It may not be obvious from the comfort of your air-conditioned motorcoach, but survival in many parts of the Grand Canyon would not have been possible without the assistance of man’s second-best friend: the mule, who has been there ever since the first mining expeditions in the 1800’s. Drinking water was, and still is, especially hard to come by in the inner gorge – a problem alleviated by pack mules carrying H2O and other supplies down to the canyon floor. Mules also carried materials used to build Black Bridge, the very first suspension bridge over the Colorado River at the base of the canyon.
One of these mules was actually a burro that went by the name of Brighty, found in 1890 at an abandoned campsite near the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River. The burro’s new owners put him to work carrying spring water up to the rim, where the visitor count was steadily growing. Being especially docile and gentle with children, Brighty became an instant hit with tourists, and according to some environmentalists, the first in the animal kingdom to achieve flagship status.
Enter Theodore Roosevelt, who established the Grand Canyon Game Preserve on November 28, 1906, then re-designated the preserve a US National Monument in 1908, changing the fate of the Grand Canyon and introducing the element of tourism.
Soon miners were seeing dollar signs not in copper, but rather in guiding visitors into the canyon, with the assistance of their ever-reliable mules.
The mule’s role in Grand Canyon narrative is just as vital now as it was back then. Phantom Ranch near the bottom of the canyon still relies solely on the assistance of mules to deliver food and supplies for overnight guests. Without them, the North to South Rim trek would be all but impossible for most. The lodges on the rim may get their food and materials from trucks plying the local highways and byways, but the importance of the mules is not lost on them. On the contrary, the lodges are the proud sponsors and only official providers of mule rides into the canyon.
A bronze statue of Brighty now stands in the lobby of the Grand Canyon Lodge at North Rim. It’s considered good luck to rub his nose before heading out on the trail.