Grand Canyon: Where UPS and FedEx Fear to Tread

The Grand Canyon is one of Earth’s most beautiful and mysterious places. Its depths stretch seemingly forever and its sheer size can be breathtaking.

The Grand Canyon attracts millions of visitors to northern Arizona each year all hoping to snap an amazing photo of the canyon’s vast landscape. The mile-deep gorge is the centerpiece of such an expansive view that it can’t all be seen at once; at 277 miles long and up to 18 miles wide the Grand Canyon is so large it creates its own weather. Deep canyons and rough terrain strongly influence solar heating and air circulation. Consequently, many different microclimates are found throughout the canyon. In fact, getting a view from its two most popular rims (aka tops) requires nearly five hours of driving time. 

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The Grand Canyon is under the care of the National Park Service yet the park boundaries don’t contain it entirely; the portion protected by Grand Canyon National Park totals 1,904 square miles, a span larger than the smallest U.S. state. In comparison, the tiny East Coast state of Rhode Island contains just 1,214 square miles.

Today, the Grand Canyon is the second-most-visited national park (bested only by the Great Smoky Mountains in 2022).

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The Grand Canyon was one of the first North American natural wonders to be discovered by Europeans. In 1541, a party of the Coronado expedition under Captain García López de Cardenas stood on the South Rim, 138 years before explorers found Niagara Falls, 167 before Yellowstone, and almost 300 before Yosemite. A group scrambled down toward the river but failed to reach it and returned to announce that the buttes were much taller than the great tower of Seville. Then nothing! Some Coronado chroniclers did not even mention this side trip in their accounts.

Francisco Tomas Garcés, a Franciscan friar traced tribes up the Colorado River then visited the rim in 1776, discovered the Havasupai tribe, and departed. Fur trappers based in Taos knew of the great gorge which they called the Big Cañon and shunned it. When they guided exploring parties of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographic Engineers in search of transportation routes they steered the expeditions away from the canyon which offered no passage by water or land.

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Then in 1857, Lt. Joseph C. Ives led a steamboat up the Colorado River in explicit quest of the Big Cañon. After the steamboat struck a rock and sank near Black Canyon, Ives traveled down Diamond Creek to the inner gorge, briefly touched at the South Rim and in 1861 concluded with one of the most infamous proclamations to ever emerge from an American explorer: The region is, of course, altogether valueless … after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first and will doubtless be the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality.

>> Related article: How Theodore Roosevelt Saved the Grand Canyon

Eight years later Major John Wesley Powell descended the Colorado River through its gorges renamed the Big Cañon as the Grand Canyon and wrote a classic account of the view from the river. In 1882 Captain Clarence Dutton in the first monograph published by the new U.S. Geological Survey wrote an equally classic account, this time from the rim.

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Something had changed. Mostly it was the advent of geology as a science with broad cultural appeal. The Grand Canyon might be valueless as a corridor of transport but it was a wonderland for the new science. It helped enormously that artists were drawn to landscapes of which the canyon seemed both unique and dramatic. Urged by Powell and Dutton, Thomas Moran and William Henry Holmes transformed a supremely visual scene into paint and ink.

Before Powell and Dutton, the Grand Canyon was a place to avoid. Now it was a marvel to admire. Twenty years later Teddy Roosevelt stepped off a train at the South Rim and added nationalism to the mix by declaring it “a natural wonder … absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”

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It was an astonishing reversal of perception. The geologic mystery of the canyon is how the south-trending Colorado River made a sudden turn westward to carve its way, cross-grained, through four plateaus.

Unlike most great features, the Grand Canyon is invisible until you stand on its rim. You aren’t drawn to it as to a river’s source or a mountain’s peak. You have to seek it out and then cope with its visual revelation. It simply and suddenly is.

>> Related article: Chasing John Wesley Powell: Exploring the Colorado River—Canyonlands, Lake Powell & Grand Canyon

President Benjamin Harrison first moved to protect the area in 1893 as a forest reserve; President Theodore Roosevelt designated it a national monument in 1908. It would take a third President—Woodrow Wilson—and 11 more years for the Grand Canyon to become the awe-inspiring national park it is today.

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Numbers don’t lie

1,000: Estimated number of caves within the Grand Canyon

5: Species of rattlesnakes found in Grand Canyon National Park (including the pink Grand Canyon rattlesnake, only found there)

278: Miles of the Colorado River that run through the Grand Canyon

4.7 million: Visitors to Grand Canyon National Park in 2022

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Mail is delivered to the bottom of the Grand Canyon

Got mules? The most unusual mode of delivery used by the Postal Service is the mule train.

Most visitors to the Grand Canyon admire the landscape from overlooks never venturing to the gorge’s bottom. Yet mail-carrying mules trek 3,000 feet down to the floor of the canyon three hours down but five hours back up, five days a week delivering packages, food, and supplies every day to the Supai village where the Indigenous Havasupai people have lived for nearly 1,000 years. 

It’s unclear how long mail has been delivered this way but mule postal deliveries were first documented in 1938. Up to 22 mules are part of the all-weather mail train carrying up to 200 pounds of goods each and traveling 9 miles down into the canyon outside the national park’s boundaries. The trip takes three hours down and five hours on the return and according to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum is the last official mail-by-mule route in the country and possibly, the world.

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The mail supplies the Havasupai people with a multitude of modern amenities from packaged food to medicine to small appliances. The village could not sustain itself without the mail.

Insulated by its own remoteness and towering red cliffs, this village of a few hundred people is a step back in time: no paved streets, no cars, and no streetlights.

>> Related article: Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon

One of the mule train’s last stops before the canyon is in Peach Springs, Arizona. It’s the only post office in the country with a walk-in freezer to keep frozen food as cold as possible before the next leg in its journey.

For the Havasupai Indians, the mule train is a lifeline; the nearest supermarket is 120 miles from the top of the canyon.

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From there a contractor picks up the mail and drives it an hour on a rough road to the top of the canyon. It’s then handed over to the mule team. According to Daniel Piazza, chief curator of philately (the study of stamps) at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, the same person has held the contract with the Postal Service for more than 25 years and chances are good his son will inherit it when he retires—there aren’t many people clamoring to run the mule mail.

>> Related article: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary Today

Another unofficial route carries mail to a tourist lodge called Phantom Ranch—it’s not through a U.S. Postal Service contract but the mail that comes and goes as a courtesy to guests does get a special marking that it was mailed by mule.

These areas are not accessible by road. There are only three ways to reach them: by hiking (mule optional) down the canyon, rafting down the Colorado River, or by helicopter.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the 1930s, mules have been carrying mail and goods to the Havasupai people located inside the Grand Canyon:

  • 10-22 mules are used daily along with one wrangler on horseback, 5 days a week, traveling 9 miles down into the canyon to the Supai Post Office
  • It takes 3 hours to get down and 5 hours to get back up
  • On the way back up, the wrangler untethers the mules and sends them back up on their own
  • Each mule can carry up to 200 pounds and the weight is loaded equally on each side for balance
  • The Supai Post Office has a special Mule Train postmark

Worth Pondering…

Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt