The trek continues: 13 Mustangs, 4 men and more than 3,000 miles.
The Grand Canyon, locally referred to as the big ditch, stretches east and west over 200 miles. This presents a difficulty on a north-to-south ride through Arizona. We had three options to get past the big ditch. We could avoid it to the east through a harsh desert, to the west through a harsher desert, or go straight through it on possibly the steepest trails in the world. Going through the canyon would allow us to have better grazing, better water, and save well over a hundred miles of travel. We decided to go through it.
I knew the Grand Canyon was big, but didn’t realize the enormity and depth until we came upon it. Pictures and verbal descriptions just can’t do the vastness of the world’s largest canyon justice. Speechless didn’t happen; instead I started giggling like a little girl thinking at the absurdity of taking a horse through such an unworldly place.
Before we got to the south rim I got in touch with some of the mule guides who pack dudes and gear to the bottom of the canyon. They reassured me that I wasn’t losing my mind by giving me a good trail report and saying that first-time riders regularly ride through the canyon. That reassurance quickly left when they later said less than a half-dozen private stock go from the south rim to the north rim annually. To top that off, a backcountry ranger told me that she’s never heard of horses crossing the canyon, only mules. Good thing we’re riding Mustangs that have only been around people for a couple months!
We reserved a campsite in advance near the South Rim visitor center and it immediately began to rain. Being the cowboys that we are, we went and got a hotel with a real bed, the first in five weeks—it was awesome! The next morning we were tacked and standing at the edge of the canyon about the time the sun started pouring over the horizon. We began the descent on a set of switchbacks on the South Kaibab Trail. On one side of us there was a vertical rock wall going straight up. On the other side of us was a vertical cliff going straight down. In between was a 5-foot-wide, well-maintained trail with good footing. As long as nothing spooked our horses we’d have no problem!
I’ve never understood why, but lots of horses like to walk on the downhill edge of a steep trail. Not so in the Grand Canyon! Our horses were hugging the walls pretty tight. Shortly after we began our descent we began running into hikers and we found out very interesting news. There was a race that day and the next, and runners would be flying by our horses to get down to the bottom of the canyon and back up. Fortunately we’d already passed hundreds of hikers in the past month, so we felt good that our horses wouldn’t spook too bad with heavy-breathing, backpack-wielding, shirtless runners about.
True to the breed, our Mustangs carefully made their way down the cliffs of the canyon without missing a step or having an incident. We passed dozens of hikers, backpackers, runners, and even two mule strings—we found wide places to pass each other—before coming to the big challenge. At the bottom of the canyon runs the rapid-filled, freezing Colorado River. Crossing the canyon, 150 feet above the water, lies a 300-foot suspension bridge, the only way to cross the river. As if a tiny suspended bridge above a raging river isn’t enough to scare a horse, before the bridge lay a winding 50-yard tunnel barely large enough squeeze a pack horse through. It was scary, especially to an animal that naturally would never enter a cave.
I dismounted and began to lead my gray horse, Chief, through the tunnel. He snorted at the entrance, listened intensely at the echo, and gave me a look asking me if I was sure this was a good idea. I guess I gave him a convincing look, because he followed me in. Sunlight lit our way for 49 feet or so before the cave took a turn and we were enveloped in near pitch black. After a short distance we began to see the light of the exit and the suspension bridge beyond. We got to the edge of the bridge, and looking down I could see the raging Colorado River between the slats of board we were about to walk across. Chief took the transition of footing in stride and the sounds of hoofbeats on the bridge mixed with the rumbling of the river below us. Halfway across the bridge, 150 feet above a freezing drowning death, in the bottom of the largest canyon on earth, with a horse with 90 percent of its life in the wild, I stopped, looked back at my buddies and couldn’t help bursting into an ear-to-ear grin.
We got our horses safely across the suspension bridge and onto the north side of the Colorado. We spent the night at the bottom of the canyon before climbing over a mile of elevation the next day to get out. There are not a lot of people that go across the Grand Canyon horseback and that is a shame. The country is steep, but the Park Service does an incredible job of maintaining good trails. Will I go through it again? Absolutely. Will I go through it on a horse I don’t trust? Absolutely not.
For more information on the Unbranded Project, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.
Read about the four adventurers in the May issue of Western Horseman.