Category Archives: Travel

Grand Canyon Adventure: Part 3 of 3

By Karen Keninger
Contributing Writer

The Trip Back Out:
It’s always very interesting to me to “see” a place through someone else’s eyes. The pictures are considerably different from one observer to another. We had different guides on the way up. Once again Snoopy was being led by the guide in front. So once again I got the full benefit of his narration. But what he saw, and what he called to our attention was completely different from what K-Barr talked about. Simon is Navajo, and his presentation centered around Native American lore and symbols. He had a name for every rock, practically. He constantly pointed out rock formations that looked like an old woman walking up the trail to pay her respects at Heaven’s Window; a sad-eyed Indian; a Saint Bernard, a frog, all kinds of things like that.

He’s been doing this for a couple of years, and before we made it to the top, he told me about an experience he had early on that nearly cured him of the job. His mule stopped to pee, slipped and went down right by the edge. She managed to scramble up after two or three unsuccessful attempts, but as you can imagine it scared him nearly to death. Becky wasn’t so sure she was glad to hear that story just at that point. We still had some steep climbing on narrow switchbacks to do.

We came down the Bright Angel Trail, but we went back up by the South Kaibab Trail. This trail is steeper and shorter than the Bright Angel Trail. It’s actually easier on the mules and on the riders going up than it is going down, and we were up in about four hours. The weather finally cleared for us–at some time before dawn Becky looked out the window and exclaimed, “I can see stars!” What a treat! The snow and rain that had plagued us on the way down, and the rain on our day in camp, had cleared out. It was even still–no wind. At one point on the trail Simon told me we were on Windy Ridge, and that normally the wind, which came from both sides at that point (drop-offs on both sides of the trail here), would take your hat off if it weren’t tied down. But there was no wind at all, even there. All the clothes I had on were just a tad warm, but at least we didn’t need those gigantic yellow slickers with MULE RIDER emblazoned in big block letters on the back!

Riding Snoopy back out of the canyon was easier. I didn’t have to brace myself nearly as much as he went up hill. I could just lean forward and move with his steps. He didn’t jar as much either since he wasn’t stepping down steps. He was blowing, though at the steepest climbs, and the guide stopped several times to give them all a rest.

We got to the top around noon, bid farewell to our trusty mules, checked into the hotel and lazed about for the rest of the day. Our room had 1930s amenities, including a grand old claw-foot bathtub you can lie down in. And that was the crowning jewel of the day–a long hot bath I could stretch out in.  I wanted to find out the origin of the name of the Bright Angel Trail, Bright Angel Lodge,Bright Angel Creek, etc. Nobody I asked seemed to know, or care. I found it online when I got home. According to the National Park Service, “The name Bright Angel originated on Major John Wesley Powell’s pioneering exploration of the Colorado River in 1869. Powell regretted having named a muddy creek upstream the “Dirty Devil.” Later, when he found a creek with sparkling clear water, he gave it the more reverent name, “Bright Angel,” after a character in Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

It’s always bitter-sweet to end a vacation. The last day, getting home, brings me closer and closer to the everyday things I love, and the stresses I worked very hard to escape for a few days. But Wednesday was spent doing just that–getting back to reality. We took the scenic route back to Sedona after we scraped all the frost and snow off the car. The day was bright and sunny, and we went from 28 degrees at the Park to 18 degrees at the Arizona Divide and then to 70 degrees in Phoenix. We saw more gulches, tanks, washes, draws, creeks, and a barbershop called Dianna’s Butcher Block Barber Shop. We agreed that the word butcher should probably not be part of a barbershop name!

And now I’m home with my book of travels in the Grand Canyon to read, and a new coffee mug with the Kokopelli figure to remind me of a fantastic trip spent in excellent company. We foresee more travels in the future.


Grand Canyon Adventure: Part 2 of 3

By Karen Keninger
Contributing Writer

Phantom Ranch sits on the north side of the Colorado near the Bright Angel Creek. It started out as a place for miners to sell whatever they mined and morphed into a camp later on.

