of the Eastern High Sierras
the floor of the Owens Valley, south of Bishop, California,
to the tallest peaks of the Eastern High Sierras, the actions
of water and ice have formed an ever-changing landscape
of remarkable contrast. This spectacular mountain
country is where Bob Tanner has spent most of his adult
life as a packer, pack station owner, and mule man.
Bob and his Red’s Meadow Pack Station are known throughout
the world. Since 1960, Bob and his packers have taken
state governors, U. S. Government dignitaries, movie stars,
and people from all over the world on pack trips.
Bob is permitted to operate in a 175-square mile area of
mountain wilderness in Yosemite National Park and The John
Muir Wilderness Area. The Red’s Meadow Pack Station,
where Bob packs out of during the summer months, is located
near Mammoth Lakes, California.
the early part of June 2004, we traveled to Bishop, California
to meet Bob at his winter home. Bob’s ranch crew had
gathered Bob’s horses and mules from where they had wintered
out on 5,000 acres of pasture in Owens Valley. Over
100 horses and mules were to be driven by wranglers and
paying guests on horseback during a 3-day drive from Bob’s
ranch west of Bishop to Mammoth Lakes. We were invited
to come along on this drive.
Bob’s Early Years
We met Bob at his Bishop ranch.
Bob is getting up in years but his mind is sharp and he
is the man in charge. Bob said, “I started out in
the packing business in 1949, at 19 years of age, when I
went to work on a summer trail crew in the High Sierras.
I needed a summer job to help pay my way through college.
We had an old miner for a trail boss who knew how to blow
up rocks, so we made little rocks out of big rocks and built
a retaining wall in the back country that is still there
today. I took a horse I owned with me and this horse
taught me some valuable lessons on how not to do things.
First thing that happened I hobbled this horse so he could
eat grass. The horse left soon after I hobbled him
and hopped all the way back to the trailhead with me walking
“We used mules to pack our trail repair
equipment on. I had been around horses some but I
knew nothing about mules. I soon found out that packing
was just plain hard work. There are very few shortcuts.
You are constantly lifting heavy objects to be packed.
The hours were long and the pay was minimal. You soon
learn that when you are riding your horse or mule leading
a pack string is the time to rest. Riding cannot be
work for you. However, I found I loved the work, the
mountain country, and the challenge. With packing
you have a goal. You start out from point A going
to point B. You are alone on the trail with your pack
string with no one to rely on, only your animals and yourself.
When you reach the place you were packing to, you felt like
you had accomplished something. Packing is a mental
state. Nothing can be too tough for you to handle.
My family was all competitors and I loved hard work, so
I felt right at home packing in the Sierras.”
After Bob graduated from College, he put
in a hitch as an officer with the US Navy during the Korean
War. After his discharge he tried coaching athletics
but then drifted back into the packing game.
There was lots
of mining activity going on at that time in Inyo County.
Mules were a very important part of the mining operations,
as most of the supplies and ore need to be packed in and
out of the High Sierras. There were few roads in this
mining area. There were a lot of packers operating
in this county.
Bob said, ”I had the desire to be a
packer. So, I set out to learn all I could.
The first thing you learn when you set out to be a packer
is you need to know how to shoe your mules and horses.
If you did not shoe you were just considered to be a worker.
I began to learn to shoe. You find out very soon that
the faster you are at putting on shoes the easier it will
be to get along with the animal. Mules and some horses
will only stand still for a time, and then they began to
get nervous and start to move around. The longer the
shoeing job takes, the more difficult the animal can be
to deal with. There is no substitute for experience,
but every horse shoer has to start somewhere. I picked
up the finer points in shoeing and with practice and some
help from the other packers and horse shoers I became quite
proficient at shoeing horses and mules. During this
same time I began to learn how to use a lash rope to tie
down your load and tie the basic lash hitches. Some
packers are better than others with this rope. However,
it is still just a piece of rope ”
Bob worked around various packers then went to work at Red’s
Meadow as a packer.
1960, after 7 years apprenticeship in the packing business,
Bob bought out this pack station and has been the owner
for over 44 years. The livestock brand Bob uses, the
arch M, belonged to the previous owner, Archie Mann, and
was purchased along with the pack station.
Bob said, “The
first things you need to find when running a pack station
are good employees and good livestock. You need people
working for you that are dedicated, good with the public,
and that are able to keep the paying customers from getting
hurt around livestock. I soon found out that if you
give your employees and your animals plenty of work and
plenty to eat you will get along fine. If you lack
in work or food there can be trouble.”
had some very interesting observations concerning mules. “Mules in California,
as time went on, became smaller. There were very few
mules used for farming or mining any more, so there was
not much demand for big mules. We needed to find a
source of draft-cross mules and started looking in the southeastern
United States where mules were still used to pull a plow.
