November 29, 2021

Historic Phantom Ranch Turns 100—Thanks to Mules

Grand Canyon National Park’s Phantom Ranch is turning 100 years old! Constructed at the Colorado River’s confluence with Bright Angel Creek, the Ranch officially opened for business in 1922, and like Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park, was conceived as a backcountry destination for visitors. The Ranch sits near the ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village, serving as a reminder of the eleven Native American tribes with cultural ties to the Grand Canyon.

View of three people looking at some cottonwood trees in 1925 outside a stone lodge building.

photo by: Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr CC-By-2.0

Three visitors sit in front of the original Phantom Ranch Lodge in 1925.

A man stands next to a mule with a washing machine on the mule's back.

photo by: Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr CC-By-2.0

Ernie W. Ensor, National Park Service maintenance worker, poses with a washing machine that was packed down to the bottom of Grand Canyon on the back of Rastus the mule. The machine was taken down the Bright Angel Trail for use at Phantom Ranch. January 1939.

In the early 1900s, David Rust, son-in-law of one of the investors in the Grand Canyon Transportation Company, established a tourist camp at the Ranch's location, even hosting former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1913 who had designated the Grand Canyon a National Monument in 1908. Travel to and from the camp occurred primarily by mules, and so by the time construction began at Phantom Ranch, riding mules throughout the Grand Canyon was the most popular attraction at the National Park. More importantly, without mules, Phantom Ranch could not exist.

Dependent on Mules

Built for the park’s concessionaire, the Fred Harvey Company, Phantom Ranch offered something no other National Park hotel could, a snow-free environment. To get there, “dudes” mounted their mules in front of The Lookout Studio, rode down the Bright Angel Trail, then across the Tonto Plateau before descending to the river. Twelve miles and 5,000 feet later they stared across a narrow swinging bridge, dangling dozens of feet above the Colorado River’s turbulent current. Crossing one by one, so as not to overload the bridge, mules and riders clamored their way across.

View of one of the mule bridges over the Colorado River with some of the mountain-like views of the Grand Canyon behind.

photo by: Xanterra Travel Collection

View of the Kaibab Suspension Bridge over the Colorado River.

Built using local stones and roofed in green shingles, Phantom Ranch blended timelessly with its landscape while defining and epitomizing the “Parkitecture” style, and the first round of construction included three guest cabins, the Canteen, a caretaker's cabin, and a mule barn. Designed by the famed architect Mary Jane Colter, the cabins appear modest from the exterior, while, even today, the interiors provide the sense of walking back in time. Rustic adornments hung from the walls and colorful trims warmed the space, but the hot showers and telephones in every cabin ensured the guests enjoyed modern comforts.

While built as a backcountry jumping-off point for mule rides, every piece of building material other than stone also arrived by mule. During construction, individual boards, windowpanes, and plywood were lashed tightly to dozens of pack mules then driven to the Ranch. To reduce the dependence on freighting supplies, the Ranch was initially fairly self-sufficient. Chickens provided eggs, a vegetable garden and fruit trees offered nourishment, and hay was grown for the mules.

View into Phantom Ranch with a few evenly spaced piles of rocks to tie up mules in the foreground and a sign that says "Welcome to Phantom Ranch."

photo by: Xanterra Travel Collection

Phantom Ranch's legendary hospitality has welcomed guests for a century.

Perhaps the one thing more celebrated at Phantom Ranch than its unsurpassed setting is the Ranch’s food. Hearty meals were lapped up ferociously each night from a bounty carried down by mules. In the Grand Canyon rock falls sometimes made mule travel impossible for days, which is why the Ranch’s pantries and freezer were (and are today) kept well stocked.

Hidden everywhere within the buildings are signs of mules. What appear to be solid wooden beams are in fact boards, no longer than 8-10 feet, or the maximum length a mule can carry, nailed together. The windows are individual panes that were erected on site.

This attention to detail promised a unique experience for guests, and just days before its grand opening, Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent W.W. Crosby anticipated that “it is safe to say that Phantom Ranch will become one of the most visited places in the National Parks.”

Growing the Ranch

Superintendent Crosby’s predication proved accurate. By 1926 additional cabins were built and mule rides to the remote North Rim became so popular the Park Service realized the need for a more substantial bridge. The new Kaibab Suspension Bridge, like the swinging bridge it replaced, had mules in mind. The walls were up to a mule’s eyes and barely wide enough to allow a fully loaded pack mule through, yet not wide enough to allow the mules to bunch up. Putting an average of 150-200 pounds per animal, during the bridge’s construction a typical trip included between twenty to thirty mules. Each day, mules carried 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of materials to build the bridge which in 2019 became a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and remains the only place mules can cross the river.

photo by: Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr CC-By-2.0

A camp at Phantom Ranch was nearly denied by the C.C.C. medical department, relenting only after a mule was trained to carry a gurnie. More than 30 injured corps members were ultimately hauled out.

