canyon and his mule ride to Phantom Ranch, but I remember that he painted several beautiful and evocative images of Indians in his last years.
I believe he would have been as moved as I was listening to a Navajo guide on his mule reciting a special prayer in the native tongue of his people, and if there were a way to connect a beloved great-uncle and his great-niece through the veil of life and death and across more than a century of time, that was it.
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More info about Grand Canyon History and the Mule Rides:
- History of the earliest development at Grand Canyon – Published by the Grand Canyon Association in 2000
- Grand Canyon Mule Rides – Descriptions and reservations
Articles from our travels to the Grand Canyon:
- Grand Canyon – A Winter Wonderland with Snow!
- Grand Canyon South Rim RV Tips + Lesser Known Overlooks!
- Grand Canyon South Rim RV Trip – Views, Views, VIEWS!!
- Grand Canyon’s North Rim – Breathtaking Bright Angel Point!
- Grand Canyon’s North Rim – Its Better Half?
- Grand Canyon’s North Rim – Magnificent & Intimate by Day or Night!
- Point Sublime – A Wild Ride to a Stunning Overlook in Grand Canyon!
- Saddle Mountain Overlook – A Different View of the Grand Canyon!
- Timp Point – A Private View of Grand Canyon’s Majesty
- Williams, Arizona – Home of the Grand Canyon Railway!
Inspiring Encounters with Special People, Unusual Travelers and the Divine:
- A Craftsman’s Dream Fulfilled: BitterSweet Guitars in the Bitterroot, MT
- Alice Cooper Sells Us a New Truck!
- Around the World in an RV
- Buddy – A Journey in Sprit
- Costalegre: Manzanillo Bay – Inspiring Entrepreneurs in Mexico!
- Flashback – Meeting Toller Cranston in Mexico
- It’s Not About the Hair!
- Kay Peterson: Full-time RV Pioneer & Escapees RV Club Co-Founder
- Keep Your Daydream Podcast – An Interview with RLT!
- Long Ride Travel by Horse and Bicycle!
- The Tube Dude – Spreading Good Cheer in Sarasota, Florida
- What Kinda RV izZAT?? A One-of-a-Kind Rolling Home!
- World Cruising Done Right – Paid to Visit the World’s Most Exotic Ports!
Living the Dream:
- 10 Years of Full-time RVing and Sailing!! – The Early Years…
- 10 Years of Life on the Road by RV and Sailboat – The 2nd Half!
- 9th Anniversary of Full-time Travel by RV and Sailboat – Reflections!
- Camping World Video Shoot — RVing is for Everyone!
- Kay Peterson: Full-time RV Pioneer & Escapees RV Club Co-Founder
- Lessons Learned in the Full-time RV Lifestyle – Tips & Ideas!
- Living, Loving and Perfecting “The Dream”
- Merry Christmas and Thank You for a Great Year!
- On the Road to your Dreams, Stay the Course!
- What Does It Take to Live The Dream?
- What Is Your Dream?
- What’s It Like to RV Full-time? – A Snapshot of Pure Joy (as the banking world collapsed)
- Why Do It? – Why We Left Home to Live in an RV!
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