We found a source for Belgian draft-cross mules in Tennessee
and have been purchasing our replacement mules there ever
“There is a fine line between a big
mule and an athletic mule. You do not want a mule
that is too tall because everything you place on its back
you need to lift up. Thoroughbred-cross mules will
not work. They are too nervous and high strung.
Mexican style mules that are tough
and wiry some times can be bad to kick and therefore are
dangerous to be around. You need a cold-blooded mule
with some bone in their legs that will not panic if you
get in a storm on the trail. If a mule is too large
and heavy, its front end will not hold up with a lot of
weight on its back in these mountains. They will break
down in the front end and go lame.”
your mules and horses is very important in running a pack
station. When you mix mules and horses together in
a night corral and feed them hay, I feed my animals once
a day in the evening. We put out plenty of hay in
feed bunks so that all of the animals get their fill.
I like to see some hay left over in the corral in the morning.
This tells me that even the weaker horses and mules within
the social structure and pecking order have also had something
to eat. We only grain our animals in the morning before
they go out on the trail. If you start graining at
night these animals will start running off the mountain
at the end of the day to get to the grain. This could
be the start and cause of “barn sour” animals.”
“The amount of weight you can put on
a pack mule depends on what kind of shape this mule is in.
When our summer season first starts we do not overload our
animals. As the mules and horses get “legged up” from
working on the trail every day you can increase the weight
of the loads. If a mule wants to be difficult to get
along with you can increase it’s load and soon this mule
will going along with no problems. As general rule
each pack mule carries 125 pounds. We pack our mules
and ride our horses.”
about the type of pack gear used, ”I have used all types of pack gear
through the years. This Sierra country is sawbuck
packsaddle country. We use sawbuck pack saddles and
”manatee “ our loads lashed down with a lash cinch.
We also use packsaddles that have large leather pannier
bags. These bags will outlast the canvas type bag
and are larger. We have these special made.
In recent years, due to Federal regulations, we have gone
to bear-proof metal boxes for use in storing food in the
backcountry. These boxes have been tested in a zoo
using real live bears to do the testing. We
have a metal frame attached to the sawbuck packsaddle to
slip these metal boxes into. They are easy to carry
and fast to load and unload from the packsaddle.
Bob has been a tireless voice in dealing
with the U S Government and elected officials in Washington,
D.C. and on the local level. Bob has been involved
with the Packers and Guides Association in California for
many years. Bob said, ”In the early years of taking
over this pack station there were very few government regulations.
As the politics changed, there were more regulations forced
upon us and other pack station operators in the high Sierras.”
He continued, “Unreasonable government regulations are one
of the most difficult factors to deal with in the packing
Rose Bowl Parade:
Bob Tanner is one of the largest providers
of livestock for the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California
each year. Bob’s mules and horses carry dignitaries
and government and State officials down the parade route
in this large parade. In 2003, Secretary of the Interior
Gale Norton rode one of Bob’s mules.
Bob’s son, Bobby Tanner, has driven
the 20-mule team Borax hitch in this parade. This
mule team pulled an original Borax mine wagon that weighs
over 10 tons. The mule hitch was controlled with a
“jerk line” and a wagon brake. The inner city kids
have also ridden with Bob in the Rose Bowl parade.
Bob said, ”One year they put us just behind where a fellow
in a parachute jumped out of an airplane and landed in the
street ahead of our mules and horses. When the man
in the parachute was at eye level with the mules and horses
all the animals did an about face and wanted to flee.
The wranglers got them stopped.” Bob asked the parade
officials why would they do this to him. The reply
was, “We knew you had the best hands and best livestock
with you so you could pull this off with no trouble”
Bishop Mule Days:
in 1970, Bishop, California has held a Bishop Mule Days
celebration over the Memorial Day weekend to present the
world’s largest and best celebration of the mule.
Bob Tanner played a big role in starting this event.
Here is what Bob had to say about Mule Days. “During
the summer of 1969 Leo Porterfield, a mule man, and I had
a discussion at Red’s Meadow. We were discussing mules
and great memories of pack station life.” Bob said
to Leo, ”Wouldn’t it be great if more people could see what
really goes on at a pack station.” Leo agreed and
said that there was beginning to be a lot of interest in
mules around the country and a number of outstanding mules
were being raised. This meeting led to the formation
of a mule committee composed of eight mule men from the
winter of 1969 was a big snow year in the Sierras.
There was still snow on the trails in the high country in
August. The packing business was tough and packers
needed something positive to show their bankers. The
Mule committee decided they would bring to town some of
the hilarity of a pack station, some fine mules, and the
packing and shoeing skills of the packers that worked in
the Sierras. There was no event scheduled in
the Bishop area over the Memorial Day weekend at that time,
so this date was open. Perhaps the general public
would come and see the show. Bob Tanner and others
started to solicit donations from Bishop merchants.