It was refurbished into its present shape in the 1920s. Our cabin had a cold-water sink and toilet but we had to go somewhere else for the showers. It had four bunks, one chair and a table. Happily, the heater worked. We used it a lot! It was still cold and raining some. They have a canteen which serves as breakfast cafe, store, restaurant for a 5:00 steak dinner and a 6:30 stew dinner, and bar from 8:00 to 10:00. We got settled in our cabin, heard a ranger talk on geology of the Grand Canyon, ate our steak dinner and basically crashed. We were tired!

Monday was our day in the canyon. We got up feeling pretty stiff from the day before. Breakfast at the Canteen got us plenty to eat, and then we decided to go walk across one of the bridges that span the Colorado.

The bridge we crossed the day before is called the Black Bridge. It’s a suspension bridge built in the 20s. Everything in the bottom of the canyon was brought down by mule then and still is today. Mule or hiker, that is. So all the pieces of the bridge were loaded on mules and brought down–all except the suspension cables. Those were carried down by 40 Indians, who ran a cable down in two and a half hours, snaking it around all those switchbacks as they went. Today everything is still brought down by mule. They bring two mule trains down each day with food for the canteen and everything else they need. And they take out the garbage the same way. The river is about 450 feet wide here, and the bridge is 220 feet above it. The mules don’t seem to mind the bridge or the tunnel they have to go through just before they get to it. There’s another bridge, called the silver bridge, which dates to the 1970s. It is a pedestrian bridge and also carries the water supply pipes across the river. I wanted to walk across this bridge, so we went on down there after breakfast. Becky didn’t want to walk on a bridge she could see through-the floor is a metal mesh. So I walked across. The first thing I had to do was figure out how to use my cane on that surface without getting it stuck in the mesh every time. I finally figured out that if I held it so it just skimmed the top of the mesh I had better luck. What a grand feeling to stand on that bridge over the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. With the water rushing by below, and the canyon walls rising and trapping the sound of the water all around, and that indescribable sense of being in one of God’s spectacular creations, it was awesome. I wanted somehow to share this place with you all, so I took some pictures with my cell phone camera. I basically held it up, pointed it and clicked. I took a whole bunch at different angles and actually got about two decent pictures out of it. Here they are.

Picture of the river the group crossed.

The river the group crossed while down in the Grand Canyon.

Picture of a bridge the group crossed.

Picture of a bridge the group crossed while down in the Grand Canyon.






After the bridge, we decided to walk on up the North Kaibab Trail. Thirteen miles uphill would get you to the North Rim. We didn’t go that far. It rained some, drizzled some, misted some. The day was dreary, overcast, and wet. But we opted not to wear our gigantic yellow slickers and take what we got.

I had my telescoping cane with me. I couldn’t bring a long one down on the mules. The problem with hiking with a telescoping cane is that it telescopes at odd moments. Suddenly it shrinks and I had to figure out quickly whether it was the ground dropping off or the cane shrinking. You also absolutely cannot use it like a trekking pole!

We tried a side trail that was supposed to go to a grand overlook. It was steep, narrow, and really rocky. After 100 yards or less, we decided it was not for us and scrambled back down to the wider, flatter trail that ran along Phantom Creek. 

Imagine a sheer rock wall—sheer that is with the added benefit of sculpting by rain and wind into a surface of crevices, little ledges, rounded outcroppings, etc. Pinks, grays, some black, some quartz. This wall rises straight up from the edge of the path. Next to the wall is some sparse vegetation–some sagebrush, some cactuses, some other taller plants. The trail itself is gravel with larger rocks willy-nilly in it, sometimes singly and sometimes in jumbles. They’ve put retaining walls across the trail to form steps in some places. Clean-outs for the water pipe that serves the canyon stick up in the middle of the trail every so often. Eight to twelve feet from that rock wall is a drop-off. In this instance it drops down to the creek. In some places there is a retaining wall built to stabilize the trail. Across the creek in the side canyon was the other wall. It was close enough to hear the sound of the wall. It was amazingly peaceful there with the creek rushing by, and only a few other hikers on the trail. We stopped several times just to sit on rocks and drink it in. 

