Crossing the Grand Canyon in Unbranded Style

The trek continues: 13 Mustangs, 4 men and more than 3,000 miles.

At left, Jonny Fitzsimons, Ben Thamer, Thomas Glover and Ben Masters at the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

At left, Jonny Fitzsimons, Ben Thamer, Thomas Glover and Ben Masters at the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

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.

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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.

Ben Masters

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For more information on the Unbranded Project, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.

Read about the four adventurers in the May issue of Western Horseman.

27 Responses to “Crossing the Grand Canyon in Unbranded Style”

  1. Terry Cartwright says:

    That was an impressive feat of horsemanship!

    Terry Cartwright

  2. Jeannie Box` says:

    I’ve loved stories about the Grand Canyon since I was a kid. And too, I’ve read ALL of Zane Grey’s books – mostly Westerns some of which are situated in/near the Grand Canyon. IF ONLY I were “younger” & had more money I’d sure visit – OFTEN!

  3. Jeannie Box` says:

    Now that I’ve read ALL of the narrative above I’d suggest that you folks at Unbranded READ Zane Grey’s books! In fact, I highly recommend it. One he wrote was about a lion hunt down IN the Canyon. In Mr. Grey’s day there was no suspension bridge! Men & animals crossed ONLY in low water by swimming at an angle from one shore to the other…. TRUE GRIT I’d say!!!

  4. Damon says:

    Totally lovin’ the blog guys. Living my “non-cubicle” adventures through your trek from Boarder to Border. I have been to the South Rim with my daughter but can only imagine taking on the trails and crossing the canyon. Please keep it up and I will be watching for updates!

  5. Cotton McCay says:

    Have been to the south rim in a vehicle, it is breath-takeing. To do so on horseback would be a dream of a lifetime, so proud to see these gentlemen take there Mustangs thru.

  6. Tony Henrie says:

    Awwwwesome! That’s the post I was waiting for! I’ll be making the same trip (mostly the same, anyway) in 2015. I get more excited every day! Great job guys. Keep the posts coming. Can’t wait for the video production!

  7. Anna Halford says:

    Nice work, you and the horses. Looking forward to video…

  8. I found myself holding my breath as I read this. You guys (and horses) are amazing.

  9. Kathy B says:

    OMG! you had my stomach doing flips just reading about the crossing. Whewwww Keep the stories coming we love reading them. You guys ROCK.

  10. lynn “Captain” says:

    Hey, I’m friends with Val, I’ve been in contact with him and he stent Last Thursday night at my place in Manti. From the map he showed me, your coming thru along Skyline Drive. Right now there are parts of that, that are covered with snow. Some places may not have a way around it. Have you gotten any info on that?

  11. Wendy M says: says:

    The only thing better than reading about it would be to be able to do it! Would love to hire you to take me on the trip!!!!!

  12. Stefanie Kuefer says:

    Love, love, love the stories!

  13. Sandy Elmore says:

    Thank you so much for the report!

  14. Margy Romans says:

    Unbelievable!!

  15. Margy Romans says:

    Unbelievable!

  16. Deborah McInerney says:

    What an amazing adventure! We are living vicariously through you guys. Thanks for sharing your stories.

  17. Audrey says:

    Been down there on a park mule! One of the highlites of my life. Totally get it YOU MUST trust your mount down there. No room for errors. Happy trails boys! Have the same picture of me going thru the tunnel and bridge. Love the grand canyon totally one of the most awesome places in this country.

  18. Barbara says:

    Since I’ve recently been there and hiked down the South Rim, I could really imagine this. But not really! You guys are amazing! As are your horses! Guess you guys can say you have lived on the edge for sure. What an incredible adventure! This past weekend I was permanently entrusted with the care of a beautiful Kiger Mustang – I could never have imagined having such an incredible horse – he is not like any horse I have ever known. I’d always heard there was something special about mustangs, and yours have certainly demonstrated that. Only a mule or a mustang could have done this. Thank you so much for sharing this adventure with those of us interested in such things. You guys are living the dream! I could shorten that to: you guys are living.

  19. Dona Brown says:

    Love the story and know exactly how you feel when you talk about that big grin across your face when you realize what you had just accomplished. Good job. Love those mustangs and the Hutch wild horse program.

  20. Doug Dollarhide says:

    My famliy and I belong to Back country Horseman of calif mid valley unit. We clear trails in the high country & pack in chain saws & crosscut saws in to the wilderness. What you fellows are doing is a dying art. Tying hitches,caring for your stock, seeing new country ,over coming obstacles , experiences most people only read about. May God guide you and each hoof of those mustangs .

  21. Shannon says:

    You guys are giving a lot of us (including me) the details of a trip we long to experience… from Dillon Montana

  22. kyle harmon says:

    I have done the North Rim ride on a mule named Elvis. He was a mammoth jack and he had a reverse gear and neck reined. the climb down is neat but then they take off the britches before climbing back out. It was a neat experience to say the least.

  23. Wendy Fowler says:

    I related to the comment about horses liking to walk along the outer edge of the trail. My pony does too, and I let her, until another horse panicked and pushed past us, nearly sending us over the edge – if she hadn’t been so agile we would have gone.
    Now we take firm control of the middle ground, lol.

    I would love to visit the ‘big ditch’. Maybe one day.

  24. karen Felix says:

    guys this has been great reading about your experiences.A mustang is the most adapable horse no matter what they always come through. I’m talking from my own experiences with my mustang. She lived to be thirty-five years old I could never replace her after she died. From me good riding and keep the experiences going on to us readers.

  25. Abigail says:

    I’ve always dreamed about going on a trip like this, I can’t imagine making it on a horse I trained myself. I have one I’ve trained right now and he’s thrown me twice in the last two months but I’d trust him with my life to go on a trip like this by this time next year. I definitely want to ride the Grand Canyon though, that would be the experience of a lifetime.

  26. kelly roberts says:

    so how you guys like the north rim trail? My husband and I just did rim to rim starting at the north rim….WOW what an amazing place to ride! South Kaibab trail up from Phantom Ranch was easier to enjoy… North rim down was nail bitting…. Loved every minute though…. Safe riding and its always a great day if your in the saddle

  27. Hi guys I am the guy that talked to you back in Febuary from the Gentlmen on Horseback up here in Spokane Washington area, I am glad we decided to help sponsor you, we got my IEBCH group to kick in along with a fair amount of members…point is that we have all been following you and enjoying the pictures and stories “from on the trail”, gives us something to talk about. Many of our group are headed off to the Bob Maarshal area in Montana…long rides and time in the mountains. Glad to see your hanging in there! Great times along the way, can’t wait to see it all together.Take it easy, Scott

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