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Copyright 2011 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


A Horseback Trip into the Grand Canyon

By Cindy Clancy, Thermopolis, WY


May 2011 issue

     Three residents of Thermopolis , Wyoming have  completed an item on their “bucket list.” In late November 2010, my husband, Mike Clancy, Dave Denton (owner of White Horse Feed), and Ken Smith rode their horses to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, spent the night in a tent near the Phantom Ranch, and rode back out the following day.

     One of the biggest challenges for the trip was obtaining the necessary permit from the National Park Service, which is only necessary if you plan to spend the night. Completing the round trip in one day is not recommended for people riding horseback. Approximately 30,000 people (including hikers) apply every year, but only about 12,000 party permits are approved by Grand Canyon National Park , thus limiting park use.

     Most people ride the rental mules down, so it is a rare request to ride your own horse. Mike spent days on the phone before he found someone who knew the answers regarding permits. A month after submitting his application, Mike received word that the permit had been approved.

     Then the planning began. The three men needed two pack horses to carry the horse feed, tent, sleeping bags, and supplies. The horses needed to be conditioned for the trip, remain calm around hikers with backpacks and umbrellas, and also be willing to cross a swinging bridge.

     Dave and Ken planned to ride two of Dave’s Quarter Horses; Mike would ride one of his gaited Rocky Mountain Horses and pony his other two. Some people think gaited horses are mainly show horses; however, they are known for their calm disposition and sure-footedness in mountain riding.


     After arriving at the Grand Canyon two days before their departure date, they checked in at the rental mule barn to see what time they would be given to embark.

     As there is no motorized transportation, dude strings of mules carrying riders and working strings taking supplies down, make the trip daily. Since many areas of the trail are too narrow for passing, trips up and down need to be coordinated.

     The one thing Mike, Dave and Ken couldn’t pre-plan was the weather. It was only five degrees Farenheit and cloudy on the morning they headed down the Bright Angel Trail on the south rim of the Grand Canyon . The ice cogs they had put on the horses’ shoes would definitely be needed, as there was snow and ice on the trail.

     I asked one of the wranglers how far out the trail would be icy.

     He replied. “Only about a mile and a half.” Believe me, that was not much consolation!


     The trail to Phantom Ranch is eleven miles long with an elevation change of 5,000 feet. It takes about six hours on horseback to reach the bottom, including rest stops.

     The trip went very well, overall. The horses did great with the hikers, tunnels, and the 100-yard-long, swinging bridge that is only 50 inches wide!

     One of the three tunnels has a sharp turn, so you enter in complete darkness. Fortunately, on the morning they departed, someone told the men to use the second swinging bridge, not the first. The first swinging bridge is for pedestrians only, but no signs are posted which indicate this vital information.

     Along the way, they saw deer and Bighorn sheep. It was surprising how many hikers they met along the way, including a woman running to work!

     Mike said that the trail was very well maintained and that it was similar to a steep mountain ride. “There were,” he added, “a few spots that took my breath away!”

     Instead of packing extra food, they ate their meals at Phantom Ranch. Reservations had been made months ahead. The Ranch is a small facility on a tight schedule, so they had been forewarned not to be late for meals because you might not be served!

     Due to the elevation change, the temperature at the bottom was 20 degrees warmer, which was a nice surprise for the men when they got ready to set their tent up for the night’s rest. Fortunately, there was a payphone at the bottom, so Mike called me to let me know they had made it safely to the bottom.

     The next morning they headed out about 7:00 a.m. for the seven-hour ride to the top.

     I stopped at the mule train desk to see what time the mule train would be coming up, as Mike’s group would be a little ways behind them.

     The gentleman behind the desk asked, “Do you have someone on a mule?”

     “No, on horseback,” I replied.

     He said, “You mean mule.”

     I said, “No, my husband rode our horses down.”

     He said, “I didn’t know you could do that.”

     Most people we know were not aware that people could ride their own horses, and some of them even said, “There’s no way I would trust my horse to do that!”

     I was sure glad to see Mike, Dave and Ken all coming up the trail! It was a wonderful trip and a breathtaking experience they will never forget! They came home with some fantastic pictures and fond memories!


A footnote from Mike and Cindy Clancy: We encourage people who are interested in making this trip to do so sooner rather than later, because we have heard of groups who are trying to stop any riders — on mules or horses — from using those trails!


Copyright 2011 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


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