The cost and time required by mules to freight goods through the canyon were tremendous, which is why the Fred Harvey Company wanted to install a tram to Phantom Ranch like the one they used at Hermit’s Camp, another inner-canyon mule destination. Today, it would be hard to imagine a tram system dissecting one of the most photographed views in the National Parks.

During the Great Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps Unit 818 camped in what is now the Ranch’s primitive campground. They planted shade trees and cleared the jumble of boulders piled throughout the campground, grading the area flat. In the Ranch’s courtyard between the canteen and the community building, they dug a swimming pool shaped like a desert pothole fed by Bright Angel Creek. Nearby, corps members constructed a mule barn and corral for the National Park Service’s mules. A fire destroyed the barn soon after its completion but was immediately rebuilt.

View of a stone lined pool with cabins and the grand canyon walls in the background.

photo by: Grand Canyon National Park via Flickr CC-By-2.0

The pool at Phantom Ranch in 1936.

View of a set of cabins at a ranch in the Grand Canyon with a pool in the foreground.

photo by: Special Collections and Archives, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University.

​ Phantom Ranch cabins, and pool at Bright Angel Canyon in 1968. NAU.PH.2000., George Billingsley Collection. ​

Perhaps their most lasting contribution to Phantom Ranch are the trails. Both Clear Creek Trail and the River Trail that connects the Bright Angel Trail to the South Kaibab Trail were scraped, chiseled, and blasted from the granite walls. 10,000 pounds of dynamite were used on the Clear Creek trail alone. On the River Trail, another 40,000 pounds. Between the two trails, builders used more than 30,000 drill bits, each weighing over three pounds. Once again, mules carried every stick of dynamite, every drill bit, and everything else the men needed to survive and do their work around Phantom Ranch.

A set of mules tied up at Phantom Ranch. In the background are views of the Grand Canyon, and the canteen. The mule packs are lying on the ground in front of the mules.

photo by: Xanterra Travel Collection

Mules are still used to go to and from Phantom Ranch today. This image from 2019 shows a set of mules waiting to make the journey from the ranch to the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Looking to the Future

As Phantom Ranch grew into maturity it lost some buildings (like the blacksmith shop destroyed by a rockslide), while others were built (such as the dorm-style accommodations and the wastewater treatment plant). Constructed in the 1980s, the plant’s capacity allowed for roughly 200 people staying at Phantom each night, including about 15 day-time users. However, with the rising number of rim-to-rim hikers and raft trips stopping, that number swelled to sometimes several hundred users a day.

Also, while helicopters now carry in the heaviest equipment, almost every morning a string of ten pack mules and two packers freight everything from bacon to beer and pillows to Christmas trees to the Ranch. While the Ranch depends on mules for their daily resupply, they also depend on mules to carry out all the garbage. As Phantom Ranch’s popularity grows, so too has the trash, sometimes overburdening the Ranch with waste—something many visitors do not understand.

External view of a series of stone cabins with the outline of the Grand Canyon in the background. The roofs and trim of the cabins are teal, and there is a bench that says Phantom Ranch in the foreground.

photo by: Xanterra Travel Collection

The cabins at Phantom Ranch c. 2019.

Phantom Ranch’s remoteness also means it remains one of the last places in the country where mail is delivered by mule. Though package delivery ended several years ago, each day a satchel full of mail rides in and out of the canyon on the saddle horn of a willing volunteer.

In 2012, Phantom became one of three hotels at Grand Canyon and numerous more throughout the National Parks to join the Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognizing outstanding historic hotels.

Phantom’s increased popularity, along with years of deferred maintenance, finally convereged in 2020 when the National Park reduced visitation to Phantom to begin repairs. Aided by the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, deferred maintenance at Phantom Ranch and other Park facilities are beginning to receive long-needed repairs.

With Phantom Ranch turning 100, its weathered walls certainly are long overdue for repairs. When that time comes, mules will help preserve Phantom Ranch just like when they helped build the Ranch. As one mule packer said, “Mules are more than part of experiencing Phantom Ranch, they’re the ranch’s life force and connect millions of visitors to the National Park’s heritage." So long as the mule trains keep running, Phantom Ranch will continue to provide unequaled experiences, offer a glimpse into the past, and replenish the souls of those lucky enough to visit.

Harris Abernathy worked with the Grand Canyon mules as a wrangler and packer before receiving an M.A. in Public History from Middle Tennessee State University. He is currently writing a book about how the Grand Canyon’s most popular trail saved the Antiquities Act, created the National Park Service, and changed water in the West forever.

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By: Harris Abernathy

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