These donations helped pay for trophies, ribbons, horseshoes,
and posters for this event. Mule Days has grown from
this small start to a premier annual event attended by people
from all over the world.
2004, Bob Tanner was named Mule Days Grand Marshall and
awarded a Mule Days trophy buckle engraved “Founder of Mule
There are now plans underway to have
a Mule Days Museum and a Sierra Packers Heritage Center
build in Bishop. Bob Tanner is also involved in this
Horse and Mule Drive
morning following our visit with Bob, we came back to the
ranch. Wranglers were busy loading camp gear, food,
and feed into stock trucks. The guests were beginning
to arrive. They placed their personal gear in a place
where the wranglers could load it on the trucks. When
everything was ready, the wranglers started mounting the
guests on their assigned horses. Over 100 mules and
horses had been placed in a large holding corral.
When everyone was mounted up and stationed on each
side of the corral gate, one of the wranglers on the ground
opened the gate. Out came the horses and mules on
the run. The guests fell in behind Ottie Bear, Trail
Boss, who has been leading this ride for over 20 years.
When last seen, this group was headed for the mountains
in a cloud of dust.
The first night’s camp was at a spot called
Casa Diablo. The camp consisted of a wire corral,
but no water. This place had at one time been a range
sheep camp. Soon the water truck showed up.
Water tanks were unloaded in the wire corral and hay was
kitchen commissary arrived and the cook began to put her
kitchen together. A large portable grill arrived to
barbeque steaks and chicken. Tables and chairs were
unloaded near the commissary. Tents were unloaded
for the guests to put up when they arrived. Last but
not least, a portable shower wagon showed up and was set
up. The whole operation was set up in less than an
hour. We had a feeling that Bob’s camp crew had done
all of this many times before.
We drifted down country to watch the drive
coming in to camp in the late afternoon. Everyone
was still on their horses and the guests were having a great
horses and mules along the trail. When the drive pulled
into camp, the loose horses and mules were put in the wire
corral on water and feed. The wranglers and guests
unsaddled their horses and placed them inside the wire corral
as well. The guests started setting up their tents
and finding their personal gear. Before supper was
called, the guests used the shower wagon to take some of
the trail dust of their bodies. This shower wagon
was a high spot of their trip. Bob Tanner arrived
and visited with everyone. The barbecue grill was
started and a great meal was prepared. Everyone went
to bed early tired out from a hard day in the saddle pushing
mules and horses up the trail.
Day two of the drive started out after
a hearty breakfast. Horses were saddled and the Trail
Boss headed them out. The first day had taken the
edge of the horse and mule herd and they were easier to
handle on the trail. The destination was a water storage
reservoir named Crowley Lake. We headed out with the
camp wranglers and followed them to the lakeshore where
we helped set up camp. The same procedure was used
setting up camp as the day before.
water truck showed up and water tanks and hay were placed
in a wire trap where the horses and mules would overnight.
In mid afternoon, we spotted riders and the loose horses
and mules on the ridge above camp, headed our way.
They came down a rocky hillside and into the wire trap.
Horses were unsaddled and the guest set up their tents and
used the shower wagon once more. Bob Tanner showed
up and visited with everyone. The guests had exciting
stories to tell about their second day on the drive.
We had another outstanding dinner and retired to our beds.
The next morning we left camp and headed
for Mammoth Lake to meet Bob. The drive would take
the mules and horses to corrals in Mammoth. Then they
would be trucked the rest of the way to Red’s Meadow that
Meadow Pack Station
We met Bob in Mammoth and drove with him
to Red’s Meadow Pack Station. Along the way, Bob told
us some history of the area. Settlers who raised garden
supplies for the miners working in this area during the
l930’s had originally built at the pack station site.
After the mining in the area closed down, the location was
turned into a pack station. Bob has been the owner
The pack station
sets at 7500-foot elevation. There is a night corral
setup for the animals and pack stations where the mules
are packed. Packsaddles, pads, halters,
and lash ropes all have their place. There is a café
called the Mule House. Gasoline, groceries, and fishing
tackle are sold to the public. There are guest cabins
for rent. Bob says, “A large portion of our clientele
on pack trips today comprises three generations, grandparents,
kids, and grandkids doing things together. Riding
horseback allows them to all do things at the same speed.”
gave us a tour of the facility and you could sense the pride
he has in his professional operation. There is no
way to tell in print the amount of effort that this man
has put into this operation in the last 40 years.
For more information on Red’s
Meadow Pack Station, the spring or fall horse drives, trail
trips, or pack trips into the High Sierras contact:
Red’s Meadow Pack
PO Box 395
Mammoth Lakes, California
Photos by Lee Raine