At one point I decided to dig out the peanuts I had in my pocket and eat them. Just as I was finishing, a ringtail came out to see if I had any left. These ringtails are a lot like raccoons in their ability to get into things and lack of fear of humans. Becky tried to get a picture of him, but he scampered up the wall of the canyon, sending a shower of pebbles down behind him. The wildlife here is very tame. Becky got some pictures of mule deer that didn’t mind a bit we were so close. Foxes, ringtails and mule deer are the animals we heard about down here, and birds were pretty scarce. Up on Indian Gardens, while we were eating our lunch the day before, two ravens with no fear at all of people were squabbling for food from the campers, and the squirrels were practically begging. They told us not to feed them. 

We decided to go back around noon. I know that seeing a place from a different direction provides a completely new experience of it, but I was kind of surprised how different it seemed to me going back as well. Instead of being on the inside by the wall, I was on the outside by the creek. It could have been a completely different route. On the way in the wall was the main feature, its nearness, the plants along it, the rocks there. On the way out, it was the stream. Interesting.  We rounded one corner and Becky caught her breath. She could see the snow on the top of the canyon a mile above us! It had fallen since we left yesterday.

During the trip we have met some very interesting people. At supper that evening we sat across from a couple fromCanadawho seemed to do nothing but travel. They were on a three-month circuit including the Grand Canyon, Hawaii, San Diego, New Mexico and I forget where else. They’d just come back from doingSouth America, including the Amazon, and from the sounds of it the entire continent. Another couple we sat across from at breakfast were in their 70s, and their goal was to die broke. “I plan to write my last check to the undertaker, and it will bounce,” he told us. They had come down on the mules the day after we did. We met a guy in his early 60s on disability for Asperger’s who hikes around all over the place because it’s cheap. And we chatted with a fellow on the trail in his 60s or more with two trekking poles who had hiked in with his friend and his friend’s granddaughter. Many were experienced hikers. One of them told us this was “like hiking on a highway.” He climbs mountains for fun apparently. In our group of mule riders, we had two women from New York City who had never ridden anything but a taxicab, the mega-travelers fromCanada, three women fromVirginiawho were very pleasant, and Becky and I.

By the end of the day I was really, really tired! And muscles I didn’t know I had were demanding my attention. I’m still not sure what they wanted me to do though! Walking down stairs became a hazardous enterprise because my legs did not want to cooperate! They didn’t improve overnight either. I was sleeping in the top bunk and could hardly get down the next morning.

Grand Canyon Adventure: Part 1 of 3

By Karen Keninger
Contributing Writer

The Descent
I have wanted to take the mule ride down into the Grand Canyon ever since I was a girl, and last November I found that Becky Criswell, a colleague at work, wanted to do the same. So before we could change our minds (come to our senses some might say), we booked the trip for this November. We flew to Phoenix and drove up to Sedona for the first night.

We left Sedona around 11:00 and headed for Grand Canyon National Park. The snow that had fallen overnight made travel a bit dicey, so we went back to the interstate instead of taking the scenic route. All along the way up from Phoenix, my Sendero GPS in my BrailleNote told me about features of the landscape. We passed Maggie Mine, Dead Man Wash, Bloody Gulch, Howard Draw, Dry Beaver Creek, and dozens of tanks, like Little Pig Tank, Government Tank. Two significant things here. First–there wasn’t much else out there to tell me about. Second, water, water, water. OK, it’s a desert–I know. But I couldn’t figure out what a tank was. I learned later that tanks are man-made reservoirs that serve as catchments in the desert for the precious rain that falls. They make watering holes for livestock and wildlife. When I use my GPS in Iowa, instead of tanks, I see lots of cemeteries. Different places have different priorities!!

Three hours or so later we arrived at the park, paid our way in and went to the visitors’ center. They have this fantastic 3-dimensional model of the canyon so I got a good look at that.

We kept watching the weather, trying to figure out if it was going to snow on us, or freeze us to death. I thought about the toasty warm coats I left hanging in the closet at home. Instead of one of those, I had brought a sweatshirt and jacket, on the mistaken notion that the word parka meant the same thing to me as it did to the woman I talked to on the phone before we left. She told me they would issue parkas. To me parka means fur-lined hoods, snuggly-warm lining, down to your knees. Suitable for weather of 20 below. No, I didn’t expect fur-lined hoods, but I really did think it would be something that had rain, wind, and cold, in mind. Wrong. It was the giant yellow plastic slicker she was referring to. Suitable for wind and rain-proofing but no body heat retention. It was cold and windy up on the canyon rim that evening when we arrived, and it was colder and windier the next morning.

