'Rock Candy Canyon' - Bryce Canyon, Utah, National Park

by Chief Noel Stasiak USNR Ret.

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Do you remember when you were a kid and got your hands on some rock candy? I still see rock candy now and then, but I never buy it. Our tastes change. 

Recently, my wife and I made a road trip with our grandchildren out west and, of course, mules were on the list of things to see and do. Something I saw brought back old memories of that childhood treat.

We had been planning this trip for quite some time and made reservations for a mule ride down into Bryce Canyon, Utah. We have three mules on our 76 acres, a regular size donkey and a mini donkey, so I’m familiar with these lovable creatures but my wife and grand kids are amateurs when it comes to riding. They have all been on a mule/donkey a time or two, but that’s about it. It took some convincing to get them to agree to hop on and take the plunge down the canyon with the mule in charge of their life.

When my wife Leigh contacted Bryce Canyon Lodge, they assured her that their mules would take good care of their riders, no matter the expertise of who sat in the saddle. They all felt reassured after that. She was told these mules know their jobs and do them very well. I preach this stuff all the time, but I know my mules better than my wife and grandchildren do, and it takes time to develop confidence in something that weighs six to eight times more than you do. 

None of us had ever been to Bryce Canyon, so excitement was in the air. Leigh’s grand kids, Wesley and Kelsey, are 14 and 15 respectively and I’ve got them convinced that mules walk on water. They’ve been around our equines and have ridden them a time or two but they are both still under instruction and couldn’t handle them by themselves.

Let me start off by saying the wranglers at Bryce Canyon Lodge were fantastic. The group of them could fill a rain barrel with all their mule wisdom. 

The official name of the organization is Canyon Trail Rides and is run by Tawn Mangum. The organization/venue was founded and started by ‘Grand Pa Pete’ in 1973. Two of the wrangler, brothers Kwincey and Cache Mortensen, are Tawn’s nephews, so it’s all one big happy family. 

All three of these guys have a personality as big as Texas. I guess you have to when your supervising a bunch of mule rough skinners. It was obvious that they were in charge when they were handling the mules, and the mules knew it. It takes a lot of skill to manage this amount of mules, about 300 between three different parks. Tawn has been doing it for around 19 years and he loves it. I still consider myself a novice when it comes to mules and donkeys; I’ve only owned and worked with mine for about five years, so while they were prepping the mules and horses for the trip down the canyon I was all ears and eyes. I studied them like a hawk, consuming everything they did. To me, the whole show was a lesson.

We stayed in a motel just outside of the Bryce Canyon Park. There are plenty of places to stay and lots of conveniences like restaurants, gas stations, motels, grocery stores, etc. We arrived at the lodge at 7 a.m., which is the meeting place. I’m always early (thanks to my military training). The greeter came in at 8 a.m. and we signed liability statements and were checked off of the list. The corral was just a short walk away from the lodge. The adrenalin started to pump when we saw the string of equines coming up from the holding area to the prep area. Of course, we were first in line, I introduced myself to Kwincey and Cache, and told them we owned some mules and donkeys back home in Missouri and would like to make sure we were assigned mules rather than horses. They were very accommodating and after asking us our riding expertise, they assigned us our mules.

Once everyone was assigned a mule or horse, we had a little help getting on, and introduced to our guide. Our guide’s name was Cordell, and when we got to the beginning of the trail he gave us some instructions and wanted to know who was an experienced rider and who was not. Kelsey was obviously the least experienced (except for maybe Leigh, but she was frozen with fear and didn’t say a word). Cordell took Kelsey’s lead rope for the first ten minutes of the trail, and then she was on her own. I was proud of all of them. It was a mundane and routine trip for Cordell, but for our crew it was an exhilarating, frightening and a memorable experience. I want to thank Cordell for tolerating our inexperience and keeping us safe. 

As we descended down the trail, I began to think that I was responsible for this adventure that could end tragically. No matter how safe this trail ride is advertised, it was obvious that the potential for danger existed. They have a perfect record but there is a first time for everything, so I was a little nervous. After an hour on the trail, it was obvious the mules were in charge and they were not going to allow any mishaps. This was their turf. They do this every day, know every step and are concerned about their safety as much as yours. 

So I began to relax and admire the scenery. I love a new adventure. With every new adventure a lesson is learned, and these insights enhance our lives. I began to see the splendor of the surrounding environment, thought about the years it took to create such a remarkable spectacle, wondered how all this beauty had slowly evolved over millions of years, these masterpieces of nature, all here for my enjoyment. 

It all started with a simple dream. I was tired of city life and the rat race. I wanted to get back to nature. I discovered mules, of all things, and admired their simplicity, their beauty, their ability to tolerate adversity, and I thought it was a fine example of what life is all about. I was an unexpected guest of the world of mules.

Without my sudden interest in mules, I probably would have never met so many wonderful people that share the same interests, or visited so many unique or exotic places. This canyon was one of them. I call this story ‘Rock Candy Canyon’ because as I rode down the steep trails, all the rock formations, rock towers and pinnacles reminded me of rock candy from when I was a kid. The first time you see this phenomenal creation of nature, you are overwhelmed with emotions. The first thing that comes to mind is how long it took to develop into what it is, and then that reminds you of what a small speck we are in the scheme of things. It makes you think of how our life span is but a split second of eternity. 

As we went down the trail, I tried not to lose focus. No matter how much confidence you have in your mule, when the edge is just a few inches away and the drop is a thousand feet and you are responsible for three other people, you tend to stay alert, to say the least. Halfway down the trail, the endorphins are kicked in, I felt like I had accomplished a fantastic feat (it’s all relative, of course, but it felt good). Not everyone rides a mule down into Bryce Canyon; it’s not for the faint of heart. If you have that spark deep in your soul, mixed with a little imagination and curiosity that makes life interesting, and are willing to take some chances, this ride is for you.

Tawn Mangum runs three locations where you can ride mules at three locations, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and the North Rim of Grand Canyon. (There is also another organization that you can also ride down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We stopped there and visited with the mules a few days later on our way back to St. Louis). Whichever trip you make, remember that you have to make reservations in advance, especially for the Grand Canyon, as they have up to a year wait. The cost for Bryce Canyon was relatively cheap, about $90 per person for a fantastic three hour ride. They also offer a ninety minute tour for $65. Where else can you find such grandeur, beauty and excitement nowadays for this price? The scenery is breathtaking, with radiant cliff towers to kiss an azure sky, pristine canyons carved deep into the desert sandstone, and mile after mile of twisting canyons full of pinnacles of rock formations doing a balancing act. It’s a scenic wonderland, all for your entertainment. The cowboys and mule skinners are highly skilled. The mules are, well, mules; I can’t say anything bad about them.

Since I became interested in mules five years ago, they have had a huge impact on my life. In those five years they have taught me many things. They have enriched my life through joy and through sorrow. To those who know their history, they are an inspiration. For me, when I’m on a mule riding around the farm or riding deep in some majestic canyon that looks like rock candy, when I’m in the saddle, I’m on top of the world.