Best of the burden: Smokies mules make backcountry operations possible – Part 1

A member of the mule team waits patiently as Danny Gibson moves in the background to assess the load to be transported. Holly Kays photo
A member of the mule team waits patiently as Danny Gibson moves in the background to assess the load to be transported.
Holly Kays photo

In popular culture mules get a bad rap, cast as stubborn, ornery and even mischievous. 

But Danny Gibson, animal packer for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spends more time with mules than just about anybody around, and he’s quick to jump to their defense. 

“They have that notorious reputation of being stubborn, but they’re not really stubborn — they just don’t want to get hurt,” said Gibson. “It’s self-preservation. If it doesn’t look safe, a horse will just walk over it, but a mule’s like, ‘Eh, I don’t know about that.’ They are thinkers.”

‘Unsung heroes’

The six mules tethered to a gate at the Smokies’ Rainbow Falls Trailhead backed up Gibson’s words. Perhaps it’s because they were deep in thought, but they didn’t come across as ornery at all. Rather, they stood perfectly still, emptied saddles patiently awaiting the next load of locust logs to be carried a challenging 2.7 miles to Rainbow Falls. 

“They’re definitely the unsung heroes of the park,” said Gibson, gesturing toward his team. 

Each mule weighs about 1,200 pounds and is capable of walking for miles with 250 pounds on its back — for a team of six mules, that’s 1,500 pounds per trip, carried over some of the most difficult terrain in the park. Today’s goal, Rainbow Falls, will require ascending some 1,500 feet along 2.7 miles of trail in conditions ranging from impeccable to deplorable. The logs are to be delivered as part of a two-year rehabilitation project on Rainbow Falls Trail through the Trails Forever Program, and while some sections have already been renovated to perfection, others are full of rocks, roots and gullies.

“Mules are great animals. They’re real agile, and we get into some rough places,” said Gibson. “If I think they’re going to get hurt I wouldn’t take them in there, but they’re like, ‘This ain’t nothing.’”

Gibson’s enthusiasm for his mules is obvious, as he pours out unprompted praise of their intellect, athleticism, stamina and general good sense. 

“You have mule wrecks sometimes. The great thing about a mule is when he gets in a position he falls or gets hung up, he doesn’t get in a fight (like a horse),” he said. “The mule will kind of go into a trance like, ‘I’m stuck. You come help me.’ It does happen, but it’s rare you get one hurt.”

By 10:30 a.m., the team had already been up to Rainbow Falls and back once, dropping 12 locust logs, some weighing upwards of 100 pounds, at the top before descending to repack for a second delivery. Gibson and his assistant Daniel Allen tied the mules up at the gate and prepared their packs — identical wooden V-shapes reinforced with steel and hung with bright orange ratchet straps — to receive the load. 

“Locust are some of the hardest items to haul in, because they’re not uniform shape, and as you’re moving, they’re moving too,” said Gibson. “So you have to keep tightening down so you don’t loosen up the ratchet straps.”

Packing up the mules is an expressly physical task, with Gibson and Allen working in concert to lift each log, carry it to the saddle of the appropriate mule, and nestle it into place. Different logs are different shapes and sizes, and Gibson examined each specimen carefully, working to determine where it would best fit to leave the mule with a comfortably balanced load.

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Danny Gibson (left) and his assistant Daniel Allen lift locust logs
to give the mules a balanced and comfortable load.
Holly Kays photo

Eventually, all 18 logs for the second run were packed away and it was time to move. Gibson mounted his horse — mules are the product of a horse mother and a donkey father, so following along behind a horse comes naturally to them, Gibson explained — and the team set off up the trail. 

Even fully loaded, mules travel at about 3 miles an hour, which is faster than most people hike — especially up a steep trail like Rainbow Falls — so before long the mules disappeared from sight, and the clatter of hooves on rock and the shuffle of slightly shifting logs and saddles faded into the distance. The team would stop once or twice to adjust loads or take a quick breather, but mostly they would just keep going, steadily marching on until meeting their destination. 

Source:, written by Holly Kays

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3 thoughts on “Best of the burden: Smokies mules make backcountry operations possible – Part 1

  1. I really enjoyed this article. It is interesting to know people are still using mules, and there is someone who understands their temperament.
    Walt, thank you for exploring this part of the great out doors.
    Nancy Lancaster

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