Becky and I had been looking forward to riding mules down into the Grand Canyon for an entire year. I made the reservations last November, and we paid our money down. So a combination of excitement and–what in the world have we got ourselves into–got us up before the crack of dawn. We tried on our outfits. Mine consisted of a tank top and biking shorts; long winter running pants and a long-sleeved turtleneck; wind pants and a heavy sweatshirt; a knit hat, sunglasses, and a hooded jacket; boots, gloves, and my Victor Stream tied around my neck–all topped by this giant yellow slicker. Did I mention that it was cold–around 20 degrees–and windy? Becky had her own concoction, topped, as you would expect, by her very own giant yellow slicker and our communal camera.

We arrived with our plastic bags of treasure at the appointed time at the corral and stood in the wind for an hour while we learned what to do and what not to do. What to do: Keep your mule’s nose up the behind of the mule in front of it. Whack the mule with this item which used to be known as a crop but is now known in the park as a mule motivator, when the mule’s nose is not up the behind of the mule in front of it. Turn the mule to face the drop-off whenever we stop. Why? Safety. If the mule is looking over the edge, it will not jump. If it is not looking over the edge–well I missed something there, but I don’t think he said anything about jumping. What not to do: Do not let hikers interrupt the line of mules. Do not forget to drink lots of water so you don’t get dehydrated. (It was a bit hard to imagine getting dehydrated at 20 degrees, and he didn’t seem to have any advice for hypothermia.) And on and on until finally they took our bags, put them into saddle bags on the mules, and started assigning us mules.

Now I have ridden horses, and I’ve been in control of the animal, guiding it, starting, stopping, turning, etc. But I have never ridden along the edge of a cliff or around hairpin turns that brooked no mistakes. So I was a little nervous as to how this was going to work. I hoped Becky would be in front of me and would talk constantly so I’d be able to keep my mule right up close. Becky doesn’t talk constantly, so that might have been a bit of a strain for her. We hadn’t discussed it either and now it was a little late. They were ready for me though. They had a plan–the guide in front of the line would lead my mule. No argument from me!!

My mule had the whimsical name of Snoopy. Snoopy was a medium-sized white mule with a Roman nose according to my guide. Becky’s mule was Biddy, and earned her name throughout the ride. Like the others, Snoopy had his tail cropped in a way that distinguished him as a tourist mule and not a pack mule. Medium-sized meant that the stirrup was nearly shoulder-high. And I could not reach the saddle horn. There were nine of us altogether plus the two guides. Mules included Buckshot, Dirty Bird Berta, Lucy, Delilah, and Lopez. There were two wranglers/guides–Terri and K-Bar. K-Bar rode the lead mule and led my mule. Terri took up the rear and we of the gigantic yellow slickers were in between. Because I was right behind K-Barr, I got a private commentary all the way down. I don’t think anyone else in the line could hear him most of the time. Becky was next in line behind me.

Mounting my mule was truly a graceless affair. I couldn’t reach the stirrup until I got a heave-ho from behind, and then I managed to get the saddle bag caught underneath me. I finally did make it up though with everything intact. Riding it would be another matter.

The mules like to walk along the edge of the trail. K-Barr says it’s because then they know exactly where the edge is. Whatever the reason, going around that first corner of the trail and beginning to drop down had some people wondering what in the world they were doing-again. There was snow and ice on the trail for most of the upper half, but the mules seemed very comfortable picking their way across it in their winter shoes.

Riding a mule should be easy. They’re said to be smoother than a horse, more reliable, and more sure-footed. However, my right knee does not approve of sitting astraddle a saddle. It protests the unnatural angle and threatens to be the center of attention the whole trip. Meanwhile, we are reminded to keep our heels down, toes up, legs forward, and to lean back as the mule walks downhill. This is not as easy as it sounds, either. Every step the mule takes translates into the saddle. Wearing my biking shorts was not a bad idea–the extra padding did its job with every bounce. And, every one of those steps on that first day was downhill. That meant bracing my legs to absorb the shock and to counterbalance my weight so I didn’t tumble over the mule’s head. This is relatively easy for the first 100 yards or so. But these are not muscles my legs believe in. So by the time we dismounted half way down, two or two and a half hours into the ride, my legs nearly refused to hold me up. All that being said, I got into the rhythm of the ride pretty easily and truly enjoyed my mule. I didn’t have to guide him or motivate him like everyone else did since he was being led by the guide, so I could just focus on moving with him and appreciate the heart he put into it as he carried me down and down and down, around and around and around, switchback after switchback, through snow, ice, puddles, creeks, and the Devil’s corkscrew right down to the bottom of this mile-deep canyon we call Grand.

