Hoofin’ it in the High Sierras – Mounted on a Mule
Ever wonder what it’s like to explore a national park on the back of a mule? Read on, then, pardner, and I’ll tell you about riding the High Sierra loop in Yosemite on a steady steed from the Tuolumne Meadows stable.
I’d always wanted to explore Yosemite but had never had the chance — until my boyfriend, Mark, asked me if I’d join him on a 6-day mule trip to the High Sierra camps in August. (Umm, let me think about that for 6 seconds.) Heck, yeah! I wasn’t worried about being able to stay in the saddle, because I’d been born a rancher’s daughter and learned to herd cattle on Quarter horses in Arizona when I was just a kid. Later on I’d owned a couple of Tennessee Walking horses, and I’d ridden a wide variety of trails – from red-clay paths in the piedmont of northern Georgia to sandy, sagebrush-lined roads in Washington State’s Columbia Basin.
Still, riding a mule in Yosemite was a whole new experience. Upon arriving at the stable, I was assigned to a chestnut mule named Preston. I soon located him at the hitching post, dozing in the summer sun and occasionally protecting his space from other mules with laid-back ears and bared teeth. He was a perfect gentlemule with me, though — sniffing my outstretched hand and gazing calmly into my eyes. He wore a copper-colored coat, a faint white star on his forehead, the number 199 on his neck, and a sturdy Western saddle. Following instructions from the wranglers, I tucked my sack lunch into the saddlebag and mounted my mule.
Soon our group was ready to go, and we headed out on the trail – lined up nose to tail. Leading the way was our head wrangler, Sheridan, on a handsome blue roan horse. Following behind her were 12 guests, all of us on mules. And bringing up the rear was another wrangler, Tori, who was riding a horse and leading a string of four pack mules, all loaded down with our baggage.
The trail to the Glen Aulin camp took us through verdant meadows and alongside crystal clear creeks. Off in the distance, impressive granite monoliths reached into the azure sky. It was an easy ride, and soon I began to feel comfortable aboard Preston. But then the terrain changed, and we began to descend a steep, rocky trail through a piney forest along Tuolumne Falls. The trail would have been challenging for even an experienced hiker sporting traction-enhancing, Vibram-soled boots. How on earth, I wondered, would a mule with steel shoes (!) be able to avoid sliding on the trail’s daunting stone staircases? I actively tried to help my mule by distributing my weight appropriately for the terrain — leaning back on steep descents and learning forward when the trail occasionally wound uphill. Preston carefully picked his way along the path, and soon I decided there’s a reason that mules have the reputation of being sure footed. Eventually we reached the bottom of the hill and crossed over the wooden bridge that brought us into the first of the High Sierra camps.
By the end of the week, when we’d negotiated numerous difficult switchbacks on high mountain passes, my new mottos became 1) Trust the mule; 2) Thank goodness for the skilled trail crews in Yosemite; and 3) Our wranglers are wonderful.
Stay tuned for other reports from my Yosemite adventures!