Bright Angel Trail wends its way, sometimes gently, sometimes pretty steeply, down the inside of a side canyon. The Bright Angel Fault provides the basis for the trail. The fault line runs down the south face, and on up the north face of the Grand Canyon. Going down in it we had spectacular views of the side canyon but not the panoramic vistas they promised us for the trip up on another trail. The weather was cloudy all day without a hint of sunshine. Happily when we dropped below the canyon rim, the wind was no longer a factor, but it was still cold.

Initially, this was a game trail and an Indian trail. In the 1800s miners started searching for gold and silver and copper in the canyon. They needed mules to pack in their equipment, so the trail was widened by use. This mule ride for tourists has been going on for over 100 years. In the 1930s the Citizen Conservation Corps (CCC) built the existing trail, widening, packing down, putting in some retaining walls, and generally making it safer and more usable for mules and hikers. Today it is pretty tame in terms of clearance, width and safety. Still, in many places, it goes right between a sheer rock wall and a sheer drop-off.  With the mule walking along the edge, I could sometimes reach out my hand and touch the rock wall.  The trail surface is rocks and dirt and in our case, ice and snow as well. The park service has to clean up rock slides and continually work on maintaining the trail. There aren’t many side trails like there are other places because there’s nowhere to go. The rocks are too unstable to allow independent climbing or hiking, so if you pick the Bright Angel Trail to hike, you have to stay on it. They have rest stations every mile or two for the hikers, but we only stopped once.

As we rode along, I could often hear the rock wall beside me along with the clop of the mules’ hooves. The vast emptiness on the other side wasn’t something I could hear, but I could certainly appreciate. I didn’t hear much wildlife, but it was probably the wrong season for birds. In several places the guide’s voice echoed distinctly off the canyon walls. Occasionally I brushed past a tree branch, but I was much higher up on that mule than most of the vegetation along the path.

Throughout the day we saw lots of hikers coming up the trail, and a few passed us going down. Some were carrying big camping-gear packs, and some just had day packs. (You can hire a duffel service that will carry your gear in and out by mule–note to self for future; money well spent.) These hikers were not all young gods, although some were. Grey-haired women, old geezers, and a family with kids shared the trail with honeymooning couples and a runner who claimed he could do the whole 10 miles up in 70 minutes. We did see that guy twice, once on the way down and once coming back up. I thought he was exaggerating, but then I heard that runners were doing the whole canyon twice that day–north rim to south to north rim twice–around 50 miles total. So maybe he didn’t exaggerate after all? It was an international lot, and we heard languages we could not identify. Some were on guided hikes–National Geographic, Sierra Club, etc. Somebody mentioned an Elder Hostel group coming down. Most were on their own though. We were a bit surprised by the number of hikers and wondered how jam-packed things get in the summer. K-Barr said the majority of hikers come in June and July, when the temps are over 100. That time of year the mood on the trail becomes less convivial as people’s endurance and patience give out in that heat.

Hikers are supposed to stand on the inside and let the mules pass, which they did. Friendly hellos and, seeing our gigantic, bright yellow slickers, they all asked us about the weather up top.

Snoopy is a very sure-footed mule. We took switchbacks with names Jacob’s ladder and the Devil’s Corkscrew. Some of the hairpin turns were so sharp that as the guide’s mule was headed east, my mule, right behind him, was still headed west. With no room to spare at the edge, Snoopy pivoted like a dancer without giving it a thought. This is when you just trust and chatter gaily along about something else.

We hit a plateau about half way down called Indian Gardens. There are camping spaces there, and it’s probably several acres. The Indians grew vegetables there in the past because it has its own stream for water. We ate lunch there and then headed down and down and down into the inner canyon. Finally Snoopy had his head up and we weren’t lurching down one step after another. We were at the bottom!!